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After the atrocities of 7 October and amid the devastation in Gaza, remembering the Holocaust rightly is a moral obligation

Jan 29, 2024 | Ran Porat

The entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp (image: Shutterstock)
The entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp (image: Shutterstock)

ABC Religion & Ethics – 26 January 2024

 

International Holocaust Remembrance Day was established by the United Nations in 2005. Held on 27 January, it is meant to commemorate those murdered — Jewish and other minorities — by Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

The Holocaust — Shoah in Hebrew — looms large in my life, as it does for most Jews. The history of the Holocaust is taught in Israeli schools all year round, and it is marked on a special Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day (Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah) once a year. Family members from my grandparents’ generation perished in Nazi concentration and death camps, others survived and lived to tell their story. The bravery of one of my relatives, Moshe Bahir, was even recounted in the 1987 film Escape From Sobibor.

Growing up in Israel, I was taught from an early age the central lessons of the Shoah: that Jews can only be truly safe and free within a sovereign State of Israel; that the genocide experienced by the Jewish people presents a warning to people everywhere not to be complacent concerning the murderous intentions of evil regimes; that recognition of our common humanity and protection of human rights are among our highest responsibilities.

From the Holocaust to the events of 7 October

The lessons we learned from the Holocaust have acquired a new relevance in the aftermath of the massacre of almost 1,200 Israeli men, women, and children by Hamas terrorists on 7 October 2023, and during the war in Gaza that ensued — a war which has already resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Who could miss the thread connecting the Nazi death camps with the killing fields of the music festival near Kibbutz Re’im and of those other 22 Israeli towns and kibbutzim near Gaza?

The frenzy of mass murdertorturerape and kidnapping committed by Hamas on that black Saturday has been described as “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust”. As such, it struck at the very foundation of the State of Israel — the conviction that Jews must exercise self-determination and have a strong army to ensure they can defend themselves against threats determined to exterminate them. Hamas, and their Nazi-inspired backers in the Middle East, represent precisely such a threat.

In the wake of 7 October, we have also witnessed the worrying resurgence of denial. In much the same way that many wish to deny the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust, so too the minimisation or outright denial of the atrocities committed on 7 October has grown popular among anti-Israel ranks. Most of the media in the Arab world ignore the brutal details of that attack, fail to mention Hamas’s willingness to engage in infanticide, rape and torture of Israeli civilians, and focus instead on the suffering of the Palestinians as a result of Israel’s ongoing offensive in Gaza.

Tragically, the Palestinian Authority — the entity with which Israel is expected to negotiate a future two-state solution — has spread conspiracy theories that the IDF were responsible for the murder of Israeli citizens on 7 October, and promoted misinformation about the war in Gaza.

Distorting the significance of the Holocaust

Adding to this injury is the insult of the ongoing comparisons made between Nazi Germany and the State of Israel. The unparalleled and unprecedented nature of the Holocaust — which, let’s remember, was an ideologically driven, highly industrialised, relentlessly genocidal campaign aimed at the total extermination of Jews qua Jews — is in this way warped and rejected by critics of Israel. When what the IDF is doing in Gaza is said to amount to “genocide” — which is the charge now being considered by the International Court of Justice — or when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is depicted as a kind of Hitler, Jews are effectively declared “guilty of precisely what was done to them”.

This is in no way to minimise the tragedy of the 25,000 who have died and 60,000 who have been injured in Gaza since the war began (according to figures provided by the Hamas-run health ministry). The deaths of so many Palestinians, young and old, men and women, entire families, is both horrible and heartbreaking. Our shared values tell us that the safety, the well-being, the lives and livelihood of residents of Gaza is as sacred as that of Israelis. To maintain hope for future reconciliation between both sides of this conflict, it is imperative that the quality of life and freedoms of Palestinian civilians be secured and preserved once the current war is finished. As citizens of a democracy, Israelis will need to engage in some collective soul-searching at that time. I have no doubt that the number of Palestinians who paid the ultimate price in this war will be part of this frank post-war discussion.

Yet, morally and legally, it must also be frankly acknowledged that Hamas bears an enormous share of the responsibility for this catastrophe — and not just because of the scale and brutality of the terror it unleashed on Israeli civilians on 7 October. Hamas officials have brazenly stated how little they care about the welfare of the people of Gaza. They have embedded their military infrastructure within the civilian population, operating a vast tunnel network with entry points in hospitalsschools and apartment buildings. Its fighters deliberately shoot rockets at Israelis from heavily populated areas. By launching their heinous attack on Israeli civilians, their intention was to draw the State of Israel into what the political philosopher Michael Walzer has called an “asymmetry trap”:

Deliberately putting the entire civilian population in harm’s way is a military and political strategy. It is designed to make it impossible for the enemy to fight without killing civilians. This has been Hamas’s strategy in all its wars with Israel; it embeds its fighters in the residential neighborhoods of Gaza’s cities and in the institutions that serve civilians. It stores rockets in mosques and schools, puts its communication and control centers in or under hospitals, and fires rockets from schoolyards and hospital parking lots. This is macro-immorality. Every dead civilian is a political asset for Hamas, and this probably accounts for its failure to build civilian shelters (in contrast to the tunnels that protect only fighters). As the number of dead and injured civilians mounts, Israel is held responsible for the killing … [T]he toll of death and injury is horrifying, and the normal human response to such suffering is a cry for it all to end: stop the fighting! — which is, again, the response Hamas’s strategy is meant to produce.

I would not suggest that the State of Israel bears no responsibility for its response to what transpired on 7 October, nor would I blame anyone who cried, from the depths of their soul, for an end to the death and destruction in Gaza. But to call what is taking place in Gaza “genocide” and to place Israelis in the same league as Nazis is, to my mind, a distortion of history.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” These words of the philosopher George Santayana have been on my mind as we approach International Holocaust Remembrance Day this year. But I fear that those who distort the memory of the Shoah in light of the conflict in Gaza may be doing something even worse — condemning humanity to spiral towards ever more hatred, instead of reaching for healing.

With the passing of ever more Holocaust survivors, it is imperative that Australian children are taught about the Holocaust in school, so they will understand its true uniqueness and import, and the lessons it can still teach us all.

Ran Porat is a Lecturer on Israel and Middle Eastern Affairs at Monash University and an affiliate research associate at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation. He is also a research associate at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) and a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Herzliya.

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