Why Hamas Aren't Nazis — Yet Israel's War On Gaza May Be Genocide
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials have referred to Hamas militants as "the new Nazis." But as horrific as the Oct. 7 massacre was, what does it really mean to make such a comparison 80 years after the Holocaust? And how can we rightly describe what's happening in Gaza?
Updated Nov. 8, 2023 at 5:35 p.m.
TURIN — In these days of horror, we've seen dangerous equivalences, half-truths and syllogisms continue to emerge: between Israelis and Jews, between Palestinians and Hamas, between entities at "war."
The conversation makes it seem that there are two states with symmetrical power. Instead, on one side, there is a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization with both a political and a military wing; on the other, a democratic state — although it has elements in the majority that advocate for a mono-ethnic and supremacist society — equipped with a nuclear arsenal and one of the most powerful armies in the world.
And in the middle? Civilians violated, massacred, and taken hostage in the horrific massacre of Oct. 7. Civilians trapped and torn apart in Gaza under a month-long siege and bombardment.
And then we also have Israeli civilians led into war and ideological radicalization by a government that recklessly exploits that most unhealable wound of the Holocaust.
On Oct. 17, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to Hamas militants as "the new Nazis." On Oct. 24, he drew a comparison between Jewish children hiding in attics to escape terrorists and Anne Frank. On the same day, he likened the massacre on Oct. 7 to the Babij Yar massacre carried out in 1941 by the Einsatzgruppen, the SS operational units responsible for extermination. In the systematic elimination of Jews in Kyiv, they deceitfully gathered 33,771 men and women, forced them to descend into a ravine, lie down on top of the bodies of those who were already dead or dying, and then shot them.
The "Nazification" of opponents, or the "reductio ad Hitlerum," to use the expression coined in the 1950s by the German-Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss, who fled Nazi Germany in 1938, is a symbolic strategy that has been abused for decades to discredit one's adversary.
Ideological Iron Dome
But if Hamas' preaching is steeped in a profound dehumanization of Jews, then there is a tragic parallel in the words spoken on Oct. 9 by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant: "We are fighting against human animals and will act accordingly," or on Oct. 10 by General Ghassan Alian, head of the Israeli Government Activities in the Territories: "Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity or water, only destruction. You wanted hell; you will get hell."
In 2018, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington published an educational kit titled Why Holocaust Analogies Are Dangerous, in which historian Edna Friedberg wrote, referring to the situation in the United States: "Careless Holocaust analogies may demonize, demean, and intimidate their targets. But there is a cost for all of us because they distract from the real issues challenging our society, because they shut down productive, thoughtful discourse," she wrote. "At a time when our country needs dialogue more than ever, it is especially dangerous to exploit the memory of the Holocaust as a rhetorical cudgel. We owe the survivors more than that. And we owe ourselves more than that."
The Holocaust becomes a shield against any criticism of Israel's conduct.
The risk is that over time, the invocation of the Holocaust becomes — as writer Adam Shatz stated in the latest issue of the London Review of Books — "Israel's ideological Iron Dome, its shield against any criticism of its conduct."
Then, on Oct. 31, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, pinned a yellow star to his chest, accusing the Security Council of failing to pass a resolution explicitly condemning Hamas' attacks. Dani Dayan, the President of Yad Vashem, condemned the gesture because it "dishonors the victims of the Holocaust and the State of Israel. The yellow patch symbolizes the helplessness of the Jewish people, and being at the mercy of others. Today we have an independent country and a strong army. We are masters of our destiny."
There was also Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett on Oct. 12, declaring that "We must crush these Nazis." But he expressed himself differently just over a year ago, on March 22, when he discussed the comparison made by Volodymyr Zelensky who likened the Russian invasion to Adolf Hitler's Final Solution: "Personally, I believe that the Holocaust should not be compared to anything. It is a unique event in the history of nations and the world: the systematic destruction of a people in gas chambers."
Jews arriving at Auschwitz II in German-occupied Poland, May 1944. Most were selected to go to the gas chambers.
An unequal equation
The tendency to use the Holocaust as a synonym for massacre and slaughter, to transform it into an insult, an accusation, a paradigm that claims to illuminate conflicts, acts of terrorism, and wars, weakens the awareness of the categorical, systematic, and industrial genocide that forever marked the precipice of European culture.
While this shortcut may come naturally to Israel, where, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there are approximately 165,000 Holocaust survivors, 5,000 of whom are now evacuated near Gaza, it is much harder to comprehend its use in other countries such as here in Italy. For several days, various newspapers have been evoking the Einsatzgruppen, Kristallnacht, and the Nazi-fascist roundup of the Rome Ghetto to justify the need for the destruction of Gaza as a response.
