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The Final Battle for the Holocaust

In Gaza, Israel is not only fighting for our future, but also for our past.

By Michael Oren

Along with destroying Hamas and reestablishing our security, the great unspoken objective of Israel in Gaza is restoring our self-proclaimed role as the keeper of the six million’s memory and the guarantor of “never again.” At stake is not only Israel’s future but, in a very real sense, our past. And yet, even as Israelis have frequently referenced it, the war has posed the ultimate challenge yet to our right to speak in the name of, and have recourse to, the Holocaust.


When, in July 2018, the Israeli government held a reception for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, I declined to attend. As Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office dealing with diplomacy, it was only fitting that I be among those receiving him, yet I wouldn’t. The reason had nothing to do with Orbán’s support for Israel, which was ironclad, or his willingness to oppose the European Union’s ceaseless hounding of the Jewish state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to whittle away the 28-nation consensus that the EU needed to condemn us certainly made strategic sense. And while the Hungarian strongman’s efforts to dismantle parts of his country’s democracy discomforted me, far more draconian measures by Russian, Arab, and Chinese leaders had not moved me to boycott them. My problem, rather, lay with Orbán’s relationship to the Holocaust—he and his neo-fascist party had praised Hungarian collaborators with the Nazis—and the danger that posed to Israel’s security. 

Along with the IDF, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet, the Holocaust is an essential component in Israel’s defense. Very few countries in history ever confronted genuine existential threats—Japan and Germany in World War II set out to defeat, not destroy, the United States—but Israel has faced several, simultaneously and daily, since its creation. Conversely, while the U.S. determined to defeat the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese, it did not seek to wipe Germany and Japan off the map but to restore their peaceful place in world affairs. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, by contrast, once strove to annihilate Israel entirely, and Iran and its proxies—Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis—still do today. And when Israel acts to protect itself from these existential threats, the Holocaust joins its F-35 jets and Merkava tanks as a major defensive asset. “As a people which has suffered and survived an attempted genocide,” we declare, “Israel has the right to use extraordinary means to prevent its recurrence.”  By providing a moral tailwind the Holocaust provides time and space for those jets and tanks to act. 

Preserving the memory of the Holocaust is, therefore, a strategic national interest for Israel, one that we would be tragically negligent to harm. Establishing warm relations with Orbán’s Hungary or with Austria’s ultra-rightist Former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz or with the Polish government that denied its country’s complicity in the mass murder of Jews may have short-term diplomatic benefits but at an irretrievable strategic cost. By selling our Holocaust birthright expediently, we risk forfeiting our past and jeopardizing our future.

We also chip away at the nation’s roots. Israel’s Declaration of Independence cited the Holocaust as a basic justification of the state, and Israel thereafter arrogated the role as the prime repository of the Holocaust’s legacy: “The Nazi holocaust which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe proved anew the urgency of the re-establishment of the Jewish state, which would solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gate to all Jews and lifting the Jewish people to equality in the family of nations.” This claim enabled Israel, in 1952, to accept hundreds of millions of dollars in German reparations to the Jewish people and, nine years later, to try and execute Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann. Yad Vashem, Israel’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center, became first stop of every foreign dignitary’s visit to Jerusalem. The message was clear: “This is what can happen without an independent, defendable, Jewish state.”

Israel’s claim to exclusivity didn’t last long, though. By the 1970s, Holocaust memorials, many with a universalist message, were inaugurated in Washington, DC and other capitals, and Holocaust Studies programs sprouted on American campuses. Hollywood seized on this interest by producing blockbuster movies and television series—so many, in fact, that conventional wisdom held that a Holocaust theme was a surefire path to an Oscar.  As Israel’s ambassador to the United States, the most important speech I gave annually was to the leaders of Congress and the administration assembled in the Capitol building for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

But along with the rising challenges to Israel’s claim to the Holocaust legacy came assaults on the Holocaust itself, and not just from the David Irving-esque deniers. Scholars such as Yale historian Timothy Synder and journalist Isabell Wilkerson sought to contextualize the Holocaust by linking it to other Eastern European massacres or comparing it with other racially based injustices. Young American Jews, raised in a victimhood-equals-virtue environment, became increasingly reluctant to cite the Holocaust’s uniqueness, and to challenge the Palestinians’ attempts to liken it to the 1948 Nakba.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, keenly aware of its contributions to the creation and protection of Israel, assailed the Holocaust in multiple ways. Many echoed the longstanding Arab claim—first presented to President Roosevelt by King ibn Saud in 1945—that Palestine was simply the place where Europe dumped those Jews it failed to kill in the camps. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went from downplaying the Holocaust (one million dead, not six) in his Soviet university doctoral thesis of 1982, to, last year, both minimalizing the Holocaust and insisting that the Jews brought it on themselves. “When Hitler perpetrated the Holocaust, he had obvious reasons,” Fatah Official Yasser Aby Sido, echoing Abbas, recently explained. “They were plotting to take over Germany.” 

For a great number of Palestinians, acknowledging the Holocaust was tantamount to recognizing Israel’s legitimacy and negating the importance of the Nakba. Accordingly, in 2009, PA officials shut down a Palestinian youth orchestra after it performed for Holocaust survivors. In 2014, al-Quds University forced the resignation of American Studies professor Mohammed Dajani after he led a delegation of West Bank Palestinians to Auschwitz.

