Why Gaza is experiencing the century’s first holocaust


Why Gaza is experiencing the century’s first holocaust

Israel is using the logic employed by the Nazis — and Germany has become one of Tel Aviv’s biggest suppliers of arms and moral support, writes ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.


THE war on Palestinians in Gaza has left us with a lot of sadness, depression, anger and bewilderment. Every day brings new horrors and fresh perspectives, and a range of stories to listen to and write about.

Plucked from all of these is the claim that the Israelis are treating the Palestinians the same way the Nazis treated Jews, gays, communists, Roma and other people deemed “impure”. Another is that the Israelis are the victims in the war, that they are merely defending themselves and did not start the fight. A third is alarming. It is the ancillary role Germany is playing, and the meaning of its return to arms, as if part of the first 50 years or so of the last century. These are some of the forces, ideas and tendencies that continue to shape the first holocaust of the 21st century.

I should make two things clear at the outset: the Israelis are not Nazis and nobody owns copyright to the term “holocaust” — it has been used since at least the 6th century to refer to large-scale destruction based on religious belief. This point is discussed in more detail below.

It is, nonetheless, Israeli methods, objectives, conduct and careless disregard for Palestinian lives we see in news media and social media, and the often macabre images and text inspire comparisons with the Nazis. This reminds me of the way that I have, over the past couple of years, identified the Economic Freedom Fighters as fascists. In terms of their identity and self-descriptions, the EFF are not fascists, but their public displays, the images, texts and methods, have inspired the drawing of parallels, identification of homologies and recognition of echoes with Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler’s worst methods and madness. Truth stems from sensory observations. Or, as the tired colloquialism goes, if it looks like something it probably is that thing.

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Victims and self-defence

When the Israelis tell the world they are simply defending themselves, there is a diabolical historical amnesia at work. It is closer to the truth that the Israelis would not have been “under attack” if European settlers had not arrived like thieves in the night (I borrowed this phrase from the title of Arthur Koestler’s 1946 novel set in Palestine). In terms of their conduct and methods, as well as their propaganda, the Israelis are channelling the Nazis, who themselves resorted to self-victimisation. Germans during the Nazi era (like the Israeli population today) were wilfully denied the opportunity to examine their complicity in the disastrous events of the Third Reich.

“While the next generation began to ask why Germans had unleashed such a calamity on the world, the older one was still locked into the calamity that they had themselves suffered,” as Nicholas Stargardt wrote in The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939–1945.

In other words, the “older generation” of Germans were still smarting over their losses during World War 1 as the “new” generation were stunned by the calamity of World War 2 — and were comforted only by their own beliefs as victims.

In his exceptional book, Stargardt established that the Germans considered themselves victims engaging in what they described as a “defensive war”. This is echoed with crystal clarity today by Israeli claims of victimhood. During the Nazi era, Germans believed they were forced into a war against Poland because of Polish atrocities against ethnic Germans. Likewise, German bombers attacked Britain's civilian population only because “it was the English who started air attacks”. Presaging contemporary Israeli justification for the total destruction of Gaza, the Germans retaliated (against anyone and everyone) because they believed the Russians and the Americans wanted to kill all Germans (the word exterminated was specifically used). The “victims” in the Nazi era were the Germans, and in Gaza they are the Israelis. 

In a Reichstag speech broadcast on September 1, 1939, Hitler told Germans, “last night Polish soldiers fired on our territory for the first time” and “the fire has been returned”. This, Stargardt wrote, based on studying public responses, was justification for Hitler’s war, and most people in the mainstream repeated it.

Back to the future, and Jessica Buxbaum wrote nearly two months after the Hamas attacks on Israel: “Incendiary language of extermination, ethnic cleansing and the wholesale destruction of Gaza, including with nuclear weapons, has become part of mainstream discourse in Israel during the war.” (Also see this Haaretz report.)

If, for what it’s worth, you want to understand the way Israeli soldiers have violated the private and personal goods of semi-destroyed homes in Gaza (some playing with women’s underwear), Stargardt also details how Nazis plundered Jews' households during World War 2.

