Israelis are not Nazis – David Hirsh – 15 November 2008

Israelis are not Nazis - David HirshThere was an event at Goldsmiths, University of London, last week, which aimed to spread the view that what happens in Gaza today is similar to what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazis. Confronted by criticism of this event, Jennifer Jones, speaking to the Jewish Chronicle on behalf of the Students Union at Goldsmiths, expressed the hope that ‘the few vocal Zionists on campus become involved in a more positive capacity to support those suffering under the occupation’.

The overwhelming majority of living Jews are Zionists if what is meant by the term is that they do not support campaigns to de-legitimize Israel and to disband it against the will of most Israelis. Indeed in this sense, the overwhelming majority of human beings are Zionists too. And they are right to be Zionists in this sense. They are right because Israelis are behaving entirely rationally when they insist that there are lots of people in their neighbourhood who might want to kill them or to drive them out and that they need a state with which to defend themselves.

I hear the sense in which Jennifer Jones uses the term ‘Zionist’ as exceedingly threatening and it is not easy to communicate why, to a person who is unable to see why for themselves. I understand the word ‘Zionists’ in this context to mean ‘Jews’, except that it does not include a category of exceptional ‘good Jews’. The category of ‘good Jews’ here should be understood as those Jews who are not disgusted by the designation of Israeli Jews as Nazis – those Jews who are prepared publicly to kosherize such a designation as being legitimate on the antiracist left.

So what Jennifer Jones says sounds to me very much like the sentiment that Jews on campus should stop making a fuss about the Israel-Nazi analogy and should instead support it because it is rightly understood as a campaign to support those suffering under the occupation. She doesn’t allow for the possibility that many of us ‘Zionists’ on campus have spent decades working hard to ‘support those who are suffering under occupation’. But in any case I am reluctant to rely on this because I think that even a ‘Zionist’ who does not ‘support those who are suffering under occupation’ has the right to oppose the antisemitic designation of Jews as Nazis.

Still don’t see why this use of the term ‘Zionist’ is vile? Perhaps it is because you also aren’t disgusted by the analogy between Israel and Nazi Germany. OK. Let me try again.

The Nazis herded the Jews of Warsaw and its surroundings into a few city blocks as the first stage in organizing their murder. Some were murdered by starvation and others were murdered by gas. But they all, except for a handful who escaped, ended up dead. The Nazis were executing a plan to kill the Jews of Europe. The Nazis killed about six million Jews in a set of events which are now often known as the Holocaust. Some Jews were able to get out of Europe and to escape with their lives.

For the previous century or so there had been heated debate on the Jewish left as to how to oppose antisemitism in Europe and Russia. Some, who called themselves ‘Zionists’, thought that the problem of antisemitism was best addressed by a Jewish movement for national self-determination. Others thought that Jews should remain in Europe and should defend themselves against antisemitism as part of the European socialist and emancipation movements. Most Jews were unimpressed by either of these two radical responses and preferred to carry on trying to live their Jewish lives without bothering anybody else. Neither strategy proved very effective in the end, against Nazism. Not many Jews went to Palestine and those who had put their faith in European civilization to keep Jews safe were politically defeated.

The huge material transformation of Jewish life in Europe, the Holocaust, changed everything. It is understandable that Jews, running for their lives from Europe and largely barred from the rest of the world, having seen their friends and families, their children and their parents killed, embraced the nationalist idea that they should build a state with which they would have the capacity to defend themselves and in which they could feel at home. In 1948 The United Nations partitioned Palestine and gave a little statelet to the Jews.

The rationale for claiming that Zionism is racist or is like Nazism is the assumption that the Jewish nationalist project in Palestine necessarily required the oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians in order to succeed. Here is Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher’s telling of the story:

A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and consol the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man’s revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitous at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds.

You will, I am sure, recognize yourselves (I said to my Israeli audience), the remnants of European Jewry in Israel, in the man who jumped from the blazing house. The other character represents, of course, the Palestine Arabs, more than a million of them, who have lost their lands and their homes. They are resentful; they gaze from across the frontiers on their old native places; they raid you stealthily and swear revenge. You punch and kick them mercilessly; you have shown that you know how to do it. But what is the sense of it? And what is the prospect?

In truth the complex and tragic evolution of the conflicts between Israelis, Palestinians, Arab nationalists and Islamists was not pre-ordained by some kind of historical necessity but has been the result of political decisions, narratives, and ideas, and the result of a number of wars. Throughout this history and on all sides, political movements for Israeli-Arab co-existence were defeated, and belligerent political movements which aimed for victory over the other tended to win out. None of this was inevitable. None of this is the result of an essential Israeli or Jewish or Palestinian or Arab or Muslim racism. It is how things happened.

What we need now is what we have always needed. We need Israelis and Palestinians to find the peace, to find a way to live together and to resist the tendency within both nations to embrace racism and demonization against the other.

It is false to say that Israel is trying to achieve a ‘final solution’ by killing the Palestinians. We should not educate students in London to believe what is false.

It is true that conditions in Gaza are extremely difficult. The borders are tightly controlled by Israel and by Egypt. The de facto government in Gaza, elected in January 2006, which later took total power in a coup against the Palestinian President, promises war against the Jews of Israel to the end. The Israelis pursue the Hamas fighters into the streets and housing estates of Gaza, resulting in the inevitable and routine deaths of civilians. In Gaza there is agonizing poverty and shortages, for example of medical supplies. There is little freedom of movement for Gazans. But talk about Gaza being a prelude to a ‘final solution’ is just false.

But it is more than false. It is vile. Why can’t you see that the designation of ‘Zionists’ as Nazis is vile? Why don’t you feel it in your political bones? Why doesn’t it set your internal racism alarms ringing?

I think the reason is that too many radical people no longer understand irrational and disproportionate hostility to ‘Zionists’ to be a form of racism. They have internalized a commonsense notion that demonization of ‘Zionists’, in Jennifer Jones’ sense, while perhaps not entirely right, is neither entirely wrong. ‘Zionists’ are thought of as being at the centre of bad things that happen in the world. ‘Zionists’ oppress the Palestinians and the Palestinians stand for the oppressed everywhere. ‘Zionists’ are in favour of war and they are responsible for sending America to war in Iraq and perhaps in Iran. ‘Zionists’ have lots of power – in the media, in Hollywood, on Wall Street. ‘Zionists’ failed to learn the lesson of the Holocaust as we learnt it so well in Europe. ‘Zionists’ failed to learn the lessons of imperialism as we learnt it so well in Europe. ‘Zionists’ are behind Islamophobia, which eats at the heart of the new Europe.

Can you see it now?

David Hirsh
Goldsmiths

NB The graphic which accompanies this piece depicts Anne Frank who was a Dutch Jewish girl who was murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Anne Frank is well known because she wrote a diary about her experiences hiding from the occupying Nazis in Amsterdam. The image of Anne Frank has become iconic and it stands, in the imagination of many people, for all the children murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. This version of the image shows Anne Frank wearing a Keffiyeh, which is iconic of the Palestinian struggle against Israel. The image, which was originally produced as a postcard in the Netherlands illustrates, for me, the Jew-Nazi analogy and why it is inappropriate. DH

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