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The Holocaust

The Middle East Conflict, Antisemitism and the Holocaust

In Their Own Words

If everything is genocide…

By Avner Shalev

Recently, yet another Hamas spokesperson compared the situation in Gaza to events during the Holocaust. Coming from an official representing a body that unabashedly declares its commitment to terrorism and the destruction of Israel, this is in itself not surprising. Echoed this week by Libya’s deputy UN Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi in a meeting of the UN Security Council, a body whose members are apparently dedicated to maintaining peace, such assessments are even more distressing. The ubiquitous use of Holocaust imagery in the propaganda efforts of Hamas and others is dangerous and worrying. Such toxic imagery is frequently invoked in combination with elements of classic antisemitism, and virulent anti-Israel invective. It has become the language of discourse not only of Hamas and its supporters, but also of spokesmen from the Arab - Muslim world. In the rest of the world as well, ostensibly objective observers have adopted this code, or uncritically parrot those who compare Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto, ignoring both historical details and context.

Language has power. The words we choose to use carry weight, and are meaningful. If we choose to label every event a Genocide or equate every event with the Holocaust, then we detract from the real meaning of those words and reduce their ability to represent true horror. Subsequently, when faced with a real incident of genocidal murder people will be reluctant to cry out. If everything is genocide, nothing is genocide.

It would appear that the obvious, that which was not long ago perceived by most of the West to be true, now requires reiteration: There is no factual or coherent parallel that can be drawn between contemporary events in Gaza and the historic events of the Holocaust. The Nazis’ goal was to murder every single Jewish person in Europe, and ultimately in the world, a policy of systematic, mass murder of all Jews – men, women and children - simply because they were Jews. Based on their racial ideology, the Nazis established ghettos as part of a continuum of anti-Jewish persecution that culminated with mass murder in death factories in the heart of Europe. The Jews were not persecuted because of anything they actually did, but because of Nazi perceptions based on an imagined and distorted reality.

In contrast, the current situation in the Middle East is a classic one of adversaries. The conflict between the Palestinians and Israel is fundamentally about land and sovereignty, with tangible issues and a long convoluted history. It is legitimate to criticize both sides in this conflict. But to employ outright lies in place of legitimate criticism undermines any possibility to build understanding. Despite assertions to the contrary, a lie, no matter how big and how often it is told, does not become truth.

The Holocaust certainly may be compared and contrasted to other events in history; indeed doing so helps us understand events better. But comparing and contrasting is a very different exercise from superficially equating things. Moreover, when events have no real common denominator – as anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge and intellectual honesty will attest – equating, and even comparing and contrasting is iniquitous, and generally constitutes purposeful manipulation. Doing this to the Holocaust, arguably one of the most significant and horrific events of modern history, dishonors the victims, and trivializes the events themselves.

We know why Hamas spokespersons and their bedfellows choose to use this imagery. It is compelling, and immediately resonates with their listeners. It is the editor’s job to ensure that if they report the use of such images and language to provide the context, and perspective, as the Washington Post did when running Mahmoud al-Zahar’s recent op-ed. As readers, and listeners, we must listen critically to the words being used, and the message being delivered.

This is far beyond a simple question of semantics. Language is the currency in which we trade, and upon which our civilization rests. It is how we make ourselves understood. If we allow the inherent meaning of words to be distorted, our perception of reality changes, and we cloud not only our language but also our understanding and judgment.

Avner Shalev is Chairman of Yad Vashem.
This article first appeared in the Haaretz newspaper on May 2, 2008