Why can’t we just remember Kristallnacht? David Hirsh

The Guardian asked Paul Oestreicher to write a piece on the 70th anniversary of the night of 9/10 November 1938, when the Nazi government organized a national day of violence against the Jews of Germany. The Nazis demonstrated that they had control of the streets and they used it to attack and to terrorize Jews.

Oestreicher’s first paragraph is about Kristallnacht. Paragraphs two, three and four are about his family’s refugee experience and the family’s desperate search for a place that would give Jews asylum. Pargraphs five and six return to the events of the pogrom itself.

In paragraph seven Oestreicher sets out to demonstrate that antisemitism wasn’t only a Nazi phenomenon but was also manifested in British, Australian and American reluctance to take in Jewish refugees. Paragraph eight also describes the difficulties German Jews encountered when looking for somewhere to flee. Britain, he tells us, ‘thanks to a group of persistent lobbyists’ (a curious form of words?) allowed in a number of unaccompanied Jewish children on the ‘kindertransport’ scheme. This paragraph is already doing some of the work of normalizing Nazism by comparing its antisemitism with the antisemitism present in the states which opposed Nazism.

In paragraph ten Oestreicher confesses that he is not simply telling this story for ‘personal and historic interest’ but for another more immediate reason: ‘because it brings into sharp focus the far from humane attitude of Britain, the European Union and many other rich countries to the asylum seekers of today.’ He says, employing another curious form of words: ‘This is not quite our 1938, but the parallels are deeply disquieting.’ He admits that there is no parallel between British immigration policy today and the Nazi policy in 1938 of burning out Jews from cities up and down Germany, but this does not stop him going on to make such an inappropriate comparison.

It is not until paragraph eleven that Oestreicher cuts to the all too predictable chase:

‘An even sadder consequence of this story of anti-Jewish inhumanity is that many of the survivors who fled to Palestine did so at the expense of the local people, the Palestinians, half of whom were driven into exile and their villages destroyed. Their children and children’s children live in the refugee camps that now constitute one aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse that embitters Islam and threatens world peace: all that a consequence of Nazi terror and indirectly of the Christian world’s persecution of the Jewish people over many centuries.’

Oestreicher’s piece, written on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and published in the Guardian on the anniversary of Kristallnacht is actually about Palestine. And as a piece about Palestine, it isn’t very good. The description of the consequences of the war of 1948 is so inadequate and one-sided as to render it fundamentally mis-educative. The inference that the plight of the Palestinian refugees is the real source of Islamist hostility to non-Muslims is unsupported by evidence or argument, as is the claim that the Israel/Palestine conflict is so globally important that it constitutes a threat to world peace.

Paragraph twelve begins with the essentialized and racialized claim that fear is, after the Holocaust, ‘bred into every Jewish bone’. Oestreicher is preparing us for the idea that what Israel does is not the result of politics and policy, as is the policy of any other state, but is actually a product of a Nazi-induced deep-seated psychological pathology. He tells us, but offers no evidence, that ‘today many Israelis say of the Palestinians, as once the Germans said of them: “The only solution is to send them away.”’ This is a serious misrepresentation of contemporary Israeli public life. Ethnic cleansing is a political programme embraced in Israel only by a tiny fascistic fringe and is simply not discussed in mainstream political discourse. No mainstream political party considers it to be an option. Oestreicher, however, pushes on with his analogy between Nazi Germany and today’s Israel: ‘To create another victim people is to sow the seeds of another holocaust.’

And he pushes further still, arriving at the claim that people in Britain who supported German anti-Nazis were wrongly accused, in the 1930s, of being anti-German. The analogy he is trying to make here is with those who support anti-Zionist Jews today, being accused of antisemitism.

This is how we are invited to remember Kristallnacht in the Guardian of today. Oestreicher divides today’s Jews into two camps. The majority are, for him, like Nazis. The other camp, which he defines as being for justice for the Palestinian people, is, he says, an isolated minority. It is unfair, he thinks, that those who are for justice are ‘often accused of anti-semitism’. He doesn’t say who does the accusing or why. He doesn’t examine the complex relationships between movements for Palestinian freedom, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel movements, and antisemitism. He hasn’t read The Livingstone Formulation.

Where to start, deconstructing this edifice of half-truth upon nonsense upon cliché upon analogy? First, the conflict between Israel and Palestinians is not like the conflict between the Third Reich and the Jews of Europe. Israel is not a murderous and totalitarian evil which exists to wipe out people it designates as being of the wrong ‘race’; Israel is what Isaac Deutscher called a life-raft state, founded by the United Nations, a place where Jews who fled from racism in Europe, in the Middle East and in Russia built a home.

Antisemitism has always thought of Jews as being central to all that happens in the world but in truth, Jews and Israel are not very important on a global scale. They are not responsible for ‘embittering’ Islam, they are not responsible for ‘threatening’ world peace and they are not part of a global plot to ethnically cleanse or to murder ‘races’ across whole continents, as the Nazis were.

There is a real struggle between Israel and the Palestinians – it is a nasty struggle over a small piece of land and it concerns a relatively small number of people. There are significant and important injustices perpetrated in this struggle and from many different directions. Israel, because it has state power, bears a great responsibility for finding the peace – a responsibility which it has not always taken sufficiently seriously. But this talk about Israel as Nazis is just nonsense and is particularly inappropriate when it is sold as the central lesson of Kristallnacht, which itself was an important moment in the campaign to murder European Jewry.

How is it possible to explain to a person who cannot see, why it is so vile to throw the epithet ‘Nazi’ at Jews?

A person who thinks that Nazi Germany is like Israel (or today’s Britain or EU or America, for that matter) appears not to understand what was particular about Nazism. It is actually a form of Holocaust denial: ‘Oh the Holocaust is not really such a big deal – it was rather like contemporary British immigration policy; it is nothing unique, it is rather like the struggle over land between Israel and Palestine.’

It is the Holocaust which defines Nazism; the plan to kill the Jews of Europe, to kill the gay people and the Roma of Europe too, and other communities designated as rubbish by the Nazis. Britain and the EU and America and Israel certainly do things wrong. But they are not organizing the industrialized murder of millions of defenceless human beings.

Jews and Israelis are not Nazis. Oestreicher knows that they’re not. So he should stop saying they are. Perhaps he just does it for effect. But he seems to misjudge what the effect is.

David Hirsh
Goldsmiths, University of London

One Response to “Why can’t we just remember Kristallnacht? David Hirsh”

  1. Larry Ray Says:

    The British (and American) reluctance to admit refugees from Nazi Germany was appalling and it is not unreasonable to draw a parallel with the even worse response of the present UK Govt to the refugee crisis. But you are absolutely right that to claim an equivalence between the Israel/Palestine conflict and the Nazis is at least ‘Holocaust minimization’ and shows a remarkable lack of historical awareness. As for the question ‘How is it possible to explain to a person who cannot see, why it is so vile to throw the epithet ‘Nazi’ at Jews?’ I’m afraid recent experience suggests it isn’t. Certainly not for Oestreicher who has been saying this for decades.
    Note – I think it is more common now to speak of the Reichspogromnacht or just Pogromnacht (to name it as what it was) rather than use the original term ‘Kristallnacht’.

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