Protesters chain themselves to White House fence demanding Gaza cease-fire

A group of Jewish elders chained themselves to the White House perimeter fence in protest of U.S. President Joe Biden’s policies during the war in the Gaza Strip in Washington D.C., United States on December 11, 2023.

(Photo: Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The Two Lessons of the Holocaust Confront Each Other Over Gaza

On the one hand stands the particular lesson, the Holocaust as a reminder that only Israel can offer true safety to the Jewish people; on the other hand is the deeply universalist commitment to “never again.”

Earlier this week Israel marked the Holocaust in an official memorial day ceremony. Sirens blared for one minute across the country, as all Israelis were urged to drop everything, pull their cars to the sides of the road, and observe a minute devoted to ruminating about the Holocaust and its lessons.

Growing up in Israel, as a youth whose grandmother and great grandmother survived Auschwitz, I felt the burden of that moment and concentrated deeply while two different commitments brewed within me. On the one had my commitment to my country, Israel, the safe haven of all Jews; on the other, my promise to myself to act as “chasidei umut ha’olam” did. This title, sometimes known in English as the Righteous Among the Nations, is a special honor bestowed by the state of Israel upon those few non-Jews who during the Holocaust risked their lives and their families’ lives to help save Jews without any promise of recompense. “In a world of total moral collapse,” notes the central museum for the memory of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, “there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values.” As part of its commitment to instill the universal ideal of humanism, Yad Vashem has championed these individuals as lightning rods of humanism that should offer all of us an example and model.

Israel is a contradictory place. It holds itself as a model of enlightened democracy, even as it carries out what most human rights organization by now recognize as an apartheid regime. Even in its Declaration of Independence it declared itself to be both democratic and Jewish, clearly a contradiction. This spirit of contradiction animates the most important event in Israel’s public memory, the Holocaust and in the lesson it draws from it. On the one hand stands the particular lesson, the Holocaust as a reminder that only an independent Jewish state, Israel, can offer true safety to the Jewish people. On the other hand, Israel tries—at least some of the time—to assert a universal lesson from the Holocaust: If a nation like Germany that viewed itself as the most enlightened nation in the world could carry out a genocide, it can happen everywhere, and if we don’t watch out any one of us can get caught up and become complicit in it. Thus, as humans we must pledge to constantly ask ourselves, “What I would have done during the Holocaust?” and follow the example of the Righteous among the Nations.

Jews and Palestinians must find a way to live together in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as true and equal partners, and we must find justice for all who were impacted by this ongoing tragedy.

Most people and most nations live with contradictions. However, there comes a time when contradictions can no longer—indeed must no longer—abide together in both humans and nations. For Jews across the world such a time has clearly arrived. Now more than ever we are witnessing a confrontation between the two lessons of the Holocaust, with an increasing number of Jews outside of Israel recognizing in the slogan “never again” a deeply universalist commitment to humanity—especially Palestinians oppressed and killed in their name. Organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now (whose name is a very reference to this conviction), and others consist of Jews who refuse to stand idle while Israel, a state that views itself as the exclusive embodiment of Jewish aspirations, is carrying out genocidal violence in their name.

At the same time, unfortunately, within Israel the Jewish population has doubled down on the particular memory of the Holocaust. Having endured the greatest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust on October 7, Jewish Israelis appear more committed than ever to a siege mentality that does not offer any room for humanism. Refusing to recognize the humanity of the Palestinian people in Gaza and elsewhere and the spirit of the slogan “never again,” they are largely in support of this mass murder of civilians and of an ultra-aggressive stance toward Israel’s perceived enemies. Similarly, in the United States and elsewhere, both Jewish and non-Jewish Zionist organizations, private individuals, and even states like Germany appear consumed by their commitment to the particular memory of the Holocaust. This is no coincidence. Israel and its allies over more than 75 years have successfully weaponized the particular memory of the Holocaust to deflect attention from Israeli atrocities.

The response to campus protests across the U.S. marks a new stage in the campaign to quash any legitimate criticism of Israel. In some of the most liberal universities in the country, the site of some of the most iconic free speech campus struggles during the 1960s, we are now witnessing yet again the repression of universal humanism. Once more, cynical Zionist voices, this time in collusion with the Republican Party, have managed to undercut universalist humanist messages by insisting on centering the supposed antisemitism of the anti-war activists. This particularly insidious use of the specter of antisemitism is not only a tacit support of genocide, but a dangerous cheapening and misappropriation of the very real rise of antisemitism—most of it not emanating from anti-war circles, but from rabid white supremacists who have increasingly taken control of the Republic Party.

As an Israeli who served in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and who once thought he could hold the contradictions of Zionism and of the dual lessons of the Holocaust, I think it is time to settle this question once and for all. When it comes to universalism versus particularism, to human interest versus self-interest, to moral clarity versus moral bankruptcy, there is only one appropriate resolution.

I believe that as Jews we must embrace the universal lessons of the Holocaust and declare the ongoing events in Gaza a genocide and resist an out-of-control right-wing government that is increasingly drawing the whole region into a war. We must renounce the Zionist interpretation of the Holocaust that has turned out to be not only morally compromised, but also ineffective—it has not provided protection for Jews. In fact, in no place in the world are Jews more likely to be harmed en masse than in Israel today, be it from Palestinian resistance groups or drones from Iran. The Jewish refuge has turned out to be a nightmare to both Palestinians and Jews.

We must search for better alternatives to the question of Jewish safety, ones that refuse to compromise the safety and well-being of other people. Indeed, by now the Jewish tragedy has also become so enmeshed in the Palestinian tragedy that they are inseparable; the Nakba and the Shoah have become tragic parallels, nightmarish rhymes, part of what one recent book has referred to as a shared “grammar of trauma and history.” Jews and Palestinians must find a way to live together in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as true and equal partners, and we must find justice for all who were impacted by this ongoing tragedy.

Lastly, the onus to find this solution is not reserved to Israelis, Jews, and Palestinians, or even the United States and Britain, the two empires who have offered the most support over the years to the Zionist project. The Western world at large has been the arbiter of this ongoing tragedy since they have declared Jews to be a racial enemy in their midst hundreds of years ago. it is therefore in no small part up to the international community—it is their obligation—to force Israel into stopping the ongoing genocide and to provide the means to reach a just solution for all.

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