"[The Israeli leadership] draw[s] an analogy between the Nazis and the Arabs, with the corollary that Jewish destiny is the same everywhere, in Israel or in the Diaspora, like a mark of Cain branded on Jewish brows from the beginning of time by mysterious, supernatural forces: We are always an object of hatred and the urge to annihilate, here and everywhere, now and always. The only difference between Israel and the Diaspora is that in Israel we can fight back, whereas in the Diaspora we have no alternative but ‘to be led to the slaughter like sheep'" (18).
--Boaz Evron, "Holocaust: The Uses of Disaster"
In this blog post I want to draw out some of the main points of Evron's 1983 essay, most of which remain directly relevant. This discussion is well suited to ThreeWayFight, because our blog is concerned not only with fascism and the struggle against it, but also with the ways anti-fascism gets misused to bolster oppression and repression (such as the U.S. government's mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II). The most glaring example of such twisted anti-fascism today is the exploitation of Nazi genocide to justify Israeli apartheid, settler colonialism, and murderous forced displacement of Palestinians.
(A PDF of Radical America vol. 17, no. 4, which contains Evron's article, "Holocaust: The Uses of Disaster," is available through libcom.org. All page references in this blog post are to that article.)
Evron's core argument is that Zionism treats the Nazi mass murder of European Jews -- a specific historical event that had specific historical causes -- in non-historical, mythological, even mystical terms, in order to manipulate both Jews and non-Jews into uncritically supporting the State of Israel and its policies. This mythological treatment is encapsulated in the term "Holocaust," which takes the event out of history by removing any specific reference to time or place, murderers or victims. (Arno Mayer has also pointed out in Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? that the standard meaning of "holocaust" is "a sacrificial offering wholly consumed by fire in exaltation of God." The idea that Auschwitz is somehow imbued with religious meaning is to my mind utterly obscene.)
More specifically, Zionists have (a) treated Jews as almost the only victims of Nazi mass murder, (b) treated annihilation (or the desire to carry out annihilation) as the benchmark for non-Jews' treatment of Jews in all times and places, and (c) argued that the only way Jews can protect ourselves against the threat of annihilation is by having a state and military of our own. Evron rejects all of these claims. He argues that while the Nazi program of deliberate extermination targeted Jews first and foremost, it also killed many other people, including some three million non-Jewish Poles and millions of Russians, a fact that belies the Zionist belief that the Nazi genocide simply expressed timeless hatred of Jews. "The events can only be understood in the context of German and European history and ideology. We may find food for thought in the fact that genocide had been practiced by the Europeans in the non-European world for centuries (in the Americas, the Congo, etc.). The Nazi innovation was the introduction of these practices into the family of European nations" (9).
As for using the Nazi genocide to "prove" the need for a Jewish state,
"Objective analysis and description would have demonstrated that if even the Poles and the Russians, well-rooted territorial nations both (the latter actually one of the world's mightiest military powers), are liable to extermination, then sovereignty and military prowess are no security against it. Objective reflection would have brought us to the further fact that the Israeli Jews were not saved by Zionism but by the unrelated fact that the Nazis failed to conquer Palestine…. It would therefore have transpired that this central Zionist tenet is meaningless, and that the ultimate guarantee against extermination (if such a guarantee is possible) lies in the eradication of ideologies which exclude any human group from the definition of humanity. This implies joint struggle and international cooperation that seek to overcome differences and barriers, not to heighten and strengthen them, as urged by powerful elements within Israel and in the Zionist movement" (10).Evron also counters Zionists'
"continuing effort to blur the decisive differences between Arab hatred and Nazism, such as the fact that the Nazis invented the myth of the ‘Jewish Conspiracy' for the purpose of inflaming an irrational, psychotic hatred of the Jews in the German people, whereas the Arabs are engaged in a struggle against a real enemy whose might really threatens them, who has already caused the flight of more than a million of their brethren from their homes, and who is now subjugating another two million. Moreover, Arab hostility is directed, rationally enough, against the Israelis, and not against all Jews wherever they are (although the support most Jews extend to Israel does tend to spread the hostility to all Jews) (19). [More on this last point below. -- ML.]Mythologizing the Holocaust relieves the Israeli state of moral constraints:
