Aug 9, 2014

Mythologizing the Holocaust

"[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"
I first read these words in 1983, when they appeared in Radical America. Since then, others have written cogently about Zionism and the memory of Nazi genocide, but Boaz Evron's essay is the one that first spoke to me as a young radical Jew, and it remains a classic that's well worth revisiting today. As the Israeli military bombs homes, schools, hospitals, and playgrounds in Gaza, as Israeli politicians call for Palestinians to be killed and mutilated or refer to Palestinian children as "snakes" whose mothers should be wiped out, one of the core rationales that Israel's apologists offer is the need to protect Jews against the danger of "another Holocaust" -- whether from Hamas or rising anti-Jewish incidents in Europe. Even when this argument isn't stated explicitly, it's often just below the surface, a core tenet of post-1945 Zionist ideology. It's a powerful argument not because it makes sense, but because it draws on real human fears and an immense memory of suffering.

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 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.

"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).
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.

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.


Bernard said...

Thank you Matthew Lyons for revisiting the thoughtful article "Holocaust: The Uses of Disaster" by Boaz Evron.

"Evron points out that Holocaust mythology ... helps Israel rationalize its racist and murderous policies toward Palestinians..."

Here is documentation of a recent attempt to twist the rhetoric to do just that in the newspapers of the United States.

Background: The recent Gaza conflict (8 July, 2014 through 26 August, 2014) killed more than 2,200 Palestinians. And injured more than 10,000. 20,000 tons of explosives (equivalent to six nuclear bombs) were dropped on Gaza, leaving more than 100,000 homeless.

To make this less abstract, here are the names of 1,614 Palestinian war casualties. It is claimed that the list, in the link below, includes 578 children, 264 women, and 103 elderly.

Here are photos of 2,225 Palestinian casualties from this conflict:

To address the issue of the disproportionately large number of youthful victims in this conflict, an ad was published in several American newspapers by Elie Wiesel, in August 2014, with the headline:
"Jews rejected Child Sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it's Hamas' turn."

The ad was published in the New York Times on August 23, 2014, and was also published in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Observer, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, and London's Guardian.

Wiesel failed to have the last word on the sacrifice of the Palestinian children, because...

"327 Jewish survivors and descendants of survivors and victims of the Nazi genocide published this letter, written in response to Elie Wiesel’s manipulation of the Nazi Genocide, in the Saturday, August 23rd edition of the New York Times." 

[BTW, a cease fire, by both the warring parties in Gaza, was implemented three days after this response letter was published in the New York Times .]

Bernard said...

In this ad,,

the violent deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children, last July and August, are compared to "child sacrifice".

Elie Wiesel

wrote in the ad: "In my own lifetime, I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire."
(In the Birkenau Concentration Camp, Wiesel saw a burning pit, where Jewish children were burned alive.)

“...fear [of genocide] can prove excessively resilient even after the perceived threat [to Jewish group survival] has passed. The resulting disconnect can blind the threatened group to its own agency in causing pain to those [e.g., the parents of the slain children of Gaza/Hamaz] perceived to be the source of the threat. Without this disconnect, which often manifests itself in racist dehumanization, Israel [through its democratically elected government] would have to acknowledge that Palestinians are human beings worthy of a state, a home, and basic necessities such as medical care, electricity, food and water.

"After World War II, for most Jews, the experience of surviving genocide was (understandably, considering the collective trauma they endured) woven into an historical narrative [a "mythology" to use Boaz Evron's word] that emphasized [not only the Jewish Holocaust of the 1940's, but also] thousands of years of oppression, scapegoating and expulsion from various lands."

The above is paraphrased from the same article in the two links below.

Title of another article..., though I don't agree with all of this. IMHO, Holocaust survivors have dissonant voices in the debate; let them have their voices with everyone else.

"Holocaust survivors don't belong in the Israeli-Palestinian debate: We must push back against the stifling overuse of Holocaust analogies which polarize and diminish real debate on the conflict."

Bernard said...

How to confront the Holocaust mythology in a constructive way? Do public responses, like these below, help? See these additional responses to Eli Wiesel's expression of the Holocaust mythology.

“the soldiers began shunting the child between them with their feet, mimicking a ball in a game of soccer.... the Israeli soldiers ... used the baby as a soccer ball.”

[The 2014 hostilities in Gaza were] “'yet another struggle for [Israeli] survival'”
response comment: “this is an absurd statement”

Mangled Bible texts:

Enough of Elie Wiesel!

An opposing view; critiquing the holocaust survivors:


The Palestinians may have a similar response to their historical narrative: that the expulsion of Palestinians (the “Nakba”) is mythologized. That different mythology may be used by Hamas as an excuse for their violence and their unwillingness to get along with "the settlers".
This short video, made for the Arab audience, with English subtitles, is entitled “Historical Images: 900,000 Palestinians Fleeing [Palestine], Tens of Thousands of Jews Seizing their Homes”

How does the peacemaker work constructively with such mythologies, with such traumatic historical narratives?

Bernard said...

When persons, of any nationality, ethnicity or religion, hold onto a mythology, a historical narrative, that they have been grievously wronged, they need justice and restitution. Their collective level of moral development may require that "the world" owes them some kind of justice -- even years later. What Matthew Lyons writes in 'Mythologizing the Holocaust', may happen, in a different way, to any group of people who believe they have been wronged.

