How Israel-Nazi comparisons are false and diminish the Holocaustů.
by Irwin Cotler

Published: 15 June 2010
Briefing Number 259

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Summary:  This Briefing reproduces an important article by lawyer and politician Irwin Cotler, who was formerly Canada’s Minister of Justice.  Today  Cotler is a leading international voice campaigning against Holocaust denial, and calling for the perpetrators of war crimes around the world to be brought to justice. 

An increasing number of people imply that Israel’s actions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can somehow be compared to those of the Nazis during the Second World War.  Cotler calmly and clearly explains why this is utterly false and also how it diminishes remembrance of the Holocaust. 

Cotler’s article first appeared in the Montreal Gazette on 31 January 2009.  We have added section headings to make the text as user-friendly as possible, as well as adding links to some related Beyond Images Briefings.   

Irwin Cotler writes….

Headline: Diminishing The Holocaust - if every moral outrage is deemed to be the Holocaust, then nothing is, and the Holocaust becomes nothing as well

Today marks the end of United Nations International Holocaust remembrance week – a time to reflect on the significance of the tragedies and terrors of the Holocaust.

The enduring lesson of the Holocaust and the genocides that followed is that they occurred not simply because of the machinery of death, but because of state-sanctioned incitement to hate.  The genocide of European Jewry succeeded not only because of the culture of hate and industry of death, but because of crimes of indifference and conspiracies of silence – another lesson of the Holocaust.

There’s a third lesson – one that emerges not so much from the Holocuast itself as from its aftermath.  This lesson is that remembrance requires active effort and reflection.  For the relativizing pressure of contemporary events are great, and the lessons of the Holocaust risk losing their value if the tragedy of the Holocaust is invoked to fit every case of moral outrage.

In short: if everything is another Holocaust, nothing is – and the Holocaust itself becomes nothing as well.

The inflammatory comparisons are being made with the Holocaust, to attack Israel

No recent event makes this more clear than the inflammatory misuse of Holocaust comparisons to describe the conflict in Gaza, in a dual demonising indictment.  On the one hand, Jews are blamed for perpetrating a Holocaust on  the Palestinians, as in the appalling statement of Norwegian diplomat Trine Lilleng that “the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors from World War II are doing to the Palestinians exactly what was done to them by Nazi Germany”; and, on the other hand, crowds are incited to another Holocaust against the Jews, as in the chants of the protesters who scream “Hamas! Hamas! Jews to the gas.”

One may critique Israel’s response to Hamas missile and rocket attacks – or argue about the proportionality of that response – but it is outrageous to argue that the most militarily sophisticated state in the Middle East harbours genocidal ambitions against the Palestinians as Hamas avowedly has regarding Israel and the Jews (see Beyond Images Briefing 186 – ‘We want all of Palestine). 

It is almost embarrassing to have to point out that this accusation is utterly irreconcilable with the fact that Israel vacated Gaza in 2005, forcibly moving out Jewish settlers while leaving behind greenhouses for the Palestinian population.  Or that the Palestinians in the West Bank fully escaped Israeli “attack” during the conflict, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Hamas for provoking the Israeli response ) (see Beyond Images Briefing 228 – Israel strikes Hamas in Gaza).

Indeed, the thought of the Nazis in the Second World War contacting Jews home-by-home to warn them before launching attacks nearby or stopping hostilities regularly to allow humanitarian aid to pass through, as Israel did, is inconceivable.

Israel is entitled to fairness and equality before the law
I strongly agree that Israel – like every other state in the world – should be held responsible for any violations of human rights and humanitarian law, and deserves no immunity when it comes to defending its human rights record.  But it does deserve fairness and equality before the law, and before the international community.

Consider the simultaneous humanitarian crises in the world that were largely ignored during the war in Gaza.  Darfur continued to be beset by genocide.  Mass rape was being used as a weapon of war in the Congo, in an unending civil conflict that has already claimed the lives of millions.  In Zimbabwe, a disastrous cholera epidemic was afflicting tens of thousands.  Anarchy reigned in Somalia; systemic repression endured in North Korea, and political prisoners were being executed in Iran.

Meanwhile, Israel unilaterally halted its fighting in the middle of the day to allow humanitarian supplies to flow to Palestinians, and it warned civilians – by dropping leaflets and by phone [Cotler is referring to mobile phone messages, and also Israel interrupting Palestinian radio broadcasts to announce warnings in advance – Beyond Images] – when attacks in their vicinity were coming.

Israel is defending itself against a multi-faceted adversary, composed of a consortium of terrorist groups funded, trained, supported and instigated by a state sponsor – Iran – preaching genocide (see Beyond Images Briefing 229 – What do Hamas and Hizbollah mean by ‘resistance to Israel’?)   I would not unconditionally defend its actions, just as I respond critically when the United States or Canada – in its treatment of Maher Arar and abandonment of Omar Khadr – making regretful errors in the first against terror.  So I offer no argument that Israel has an exemplary record in its struggle against terrorism.  But this is hardly the point.

The point is that whetever one’s perspective on the Gaza conflict, the comparison between Israel’s actions agasint Hamas – a terrorist group sworn to destroy Israel – and the Nazi Holocaust is as false as it is obscene.  I say this not as a proponent of Israel, but as a voice of Holocaust remembrance.

Drawing false parallels with the Holocaust is an affront to the memory of the victims of the Nazis

Drawing false parallels between the Gaza conflict and Nazi Germany is an   affront not only to the living Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren, but also to the 6 million deceased.   These men, women and children, innocents all – died not in any “war” or “conflict”; they perished in a deliberate eliminationist horror in which, as Elie Wiesel put it, “not all victims were Jews but all Jews were victims”.    

They were victims of a carefully orchestrated infrastructure of death created with the sole purpose of annihilating a people.  As the world stood by and refused even refuge to fleeing Jews, Nazi officials met 70 years ago to plan how the Nazi military machine, combined with scientific acumen, could be mobilised to “exterminate” the Jewish population most efficiently and effectively.  The root cause of the Nazi aggression was racist hate; its chief facilitator was international acquiescence.

We are obscuring the lessons of the Holocaust, with false parallels

When the Holocaust is misconstrued and trivialised, and its name is invoked in the face of all kinds of suffering, its lessons become obscured, its teachings become ambiguous, and its invocation becomes political.  Indeed, the political acquiescence, if not the intent, of this scurrilous indictment is clear: if Israel is a Nazi state it has no right to exist – in fact there is an obligation to dismantle this Nazi state and delegitimise its supporters.

This is why Lilleng’s analogy chastising the Jews and the calls from protesters to murder the Jews are equally offensive to the paradigm of Holocaust remembrance.  The latter overtly displays the genocidal hatred of the Nazis, while the former implicitly rationalises this response.

If we cannot unite and deplore such distortion, then we have forgotten the Holocaust indeed.

Related Beyond Images Briefings

Beyond Images Briefing 64 – ‘The Demonisation of Israel’