In general, the Palestinians and their supporters have focused less on denying or even justifying the Holocaust and more on painting Israel as the new Nazi Germany and the Palestinians as the new Jews. The Palestinians, in the words of Edward Said, were “the victims of the victims.” Other Palestinians adopted the pledge “Never Again,” and turned it against Israel. “This…desperate cry…is pointed to the descendants of those Jewish victims of Nazi terror who now inflict on the indigenous people of Palestine a crime equally horrendous,” proclaimed the introduction to the book The Plight of the Palestinians, published in 2010. It accused Israel of emulating the Nazis in perpetrating “a prolonged, merciless attempt to erase a people from their land by whatever force is needed." 

The equation Israel=Nazis, Palestinians=Jews, which might be abhorrent to neo-Nazis, gained increasing traction among Israel’s critics, among them a growing number of Jews. Princeton professor Richard Falk, musician Gilad Atzmon, Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein—all have compared Zionism to Nazism. Jewish writers Primo Levi and Jean Améry both expressed the fear that, by citing the Holocaust to justify its brutal military operations, Israel was in danger of resembling Nazi Germany—a fear that Israeli theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz upgraded into a condemnation of Israel’s “Nazification.” Political scientist Norman Finklestein began his lifelong assault on Israel protesting the 1982 siege of Beirut with a sign demanding, “Israeli Nazis – Stop the Holocaust in Lebanon!”

Still, none of these developments had the least impact on Israel. From the sabras who, in the 1950s, disdained those who “went like sheep to the slaughter” and labeled those who survived “sabonim”—soaps—Israelis came to embrace the legacy of the Holocaust. “The alternative to fighting is Treblinka, and we have resolved that there would be no Treblinkas”—so Prime Minister Menachem Begin justified Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. For high schoolers, a pilgrimage to Auschwitz, draped in the Israeli flag, became a pre-army ritual, while the dwindling number and plight of survivors regularly made national news. Every government office, including my own in Washington, boasted the photo of the three Star of David-emblazoned F-15’s flyover of Auschwitz in 2003. Israel, quipped New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, was in danger of becoming “Yad Vashem with an air force.” 

Friedman failed to understand the depth of Zionism’s victory over victimhood, though the enlistment of the Holocaust in Israel’s defense, once implicit, had grown increasingly manifest. Defying the mounting attempts to impugn Israel’s right to harness the Holocaust in its battle against existential threats, Israeli leaders now adamantly asserted it. “The Jewish people have learned the lessons of the Holocaust,” Prime Minister Netanyahu declared on Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2020, “always to take seriously the threats of those who seek our destruction [and] always to have the power to defend ourselves by ourselves. We have learned that Israel must always remain the master of its fate.” 

Those very lessons were lost a mere four years later, on the morning of October 7. Seen through the prism of the Holocaust, the trauma of the Hamas onslaught was excruciatingly magnified. An avowedly genocidal organization enamored of Hitler had perpetrated the greatest single slaughter of Jews since World War II. Not surprisingly, Netanyahu compared the massacre at the Nova Festival to that of Babi Yar and the kibbutz children who hid for their lives to Anne Frank. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, pinned a yellow “Jude” star to his lapel. Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared, “we are facing a Nazi conception.”

“We stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people,” announced filmmaker Jonathan Glazer upon winning an academy award for “Zone of Interest,” a biopic about Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss. The import of the maker of a Holocaust movie stripping Israel of the power to wield the Holocaust in its defense was not lost on the Oscar audience, which avidly applauded Glazer’s statement.  

Writing in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen put a finer point on Glazer’s accusation, likening Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto.  “The term “ghetto” would have …given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated.” Like Glazer, a Jew, Gessen notes how the Nazis built the ghettos to protect non-Jews from “Jewish diseases,” much as Israel created the Gaza ghetto to protect Jews from Palestinian threats. “Both claims,” she concludes, “propose that an occupying authority can…isolate, immiserate—and, now, mortally endanger—an entire population…the name of protecting its own.”

Gessen’s comparison of Gaza with the Warsaw Ghetto was echoed by Colombian President Gustavo Petro while Vladamir Putin equated Israel’s offensive to the Nazi siege of Leningrad. “In the past they were massacring the Jewish people in the gas chambers,” railed Turkish President Erdoğan. “A similar mentality is being shown [by Israel] in Gaza today.” The social media were rife with posts drawing parallels between Israel and the Third Reich and accusations that the Jews are emulating the Nazis in perpetrating genocide in Gaza. 

Yet these themes were hardly confined to the Web. In a lengthy essay published in the prestigious London Review of Books, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra argues that the war in Gaza is, in fact, a struggle over the Holocaust. Its memory, though sullied by Israel, is upheld by the millions of pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrating “against savagery.” Their actions will eventually overcome Israeli propaganda, Mishra predicts, and “go some way towards redeeming the memory of the Shoah.”

Mishra’s voice is hardly lone. Podcaster and wrestler Joe Rogan recently claimed that Israel’s actions in Gaza amounted to Israel “saying that genocide is okay as long as we’re doing it.” Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula said Israel’s war in Gaza was unparalleled in history except when “Hitler decided to kill the Jews.” Chris Williamson, of the British Labour Party, called Gaza a “concentration camp” and characterized Israel as “worse than the Nazis.”

Call it Holocaust decoupling or Holocaust severance, but a global movement is now mounting to cut the ties between the Jewish State and the Final Solution and deny the former the ability to adduce the latter in its defense. Europeans, in particular, are welcoming this trend as an opportunity to at last escape the Holocaust’s burden, and even Germany is purportedly reexamining its initial support for Israel’s policies in Gaza. The slogan, “Never again,” is being appropriated from Israel and, according to Mishra, replaced by the universal, “Never Again for Anyone.”

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