Neither the worst efforts of Israel’s propaganda machine nor the complicity of our own media, can now conceal Israel’s war crimes against Gaza. The calibrated terror of the IDF has exposed the true character of the Israeli state in the eyes of millions. The momentum behind the protests in Britain and across the world is reminiscent of the anti-apartheid movement after the Sharpeville massacre or the Soweto uprisings.
Israel’s propagandists provoke greater opposition and disgust with each broadcast, intoning to disbelieving audiences that the victims of F16s, drones, tank shells and high velocity sniper bullets only have themselves to blame. Mark Regev has accomplished the unique feat of combining the logic of the domestic abuser with that of the war criminal: ‘We are so, so very sorry … but you see, they make us do it to them’.
However, amidst the war crimes, terror and lies, beneath the rubble and the corpses, there is a danger that important lessons of history are left behind. Millions ask how the victims of the worst genocide of modern times could perpetrate such inhumanity; how could the victims of the Shoah justify the deliberate massacre of children and civilians? How could a people whose past suffering has been subject to the worst form of historical denial, in their turn deny the history, dispossession or even the ‘existence’ of the Palestinian people?
Some have stopped asking these questions and have come to view the Holocaust as purely ‘Jewish’ history, with little or no bearing for anyone else. Some, in their anger, dismiss the Holocaust as an exaggerated device, or a case of ‘special pleading’, deployed to justify Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. We allow such reactions to take hold at our peril. Yet to overcome them we have to fight them independently of Israel's apologists and restore a universal interpretation of the Holocaust’s significance.
In the immediate post war period a silence descended over the Nazi genocide both in the West and the Soviet bloc; an examination of the historical record did not suit either Cold War foe. The new state of Israel wanted to expunge the image of the ‘diaspora Jew’ and suppress reference to the ethnic cleansing upon which the state was founded. The young Zionist pioneer, or ‘sabra’, who made the ‘desert’ bloom, became the archetype of the new Israel. Many survivors too, for quite complex reasons, kept their own witness to themselves.
However, at the end of the 1950s the shroud of silence began to lift. The Cold War consensus had begun to break down. The fear of nuclear war, the rise of CND and international campaigns for nuclear disarmament heralded the rise of a new left. The shadow of a nuclear holocaust led many to look back to the ‘Final Solution’ itself.
The historical record came under scrutiny: allied support for the pre-war fascist regimes; the Hitler-Stalin pact; the immigration bans on Jews fleeing fascism in Europe; the profits made from Nazi forced labour; wartime collaboration in occupied Europe and the failure of the Allies to bomb the extermination camps and train lines. The left also highlighted the support given to Nazi collaborators in countries such as Greece and Italy after the war and the failure to prosecute Nazi war criminals. Many made links between the Nazi genocide and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The rehabilitation of Nazi scientists, such as Werner von Braun, in order to work on US nuclear weapons’ and space programmes, raised fundamental questions about the world order.
This re-examination was fuelled by the emergence of survivor testimony, notably the Diary of Anne Frank, first published in English in 1952,and then as a film in 1959. This continued through the student radicalisation of the 1960s and the struggle against re-emergent fascist organisation in the 1970s as crisis returned to the world economy. The Holocaust acted as a prism for examining the West’s claims to be defenders of freedom and democracy, the existential threat of the nuclear arms race, the roots of fascism and the nature of the capitalist system itself.
Yet another narrative also emerged. The Eichmann trial in 1961, and the broadcasting of documentaries such as ‘Shoah’ had a huge impact. On one hand they were important in exposing the horror of the Holocaust and the nature of fascism. The slogan “Never Again!” became a huge obstacle for Nazi organisations attempting to build a mass base. However, the Eichmann trial also saw the beginning of a concerted attempt by the Israeli state and its supporters to use the Holocaust to legitimise the Jewish state.
In the wake of the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel urgently needed to justify its military hegemony in the Middle East, as did its US backer. The Holocaust gained pre-eminence as part of an attempt to reinforce an image of “poor little Israel”. Above all, the emergence of the Palestinian resistance movement in the shape of the PLO and Fatah made it critical for Israel to establish its ideological legitimacy. For the first time since the Arab revolt of 1936-39, Israel faced a popular liberation struggle from below. Furthermore, the Palestine liberation struggle had parallels with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles across the globe. Protests against the Vietnam war were mounting in the US and Europe; struggles against apartheid and the remnants of colonialism fanned across southern Africa; in America, the rise of the black power movement was accompanied by urban insurrections across major US cities.
Whereas after 1945 the Zionist state shunned reference to the Holocaust, since the 1960s it has become Israel’s first line of defence. The narrative adopted against Fatah in the 1960s was developed through the first and second intifadas and is now deployed against Hamas. In the hands of Israel’s leaders, the slogan “Never Again!” has been turned from a universal call against racism and fascism into a defence of a racist, colonial settler state. Opponents are deemed anti-Semitic by definition and all forms of resistance seen as an existential threat.
However, over the last decade or more, the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ has combined with a toxic Islamophobic racism aimed at demonising not only Hamas and the Palestinians but Muslims in general, and particularly immigrant Muslim populations in Europe who have rallied to the Palestinian cause.
The Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, addressing the European Friends of Israel, declared ‘fundamentalist Islam’ to be the greatest threat facing the ‘civilised’ world and that “one of the keys to defeating this fanaticism is to be able to distinguish friends from enemies. In this battle between the 21st century and the 9th century, between freedom and despotism, between progress and primitivism, Europe and Israel stand squarely on the same side.”
On cue, Tony Blair, Middle East ‘peace envoy’, argued in a recent keynote speech: “The Muslim population in Europe is now over 40 million and growing. The Muslim Brotherhood and other organisations are increasingly active and they operate without much investigation or constraint. Recent controversy over schools in Birmingham (and similar allegations in France) show heightened levels of concern about Islamist penetration of our own societies.”
We face a new conjuncture. Since 9/11 there has been a sustained drive on the part of western imperialist powers to cast Muslims and Islam as a threat to ‘civilised values’. Islamophobia has become the anti-Semitism of the 21st century; an accepted discourse so extreme that it would be deemed unacceptable if levelled at black people or at Jews. Europe’s fascists are seeking to ride this racist tide to build their base.
France is an example of the challenge we face. The French equivalent of the Jewish Board of Deputies and figures such as Bernard Henri-Levy, have long insisted that the main threat of anti-Semitism comes from the left and from Muslims. This coincides with a rising tide of state sponsored Islamophobia against France’s Arab and Muslim communities. Too often the left has failed to respond, particularly in regard to bans on the veil and niqab.
The results are beginning to show. In February a strong fascist contingent marched through Paris on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, shouting slogans denying the Holocaust and chanting “Jews Out!” After first ‘riding point’ for the Islamophobia of the French establishment they now feel confident to revisit old hatreds hitherto kept in the shadows. Meanwhile, the French Jewish Defence League (who themselves deserve the fascist label) have launched assaults on pro-Palestine demonstrations with the support of the police. These were used as a pretext for a government ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations… and Marine Le Pen and the Front Nationale lead in the polls.
France has the largest Muslim population and the largest Jewish population in Europe. If ever there were grounds for unity between past and present victims of racism and fascism it is here.
Yet whilst the misuse of the Holocaust by Israel’s supporters bring very real dangers of division, the mass struggle that has erupted in support of Palestine brings with it new hope and new possibilities - as long as socialists and anti-racists do not flinch from the challenge.
Whilst the Zionist interpretation of the Holocaust is influential, popular views of the Holocaust’s significance have never been confined to a defence of Israel. The slogan “Never Again” has been critical to the success of anti-fascist movements such as the ANL and UaF, which have won support from significant numbers of pro-Zionist Jews, including Holocaust survivors.
Beyond this, awareness of the ‘Final Solution’ is reflected in school education, Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) and visits of young people to Auschwitz. This is not uncomplicated. Universalist and pro-Zionist interpretations of the Holocaust’s significance often overlap. The adoption of HMD by the EU followed the Nato bombing of Serbia and was in part born of Nato’s attempt to justify ‘humanitarian intervention’ against ‘genocidal’ regimes. It was no accident that Tony Blair was one of the leading proponents of HMD.
Yet HMD has offered socialists and anti-racists an important opportunity to galvanise opposition to fascism, especially amongst youth, and argue out the lessons of the Holocaust as part of the fight against racism and fascism today. It is an example of the need to seize every opportunity to insist on a universal narrative.
Since 9/11, Israel and its supporters have claimed common cause with the ‘war on terror’, buttressing Islamophobia in the west, strengthening the prejudices that feed the far-right while dividing our own ranks. The use of the Holocaust as an ideological tool by Israel and its supporters has indeed threatened to debase the most important lesson of modern history.
But the attack on Gaza marks an ideological break point. The racist character of the Israeli state is now evident to millions. For a new generation, the cause of Palestinian freedom, the fight against racism and Islamophobia and resistance to the rise of fascism are now inextricably interlocked. This offers new possibilities.
The Zionist strategy of using the Holocaust to cement support for the Israeli state is starting to fracture beyond repair. In the US a recent poll revealed that young Americans blame Israel for the conflict in Gaza by a margin of two to one. This sent shockwaves through the Israeli press. It is a reflection of their desperation that a leading pro-Israeli US Rabbi and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel sponsored an advert blaming Hamas for forcing Israel to slaughter Palestinian children. In the UK this backfired in spectacular fashion. In under 12 hours, a petition to the Guardian newspaper attracted 150,000 signatures, reaching 15,000 an hour and crashing the Stop the War Coalition internet server. The hate ad was still published but with the reverse effect to that intended by the sponsors.
As the Zionist narrative of the Holocaust starts to fall apart, we have to ensure the genuine lessons are not dragged down with it. There is no reason for this to be the case. Ever since the 1970s, we have built united fronts against fascism based on an insistence that differences over Israel, fundamental though they are, cannot be allowed to prevent unity against the fascists. This remains true. We cannot make agreement on Israel a condition of a united struggle. It is precisely in such a struggle that the real lessons of the past can be learnt anew.
However, we have to openly insist on the relevance of the Holocaust and entrench the lessons amongst a new generation of activists, Muslim, Jew, black and white. We need to argue that support for the Palestinians is part of a wider struggle against oppression, racism and imperialism.
Above all we need to insist that the slogan of a free Palestine is not to deny the Holocaust’s universal significance but to reassert it.