To sum up, we learn from Stargardt’s research that the during the Nazi era, the Germans believed they were the victims. Today, the Israelis believe the same. The Germans feared they would be wiped out, so to speak, and the Israelis believe they face an existential threat. The Germans believed theirs was a defensive war, as do the Israelis. Germany inflicted a holocaust on millions, the Israelis have done so on tens of thousands of people in Gaza and destroyed the heritage and history of the Palestinians.

Holocausts across time and place

Typically, every mention of “holocaust”, especially when it has been capitalised and made “the property” of a particular group, refers only to the slaughter of Jews during World War 2. In this sense it affected at least six million of the estimated 75 million people who were killed in the that war — a cruel and savage spree that defies imagination for its sheer scale. The Holocaust continues to haunt generations of Jewish people, in general. We should not traduce that. But World War 2 was not the first time, and it surely will not be the last, that a holocaust unfolded.

As far back as 700 BCE, Greek sacrificial rites consisted of “holocausts [and] rituals focusing on the blood of the animal victim and the presentation of meals, and rarely in thysia sacrifices followed by collective dining”. A thysia was a propitiatory sacrifice made to underworld deities and forces. Such sacrifices have also been part of ancient Vedic and Hindu practices in India. In other words, to make good with your creator and fulfil his promise, you have to sacrifice others — in large numbers.

In The Sacrificial Rituals of Greek Hero-cults in the Archaic to the Early Hellenistic Period, (1999) Gunnel Ekroth detailed how, during a thysia, “only the non-edible parts of the victim were burnt and the rest of the meat was available for consumption by the worshippers. The complete opposite to such a sacrifice was a holocaust, meaning that the whole victim was destroyed in the fire.”

I am aware that thinkers like Achille Mbembe were cancelled and “disinvited” after being falsely accused of “relativising” the Holocaust, so I proceed, as always, cautiously. I shan’t endeavour to minimise the suffering of the Jewish people. From Dirk Moses of the University of North Carolina we have come to learn that it is fundamentally important to accept that the Holocaust of World War 2 was unique, a “singular” catastrophe that nobody should compare conceptually, theoretically or historically. (See Moses’s book, The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression.)

The point here is that mass destruction of areas, communities and people anywhere across history rightfully may be described as a holocaust. In this sense, Gaza may be described as the first holocaust of the 21st century. Consider that an Israeli legislator in the Likud Party of Benjamin Netanyahu, Moshe Saada, has confirmed the call that has “seeped across the political spectrum” which states that “that all the Gazans need to be destroyed”.

Such total destruction is precisely what happens when people, families, communities and the built environment become the target. We have seen this complete destruction with the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 and the “Rape of Nanjing” by the Japanese between December 1937 and February 1938. During the Blitz, Nazi Germany bombed English cities to undermine enemy morale (September 7, 1940-May 21, 1941). The Allies annihilated Caen by surprise, (June-August 1944) sacrificing civilians for military objectives. The German city of Dresden was firebombed in February 1945 with the sole purpose of maximising the suffering of its inhabitants. And on August 6, 1945, the US could have been content to show off its nuclear capability but chose, instead, to explode nuclear bombs at an altitude that would create the most damage at Hiroshima and later Nagasaki.

Peter Harling, a Middle East specialist, told the French newspaper Le Monde: “The aim is to destroy the opposing civilisation. Culturally, this notion is associated with the idea of barbarism: Conquest aims to destroy, not to rule.”

This is precisely what is happening in Gaza. It is being destroyed, the people killed and new settlements built on land once owned by Palestinians. The Israelis are destroying Gaza’s heritage and history. This complete destruction makes Gaza the first holocaust of the 21st century.

Another statement is that the Holocaust of World War 2 was what sparked European settlement in Palestine. This is not entirely correct. Zionism was born before the war and articulated (among others) by the Austrian Nathan Birnbaum in 1890, alongside an aliyah (immigration of foreigners) to Ottoman Palestine between 1882 and 1903. Evidence shows that there was already an indigenous presence of Palestinians on the lands, and that Palestine had an administrative capacity (which processed immigrant applications) and Europeans were accepted as immigrants who would become fellow citizens. They lived in safety among the Palestinians until they armed themselves and committed acts of terror, then began the systemic removal of Palestinians — what Le Monde described as a conquest to destroy the heritage and history of Palestine.

