Holocaust survivors condemn Israel's Gaza genocide during a London protest.

Holocaust survivor Stephen Kapos (right) and descendants of Holocaust survivors take part in an April 13, 2024 London protest against the Gaza genocide.

(Photo: @Aliwala786110/X)

Western Leaders Are Exploiting Yesterday’s Genocide to Commit Another Today

U.S. political and media elites are—shrewdly, if cruelly—re-traumatizing Jews for the most cynical reason imaginable: to help them aid and abet the unconscionable actions of a foreign country.

It takes a lot of people to mount a genocide: planners, funders, pathologically uncaring politicians, and big-money donors who have corrupted the political process. It also requires an armada of social-media sociopaths willing to call for slaughter from the comfort of their homes.

But the ongoing murder in Gaza wouldn’t be possible if a lot of ordinarily reasonable and empathetic people hadn’t been manipulated by cynics who prey on their collective trauma. The ghosts of past horrors have been summoned, not to end genocide but to perpetrate it in a new context.

There are many Jews in the West, including the children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, whose inherited pain is being exploited in service of a ruthless military agenda.

Ghosts of Horror

I’ve heard from American Jews who are genuinely frightened. They’ve been told there’s a dramatic upsurge of antisemitism in the United States, especially among those who are least likely to be antisemitic in this society—people of all faiths and backgrounds who are calling for an end to occupation and genocide.

Jews born in the 1930s and earlier lived with the knowledge that their own people were being systematically exterminated. They absorbed the shock as newspaper, radio, newsreel, and eyewitness accounts revealed the shocking truth after the concentration camps were liberated.

Many Jews of younger generations grew up in the shadow of those terrible years. Some are the children of camp survivors. Some live with the knowledge that close family members were killed and that their communities died with them. And many others were raised by parents who fought a war against Nazism. For them, the fight against antisemitism was inseparable from the fight against fascism.

We should turn our hearts daily to the dead and dying in Gaza. But trauma, even second-hand trauma, deserves only compassion.

Although I was raised and Bar Mitzvah’d as a Jew, I never experienced this trauma myself. Like many people of my (Baby Boom) generation, I’ve had a few negative experiences but have never been emotionally scarred by antisemitism. And yet, I’ve met people who were. For them, the horrors of the Holocaust still reverberate.

Psychologists use the concept of “multigenerational family processes” to describe the way some emotional responses, including trauma, can be carried from one generation to the next. Biologists have learned that traumatic experiences can epigenetically rewire us in ways that can be passed to children.

Nor is it exclusively an individual experience. Communities, like people, can experience post-traumatic stress. The massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue triggered that in a graphic way. So did the attack of October 7, when we saw endless pictures of wounded and dead Jews.

We don’t believe in ghosts, but some ghosts are real. They linger in our psyches and in our DNA. And sometimes they return.

Weaponizing Trauma

We should turn our hearts daily to the dead and dying in Gaza. But trauma, even second-hand trauma, deserves only compassion.

Western leaders aren’t offering compassion or healing for this trauma. They’re amplifying and weaponizing it by suggesting that peaceful protesters are antisemitic and that student encampments reflect the resurgence of an ancient enmity. These falsehoods have slandered and harmed these idealistic students, many of them Jewish. They have also triggered old wounds.

This country’s political and media elites are—shrewdly, if cruelly—re-traumatizing Jews for the most cynical reason imaginable: to help them aid and abet the unconscionable actions of a foreign country. They seek to terrify the innocent and silence the courageous.

The world’s Jews were made to feel guilt and obligation toward Israel.

Tragically, it’s working. More than half of Jewish students feel threatened by the campus protests, according to recent polling, and many Jews nationwide believe there is a dramatic upsurge in antisemitism. I have talked to some otherwise reasonably well-informed people who actually believe that the peace movement opposes their existence. They’ve made cryptic references to 1930s Germany and repeated false stories of physical attacks on Jewish students.

One even told me that he went to bed every night afraid that someone would murder his children as they slept.

Equating Israeli Force with Jewish Survival

For several generations now, Jews have been told that Israel is the only hope for the safety of the Jewish people. It wasn’t always that way. Hannah Arendt wrote that nationalisms like Zionism were already obsolete by the early 20th century and that Zionism itself was likely to become a “living ghost amid the ruins of our times.” It took a concerted campaign of fear to convince millions of Jews otherwise in the years after World War II.

After the Holocaust, the idea of turning British Palestine into a Eurocentric outpost of Western interests gained momentum. Palestine was framed as a kind of geographic amends to the Jewish people for what they had suffered, not just under the Nazis, but through centuries of European oppression.

Europe’s debt was paid, however, not by the guilty but by the innocent. As Israeli historian Amos Elon wrote, “The Palestinians bore no responsibility for the collapse of civilization in Europe but ended up being punished for it.”

Zionism had never been a majority movement among the world’s Jews, nor was it a priority for Diaspora Jews in the United States. It took some persuasion to bring the American Jewish community around, but the campaign was well-planned and executed. As Arendt writes in Eichmann in Jerusalem,

The Jews in the Diaspora were to remember how Judaism, “4,000 years old, with its spiritual creations and its ethical strivings, its Messianic aspirations,” had always faced “a hostile world,” how the Jews had degenerated until they went to their death like sheep, and how only the establishment of a Jewish state had enabled Jews to hit back...

The world’s Jews were made to feel guilt and obligation toward Israel. They were instilled with a deep, collective, existential fear—a fear that was triggered whenever anyone questioned its status as a Jewish ethnostate.

The Killing Must Stop

Jews in the United States do face threats, of course, but not from the left. The Christian right lavishes praise on Israel, even as it nurtures deep wells of antisemitism. The white supremacists who chanted “Jews will not replace us” were not from the left. There is nothing to fear from the pro-Palestine movement. To put it bluntly, many moderate and liberal Jews are being played.

The killing must stop, and a new reality must be built in Palestine. But that can’t happen until Western leaders stop exploiting the genocide of yesterday so they can commit another genocide today.

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