September 2002


The following article questions how the Holocaust can justify war crimes.

By Arthur Neslen

When the former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on the BBC's 'Breakfast with Frost' [in April], he departed from his script in the face of an unusually firm interview. 'Sixty years ago, Jews were being slaughtered in Europe and Europe lifted not one finger,' he thundered. 'Today, Jews are being slaughtered again in the Middle East ...' and the rest will be familiar to all.

A few months before the recent firebombing of synagogues in France, a secular Jewish neighbour of mine argued something similar. A new Holocaust was beginning, she said. When I asked her what proof she had, she replied breathlessly: 'Can't you see? The evidence is all around!'

There's a Talmudic saying, 'We don't see the world the way it is, we see it the way we are.' In times of crisis, minority communities tend to close ranks. But the denial of reality that is currently epidemic in the Jewish diaspora needs examining for two reasons.

One is that Israel's moral legitimacy rests on its claim to exist -- and act -- in the name of all Jews. The other is that the pinning of Jewish fortunes to US foreign policy goals is a vicarious pursuit, for Jews and Arabs alike.

The Shoah may be the defining moment in popular narratives of anti-semitism, but this much of the Zionist shibboleth is true: Jews have been persecuted by Christians in Eastern Europe for centuries. Often banned from the workplace and professions pre-war,  Jews were frequently forced  into usury and  rent collection for land-owners.  There, they functioned as middle men and 'lightning rods' for peasant anger, expressed through pogroms and misdirected uprisings.

While left-wing Jews rallied around class-unity positions, the Zionist argument was that European anti-semitism was too entrenched to be fought, and thus an ethnically-based state was needed elsewhere. It took the Holocaust to win a majority for this position within the diaspora.

After the Shoah, rather than prioritising reparations within Europe, the Zionist project became one of singular transference -- of a devastated people onto a foreign land and of the phoenix myth onto a foreign people. The nature of the imperial bargain was also fairly singular: to act as patsies and point men in the West's exploitation of oil reserves.

One difference from the situation in Eastern Europe was that in Palestine, Jews voluntarily took on the mantle of lightning rod. Another was that a people, the Palestinians, already lived there, and could only be removed by ethnic cleansing. This is what the Irgun, Stern Gang and Hagannah proceeded to do.

The leverage for the deal was a terrorist campaign, which climaxed in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that killed 86 people. The eventual payola was more US military and economic aid than the rest of the world received combined -- an estimated $1,000 per Israeli citizen per year.

Yet addicted to the 'privileges' conferred by victimhood, Israelis remain unable to confront the nature of their state's founding. In its place, they offer a resurrection fantasy of the phoenix state rising from six million ashes. But the reality of US imperial power masks the blind spot of Zionism: that when the oil runs out, so will America's need for Israel. As a people, you'd think we might have learned ...

What we've learned are the worst lessons of the past. The lessons of the wrong side in the Warsaw Ghetto, as Ha'aretz recently reported. Of how to dehumanise the enemy by calling them 'cockroaches', as Golda Meir famously did. Of how to dehumanise Jews, as the Sephardik nickname for Askenazim arriving in the Holy Land in the 1950s aptly demonstrated: 'soap'.

It's difficult to argue against -- or inside -- any diaspora community, when the terms of debate are so viscerally and painfully charged, and distorted. But the stakes are high in the Middle East, and facts must take precedence over emotion.

So here are some facts: Israel is a state founded by terrorists -- and it copes best with enemies who are 'terrorists'. Israel is a state predicated on anti-semitism -- and it copes best with critics who are 'anti-semites'.

Guilt, denial and displacement may be understandable in trauma survivors, but they're also the material basis for the revengers' tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes. As WH Auden wrote in his poem, 'September 1st 1939': 'I and the public know, what every school child learns. Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.'

The arrogant young Israeli soldiers we see posing with dead Palestinians for trophy photos may be the children of Europe's darkness, but that doesn't excuse their actions. They are extending its pall, and feeding its ghosts.

The truth is that they have no more right to oppress a stranger than does a New Yorker, a Hutu, a Tutsi or for that matter, a Holocaust survivor. They have learned the wrong lessons of history and for that, they must be challenged. If our Zionist-minded neighbours respond with hysteria, so be it. We still have a right and a duty, to defend Palestinians, ourselves -- and our neighbours -- from the consequences of their actions. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Arthur Neslen is Red Pepper's international editor.

Reproduced with the permission of Red Pepper. This article originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of Red Pepper ('The Crimes of the Phoenix'). For further information, contact Red Pepper, 1b Waterlow Road, London N19 5NJ. Tel: +44 (0) 7281 7024. Email:    Website:

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