People who believe themselves to be in danger of annihilation consider themselves free of any moral qualm which might tie their hands in their efforts to save themselves…. They are, therefore, uninhibited in advocating the most drastic steps against the non-Jewish population of the country" (20).The same mythology has helped the Israeli state to cultivate a sense of moral debt to Israel among Diaspora (especially American) Jews and non-Jews alike, for their failure to save Europe's Jews during World War II:
"Israel is presented to US Jews as being under a constant threat of annihilation by the surrounding Arab countries, in spite of the fact, which is not publicized, that it is several times stronger, and that in the foreseeable future it is in no military danger. This provides an opportunity for the Jews to assuage their guilt feelings by their economic and political mobilization ‘for the prevention of a second Holocaust.' Any war is therefore represented as a menace to the State's very existence, and the ensuing victory is then represented as a miracle, due, among other things, to Jewish support, thus providing the Jews with a sense of achievement and participation in the heroic events. Israel is also presented in this light to the non-Jewish world, in an attempt to silence criticism of its policies with an unanswerable argument: 'You, who stood idly on the sidelines during the Holocaust, may not tell us what we should do to prevent another Holocaust'" (15-16).There's a fundamental inconsistency in this mythology. On the one hand, Israel is constantly in danger of being wiped out, a magnet that attracts Gentiles' murderous hatred. On the other hand, Israel is the state that's supposed to keep us safe from antisemitism. In other words, "Israel is presented as a refuge in a storm, as insurance against the future--the same Israel which at the same time is pictured…as a candidate for annihilation. It would be useless to argue that this is a contradiction in terms, for we deal here with utterly irrational attitudes" (17).
Evron points out that Holocaust mythology not only helps Israel rationalize its racist and murderous policies toward Palestinians -- in the long run, it also has consequences that will come back to haunt those who created it. For one thing, treating Jews as timeless victims in a class by themselves sets Jews apart from the rest of humanity. This is not exactly a good strategy for combating antisemitism. (However, extending Evron's point, the strategy makes sense if you believe that antisemitism is inevitable whenever Jews and non-Jews live together, which is one of political Zionism's founding premises.)
In addition, for Israel to base its relationship with other countries (at least in the West) on Holocaust guilt and moral pressure is not going to work forever:
"The net result is that the State of Israel, established ostensibly to enable the Jews to lead a 'normal existence as a nation-state among other nation-states,' deliberately adopts a policy which puts it outside the system of power relationships normal among nations. It insists upon being treated as an abnormal nation, it avoids direct economic and political involvement in a world of power and interests, in the historical world, and tries to maintain a non-historical existence as a sect divorced from the historical process.None of this is to deny the continuing reality of antisemitism -- in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Supposed acts of Palestine solidarity sometimes amount to anti-Jewish bigotry and violence; Hamas's 1988 charter really does repeat bullshit Jewish conspiracy theories and treat the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion as true. Up to a point, I agree with the argument by Evron and others that Palestinian and Arab antisemitism reflect Zionism's equation of Israel with the Jewish people as a whole. But as I've argued, for example, in a 2006 debate about Hezbollah, this is not the whole story, because anti-Jewish bigotry was present in Arab and Muslim communities long before Israel or the Zionist movement were created.
"Needless to say, such a policy, successful as it has been in the short run, is doomed to fail in the long, having been initially based on a sense of past guilt…. The reserves of guilt feelings are being steadily depleted: fewer and fewer people remember the Holocaust, in spite of the reiterated harping on it…. It would be a hard day for Israel when it is called upon to perform in the real world, after the final exhaustion of its 'moral credit,' and when all of its structure and outlook have been formed under hothouse conditions" (14-15).
But Hamas's charter (even coupled with rocket attacks against civilian areas) doesn't justify bombing children. Israeli (and French) Jews are not under threat of annihilation from Palestinians or their supporters. We need to address antisemitism in concrete historical terms -- not mythologize it to defend the Israeli state's own institutionalized bigotry and mass violence.
Photo credit: By ilya ginsburg from berlin, germany (remembering the holocaust, making another genocide), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.