Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O'Neill

Whoring the Holocaust

The anti-war lobby’s use of Holocaust imagery to protest against Israel’s attack on Gaza is causing a commotion. At a protest I attended outside the Israeli Embassy in London on Sunday, activists waved placards demanding “Stop the Holocaust in Gaza”. One protester held up a home-made banner with a message scrawled in twirly black ink: “Remember the Warsaw Ghetto.” His point, I discovered upon talking to him, is that Gaza today is reminiscent of the Warsaw Ghetto from 1941 to 1943: a tiny space overcrowded with desperate people, rife with disease and hunger, and threatened by annihilation.

I am no supporter of Israel, or of its invasion of Gaza, but even I recognise that this is historical illiteracy of the highest – or perhaps the lowest – order. However desperate is the situation in Gaza, it is obscene to describe it as a “Holocaust” or to compare it with the Warsaw Ghetto where, in the early 1940s, the population of Jews was reduced from 450 000 to 71 000 through starvation and mass deportations to Nazi death camps. Following a Jewish uprising, the ghetto was finally invaded and destroyed by the Nazis in 1943, with an estimated 56 000 people massacred or deported to camps. Nothing remotely on this scale is taking place in Gaza.

Supporters of Israel are outraged by the Holocaust imagery. “Comparisons of Israel to the Nazis are a deeply cynical perversion of history”, said the US-based Anti-Defamation League, after protesters on anti-Israel demos across America carried placards saying “Israel: The Fourth Reich” and “Stop the Zionist Genocide in Gaza”.

Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times slammed the “grotesqueries” of the anti-war movement, pointing out that if “supposedly all-powerful Israel is dedicated to exterminating the Palestinian people, it is doing a very bad job”. In the London Times, David Aaronovitch said “this ahistorical hyperbole is the product of a kind of binary thinking, the belief that there can only be two kinds of anything, and two possible responses: there’s the good and the bad; there’s the victim and the murderer”.

He’s right. The use of Holocaust imagery to demonise Israel is an attempt to reduce a complex, extremely messy conflict to a simple morality tale in which Israel is depicted as evil on a Hitlerian scale while its opponents, from Hamas to the anti-war activists waving those historically warped placards, can ascend to the moral high ground of good and supreme victimhood. It is also a convenient way to guilt-trip the Israelis with the past – to throw their own terrible history back in their faces, perhaps in the hope that such emotional blackmail will substitute for serious, difficult thinking about the conflict in the Middle East and how it might be resolved.

However, we should not let our horror at the use of Holocaust imagery blind us to the fact that these anti-war activists did not start this low-down game. They did not introduce the moral absolutes of the Holocaust, and the corresponding “binary thinking” of good and evil, into international affairs. Rather, they are picking up on, and exploiting, an already well-established trend for what we might call “whoring the Holocaust” where, over the past 10 to 15 years, some very messy wars have been described as simplistic genocides in which people labelled “evil” massacre other people labelled “good”. Indeed, some of the same people slating today’s anti-Israel activists for exploiting the Holocaust have done exactly the same in the past.

During the civil war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, Holocaust imagery was rife in Western media coverage and in the pronouncements of Western politicians. Then, the Bosnian Serbs were labelled as the “new Fourth Reich”. The Guardian called them the “tinpot Nazis of the Balkans”. Others said the Bosnian Serbs were “committing the same crimes” as the Nazis, carrying out a “Holocaust” against Bosnian Muslims. Anyone who argued that, while the war in Bosnia was unquestionably terrible, it could not be compared to the crimes of the Nazis or seriously described as a “genocide”, was labelled a “denier” – a slur that provocatively sprung from the phrase “Holocaust denier”.

During NATO’s bombing campaign over Kosovo in 1999, Holocaust imagery was wheeled out again. American and European newspapers reported on the “Nazi-style annihilation” of Kosovo Alabanians by the Yugoslavs. The German defence minister said there was “serious evidence” in Kosovo of “systematic extermination that recalls in a horrible way what was done in the name of Germany at the beginning of World War II”. In truth, an estimated total of 3 000 people, on all sides, died during the Kosovo conflicts between 1997 and 1999. A terrible figure, of course. But let us remember that the Nazis frequently killed more than 3 000 Jews in a single day in their death factories.

David Aaronovitch, so disturbed by the exploitation of the Holocaust in relation to Gaza, was only too willing to do it himself in relation to the Serbs. He said that in Bosnia, European people were murdered en masse “just as they had been 50 years earlier” (emphasis added). Such was the Holocaust-hysteria during Bosnia and Kosovo that death camp survivor Elie Weisel felt compelled to intervene. “The Holocaust was conceived to annihilate the last Jew on the planet. Does anyone believe that Milosevic and his accomplices seriously planned to exterminate all the Bosnians, all the Albanians, all the Muslims in the world?”, he asked.

More recently, the undoubtedly terrible situation in Darfur has been hysterically described as “comparable to the death camps in Nazi Germany”. In the case of Bosnia, Kosovo and now Darfur, such Holocaust-whoring has been cynically used to justify Western military intervention. Where today’s anti-Israel activists (stupidly) use Holocaust imagery to try to stop a war, others have used it to try to start one.

It is time that everyone abandoned the “binary thinking” of good and evil that comes with invoking the Holocaust. Such cynical and distasteful exploitation of the greatest crime of the twentieth century only obscures the messy complexities of conflicts in the here and now, while denigrating the uniqueness of the Holocaust itself.