In a country that actively collaborated with Nazism without ever facing its own responsibilities, and where streets are named after Giorgio Almirante, editor of the magazine La Difesa della Razza ("Defense of The Race"), there is an incitement to conflict, and ridicule of those who call for peace talks.
The demand for a proportionate response or ceasefire cannot be dismissed as anti-Semitic.
The equation that anyone who criticizes the indiscriminate actions of the Israeli Defense Forces is anti-Semitic cannot stand.
While anti-Semitism, like Holocaust denial, is a hydra with heads always ready to re-emerge — as demonstrated by the shameful incidents of Stars of David appearing on Parisian walls and the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Vienna —, it is equally true that the demand for a proportionate response or ceasefire cannot be dismissed as anti-Semitic.
How can we not be free to criticize a government, using the rhetoric of good versus evil, that has sealed off every passage, placed over two million citizens under siege, cut off electricity, water, food, and medicine supplies. In just the first six days of aerial attacks, the IDF dropped more than 6,000 bombs.
The toll on the 30th day since the Hamas massacre is immense: more than 10,000 Palestinians dead, 2,100 missing, 23,000 wounded, 1.4 million internally displaced persons fleeing under bombardment, seeking nonexistent shelters, forced to live among filth, drink contaminated water, and deprived of the opportunity to find the bodies of their loved ones under the rubble.
According to UNICEF, 400 children are killed or injured every day in indiscriminate attacks that made no distinction between civilian and military targets.
From the ashes
On Oct. 15, 800 scholars of international law and conflicts and genocide signed an open letter to "sound the alarm about the possibility of the crime of genocide being perpetrated by Israeli forces against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. We do not do so lightly, recognizing the weight of this crime, but the gravity of the current situation demands it."
On Nov. 2, a group of 720 academics, writers, artists, and Jewish activists, including historian Omer Bartov, one of the most preeminent Holocaust scholars, drafted an appeal in which they state: "In our grief, we are horrified to see the fight against anti-Semitism weaponized as a pretext for war crimes with stated genocidal intent. Anti-semitism is an excruciatingly painful part of our community’s past and present. Our families have escaped wars, harassment, pogroms, and concentration camps. We have studied the long histories of persecution and violence against Jews, and we take seriously the ongoing anti-Semitism that jeopardizes the safety of Jews around the world. We believe the rights of Jews and Palestinians go hand-in-hand. The safety of each people depends on the other’s."
The Holocaust constituted an ethical and political abyss that calls us all to account, but "the tragedy of Auschwitz did not happen in an empty space but within the limits of Western culture and civilization, and this civilization is a survivor," as was once stated by Hungarian writer Imre Kertész, who was interned at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
It is a culture and civilization that we have tried to rebuild from the ashes of World War II, equipping ourselves with a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international humanitarian law, and a legal framework for agencies and institutions such as the United Nations, which, despite their criticism and fragility, represent what separates us from the arbitrariness of nationalism and the desire for revenge or power of states, in protection of the individual in times of peace and war. It is to them that we must turn in the desire to contain fractures, rather than prod them to explode.
Where did the word genocide come from?
The first time the word “genocide” was used it was in the book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, written by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944. Lemkin utilized the term not only in the context of the then ongoing murder of the Jewish people by Nazi Germany, but also of previous historical instances of targeted attacks. The word itself is constructed from the Greek prefix genos (race or tribe) and the Latin suffix cide (kill). Then, in 1948 the United Nations held what is known as the Genocide Convention, where the crime was defined and codified. The UN defines it as follows: genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.
How many Holocaust survivors are living in Israel?
The latest study published in April by the Holocaust Survivors' Rights Authority accounted for 147,199 Holocaust survivors living in Israel. The average age of the survivors was 85.5, and about 60% of them are women. Israel saw a spike of Holocaust survivors moving into the country following the COVID pandemic and the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine.
Who was Leo Strauss?
Leo Strauss was a German-American scholar who specialized in classical political philosophy. He was born to Jewish parents in 1899, in Hesse-Nassau, then a part of the kingdom of Prussia, and was raised as an Orthodox Jew. Strauss served as a soldier for Germany in World War I, and afterwards began his career in academia. He left Berlin for Paris in 1932 due to a fellowship opportunity, and then moved from England to the U.S. when the Nazis rose to power. For Strauss, philosophy and politics are intrinsically tied to one another, a relationship which begins from the trial and death of Socrates. Strauss spent much of his career as a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and his legacy as a philosopher persists long after his death in 1973.
- The Left's Apology For Hamas Reveals The Depth Of Its Anti-Semitism ›
- How The Russia-Hamas Alliance Could Wind Up Undermining Both ›
- Did Russia Have A Hand In The Hamas Attack? ›
- Nazi History, Muslim Immigrants, Social Media: Talking Gaza In Germany Is A Hot Mess - Worldcrunch ›