At the time, then, when Europeans expanded and established colonies around the world, the French Revolution “opened the doors” to Jewish settler colonialism, starting with Palestine. The phrase “opened the doors” is derived from the French national assembly decision in 1791 which insisted that Jews in the country enjoyed equality before the law. It was at that point, Isaiah Berlin wrote, when “the gates of the Jewish ghetto were flung wide open and its inmates, after centuries of being driven in upon themselves, were permitted to emerge into the light of day”.

The gates of liberation were flung open for Jewish people in 1791 but subsequent Zionist movements sought more, even if it meant creating a European settler colony, an ethno-nationalist state, in Palestine which slammed the doors shut in the face of Palestinians. Jewish people had homes in France, Lithuania, Russia, Austria, Poland, but they wanted Palestinian homes and lands. The argument that Israel was a home for Jews after the death of 75 million people during World War 2 becomes difficult to maintain — even when it is accompanied by heavy weaponry. We can turn, now, to the “heavy artillery” that is being deployed in Gaza.

Germany’s war on conscience and memory

A startling development over the past several months has been Germany’s return to arms, as it were. This is a country which began the 20th century with the Herero and Nama genocide of ethnic extermination and collective punishment between 1904 and 1908, went to war in Europe in 1914, saw the rise of Nazism in the 1920s and returned to war in 1939. I share the belief that World War 1 ended in 1945, and that there was a 20-year pause. Nonetheless, for the first 45 years of the last century, Germany was responsible for some of the worst carnage in the world. After that, it bade a farewell to arms, became somewhat demilitarised and had to deal with the collective guilt and shame of its past.

Germany has become one of Israel’s biggest suppliers of arms and moral support under the guise of “self-defence”. Remember how Germans believed that Hitler’s wars against Poland, France and Britain were acts of self-defence. Well, Germany has insisted — as Lara Fricke, of Exeter University’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, explained — that the Holocaust was “unique” (I shan’t dispute that) and that this uniqueness shaped the “shame and guilt in German memory culture”, and simultaneously denied “Palestinian perspectives”.

In the work of Moses and Fricke, we reach some kind of explanation for Germany’s unwavering support for Israel.

“It is this insistence on the uniqueness … which summarises the five core beliefs of German memory culture. Firstly, the uniqueness of the Holocaust [is] based on the limited understanding of the Holocaust as the ‘extermination of the Jews for the sake of extermination itself’. Secondly, as a result of its uniqueness, the Holocaust is presented as a ‘civilisational rupture’ and the moral foundation of [Germany]. Thirdly, Germany’s moral conclusion from this is … the state’s special responsibility to Jews and Israel. Fourthly, the idea that the Holocaust is unique is supported by the construction of antisemitism as a distinctive prejudice as opposed to another form of racism, and as a ‘distinctly German prejudice’. Lastly, Moses identifies the equation of antizionism with antisemitism.”

Germany has laid to rest the argument that criticising Israel is anti-semitic. Countering Germany’s unwavering moral and material support for Israel, the Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said last week that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s reiteration of support of Israel, a dismissal of decades of oppression and atrocities committed against Palestinians since the Nakba in 1948, was itself a disgrace.

“Why this hypocrisy? Why this selective and ambivalent attitude towards one race and another? Is it because they are coloured or they are a different religion?

“What I reject strongly is this narrative, this obsession, as if the entire problem begins and ends with the 7th of October. It did not begin with the 7th October and did not end with the 7th of October. It began four decades before that, and it is continuing daily,” Ibrahim said, echoing the words of Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Co-operation.

What we know from everything detailed in this essay is that we cannot say that the current war on Palestinians is anything than that which Israel, the US, the Europeans and Singapore says it is. We cannot say that Germany, which was responsible for some of the worst genocidal atrocities between 1900 and 1945, has some serious problems with its own past and its memory, which cannot be washed away by helping to arm the Israelis. We have to insist that records of holocausts in and around 700 BCE, during the early Archaic and Hellenistic periods (all of which were written centuries before the mass killings of World War 2), serve only to “relativise” or “minimise” Jewish suffering in Nazi Germany. That is where we are, and it may be where all arguments will stop.

♦ VWB ♦

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