As the Zionists’ use of the Holocaust to defend Israel’s racism and military aggression begins to falter, the need to insist on its universal lessons has become greater than ever.
The war crimes, terror and deliberate targeting of civilians by Israel in Gaza has raised a question: how could those marked by the worst genocide in modern history show such inhumanity to others? How could a people whose suffering has been subject to the worst form of historical denial in their turn deny the history, dispossession or even the “existence” of another people?
There is a danger that the lessons of history are left behind. Some have come to view the Holocaust as purely “Jewish” history, with little or no bearing for anyone else. Others dismiss it as an exaggerated case of “special pleading” deployed to justify the oppression of the Palestinian people. We allow such reactions to take hold at our peril.
In the immediate post-war period a silence descended over the Nazi genocide both in the West and the Soviet bloc. The new state of Israel too wanted to expunge the image of the “Diaspora Jew”. Many survivors, for quite complex reasons, kept their own witness to themselves.
However, at the end of the 1950s the silence began to lift. 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”.
The historical record came under scrutiny: appeasement and the Hitler-Stalin pact; the immigration bans on Jews fleeing fascism; the profits made from Nazi forced labour; wartime collaboration and the failure of the Allies to bomb the extermination camps.The rehabilitation of Nazi scientists, such as Werner von Braun, to work on US nuclear weapons and space programmes, raised fundamental questions about the world order.
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 capitalism.
Yet another narrative also emerged. In 1961 the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the Holocaust, and the broadcasting of documentaries such as Shoah reinforced the growing awareness of the Holocaust. However, now Israel’s leaders also faced conditions in which the “pioneer” image of Israel no longer sufficed.
In the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel needed to justify its military hegemony in the Middle East, while the Palestine liberation struggle struck a chord with anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles around the world. The Holocaust now served to reinforce the image of “poor little Israel”; the slogan “Never Again!” was turned from a universal call against racism and fascism into a defence of a racist, colonial settler state. Criticism of Israel was deemed anti-Semitic, and resistance seen as an existential threat.
Post-9/11, the charge of “anti-Semitism” has combined with a toxic Islamophobic racism aimed at demonising not only the Palestinians, but Muslims in general, and particularly immigrant Muslim populations in Europe. Islamophobia has become the anti-Semitism of the 21st century, an accepted discourse so extreme it would be deemed unacceptable if levelled at black people or at Jews.
The misuse of the Holocaust by Israel’s supporters brings real dangers of division; yet the mass struggle in support of Palestine brings with it new hope and possibilities — as long as socialists and anti-racists do not flinch from the challenge. 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 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 and visits of young people to the Auschwitz death camp. This is not uncomplicated. Contesting interpretations of the Holocaust often overlap. Yet socialists and anti-racists need to seize every opportunity to insist on a universal narrative and resist the debasing of the lessons of the Holocaust by Israel and its supporters.
The Zionist narrative of the Holocaust is beginning to fracture; we have to ensure the genuine lessons are not dragged down with it.
Ever since the 1970, socialists 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 insist on the relevance of the Holocaust and entrench the lessons among a new generation of activists. 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.