In another post, I note that the expulsion of Palestinians (the “Nakba”) may also be mythologized. That Nakba narrative may be sometimes misused by a few from Hamas as a rationalization for murder of Israelis.

The accounts, above and below, may give reason why Matthew Lyon's article should be more widely distributed, critiqued, and understood among peoples who have been wronged.

The account below is a different kind of example of how the Holocaust Mythology was misused. Crimes against several hundred innocent people were committed by a small, rouge group, some of whom apparently rationalized their immoral activities as restitution and reparations for the Holocaust (1942). It might have been good for this anthropologist to have confronted these individuals about their mythology before they committed their crimes.

I may not have worded this post sensitively enough. I invite, and will accept, corrections to make this post better. It is truly not my intention to offend or insult anyone. Using the ideas from 'Mythologizing the Holocaust', above, we might better understand what the anthropologist reported below.

I suggest that peacemakers might use sympathetic understanding of cultural grievances, genuinely accepted by both sides, to contribute towards less future crime and conflict.

[Start quote]

Nancy Scheper-Hughes is a professor of Anthropology and director of the program in Medical Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley [California, USA]. In 2009 her investigation of an international ring of [human] organ sellers based in New York, New Jersey and Israel led to a number of arrests by the FBI [National Police].


“In the 2000s, Scheper-Hughes investigated an international ring of organ sellers based in New York, New Jersey and Israel. She interviewed several hundred third-world organ donors, and reported that they all felt that they had been taken advantage of, and were often left sick, unable to work, and unable to get medical care. Some of them were tricked into donating organs, and threatened at gunpoint when they tried to resist. Some transplants took place at major New York City hospitals, and Scheper-Hughes said that the hospital personnel knew illegal transplants were taking place. She informed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which led to arrests several years later. When the events became public, she said that much of the world's illicit traffic in kidneys could be traced to Israel. In a 2008 lecture, she is reported as identifying two motivations of Israeli traffickers as "greed" and "Revenge, restitution—reparation for the Holocaust." She is reported as describing speaking with Israeli brokers who told her "it’s kind of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We’re going to get every single kidney and liver and heart that we can. The world owes it to us.’”

[end quote]

The above 2 paragraphs, with supporting footnotes, were pasted here from

For a more global perspective on the organ trade, see this professional article by the same author:

Israel passed a new law, regulating organ transplants, in 2008.

Matthew N Lyons said...

Bernard -- Illegal and unethical organ trafficking is an international industry. I am highly skeptical of claims that Israelis are disproportionately to blame, let alone that they pursue this as revenge for the Nazi genocide. This reeks of Shylock's pound of flesh and medieval blood libel claims against Jews, which have continued to circulate into the modern era.

Bernard said...

Peaceful coexistence may come when Palestinians and Israelis become more receptive to attending empathetically to the constructed political narratives of “the other.”

The Palestinian Catastrophe (the Nakba) is the collected experience/mythology of the Palestinian refugees, men and women, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, who remember the cleansing from their land.

The Nakba was censored for the future by the victors. That history was not added to Israeli school books; instead, that history was intentionally suppressed in shame and fear from public consciousness.

Indeed, Israel even today punishes the commemoration of the Nakba. (This would be equivalent to the German perpetrators punishing the commemoration of the Jewish Holocaust to escape being caught, shamed, and punished.) On 23 March 2011, the Israeli Parliament approved, by a vote of 37 to 25, a change to the budget, giving the Israeli Finance Minister the discretion to reduce government funding to any NGO that organizes Nakba commemoration events.

Peace is achievable when all acknowledge the Palestinian Nakba. That experience is just as true and unquestionable to Palestinians as the Holocaust is to Israelis!

Zochrot is an Israeli NGO that promotes awareness of the Nakba. A key aim of Zochrot is to "Hebrew-ise the Nakba" by creating a space for it in the public discourse of Israeli Jews. Zochrot accepts donations on-line.

If the narrative of injustice is not publicly acknowledged and accepted; there will be no peace. No justice; no peace.

The history of the Nakba is a battleground for the hearts and minds of new generations. Competing popular mythologies are built and deconstructed through You Tube and television networks. The documentary listed below was/is currently? broadcast 4 times a week by Al-Jazeera! You can also see it on You Tube.

Alnakba English Part 1 Al-Jazeera Documentary, 2008

Alnakba Part 2

See also Al-Nakba: One man's meat, another man's poison: What happens when denial and recognition clash in two competing and mutually exclusive narratives?

See also:

1948 Palestinian exodus

Killings and massacres during the 1948 Palestine war

List of killings and massacres in Mandatory Palestine

List of villages depopulated during the Arab–Israeli conflict

List of Arab towns and villages depopulated during the 1948 Palestinian exodus

Causes of the 1948 Palestinian exodus

1949–56 Palestinian exodus

Zochrot (Hebrew: זוכרות; "Remembering". Arabic: ذاكرات; "Memories")

Nakba Day (Arabic: يوم النكبة Yawm an-Nakba, "Day of the Catastrophe")