US and World Politics

Shame on Israel for Exploiting the Holocaust to Justify Genocide

By Sig Giordano

If my grandparents were alive today, this October would have marked the 80th anniversary of their meeting. In 1943, my grandparents, Isidor and Marianne, met in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in what was Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. I was quite close to my grandfather, Isi, who outlived my grandmother. Among some of his things, he entrusted me with a yellow cloth “Jewish” star he was made to wear in the camp, with the word “Jude” on it.

At a United Nations (UN) meeting, on October 31, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s UN Ambassador, put on a Jewish star reminiscent of my grandfather’s. Addressing the UN Security Council, he said the reason he wore the star was to denounce their silence regarding the October 7 attack on Israel. Erdan compared this silence to the silence that allowed for the Holocaust to happen. In response to Erdan, Dani Dayan, the director of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum, quickly called out this misuse of the star, arguing that Erdan was “disgrac[ing] the victims of the Holocaust as well as the state of Israel.”

Dayan was absolutely right to call attention to how offensive it was for Erdan to don the yellow star. Dayan’s reasons, however, are entirely wrong. To make his point, Dayan argued that the yellow star symbolizes the weakness of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, continuing a disturbing and false historical narrative.

Zionists have long sought to paint Holocaust victims as weak to make the case for the founding and then maintenance of the state of Israel. These moves began even before the Holocaust when some Zionists aligned themselves with the eugenic racial science of the day, arguing that Jews must purify their own race creating their own strong breed. Arthur Ruppin, a leading social scientist and head of the World Zionist Organization’s Palestine office in the early 20th century, promoted the settlement of Palestine as the answer to the dangerous results of “racial-mixing” for European Jews. He was not alone, as many Jewish intellectuals argued that forming the Zionist state would allow Jews to “regenerate their own bodies” which were degenerated by the conditions of both assimilation and oppression in Western and Eastern Europe, respectively.

Once Israel was founded, Holocaust victims were regularly treated as weak and as examples of the opposite of what the Zionist state represented, leading to poor treatment for those survivors who became Israeli citizens. As Dayan, himself reiterated, the Holocaust represents a cautionary tale about the weakness of Jews in the diaspora to be juxtaposed with the strength of Jews in the State of Israel.

Despite their disagreement, Israeli leaders like Erdan and Dayan regularly make use of the Holocaust to defend state violence against Palestinians. Unlike Erdan and Dayan, learning about the genocide against my ancestors has allowed me to understand that what is happening today in Palestine is genocide. To know a genocide is happening is painful in and of itself. To know a genocide is being carried out supposedly in one’s name (as a Jewish person) is extra painful. But, to know a genocide is being justified through an appropriation of my family’s suffering, is infuriating. I am furious. How dare the state of Israel insult my family’s history.

The horrors that my family endured are unimaginable to most. My grandmother and grandfather, teenagers when they met at the camp, were the only surviving members of their families. My grandfather was part of a resistance in the camp, hiding people who were on lists to be transported to Auschwitz. My grandfather literally saved my grandmother’s life. This is not a story of weakness. However, it is a story from which I have learned many lessons about the conditions that allow for genocide.

I remember being eight or nine years old, sitting at the kitchen table for breakfast while my mother cooked. The radio was on as it was every morning listening to 1010 WINS news, “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.” In the headlines, a resistance group claimed responsibility for a bombing somewhere outside of the U.S. I asked my mom, “What is a resistance group?” She explained the idea of resistance by talking about the Holocaust and her father’s struggle to fight back. While not every person claiming to resist is automatically righteous, I realized when I was older that how one views resistance in any given situation is based on their vantage point. That may seem obvious, but in Western media, politics, and educational contexts, we regularly see an association made between resistance groups and terrorism which creates a taken-for-granted right and wrong side.

In the days after September 11, 2001, as a U.S. citizen living in the United States, I was reminded when I challenged the drive to invade Afghanistan, that I was either with “us” or “against us.” To me, the forced nationalism reminded me of the studies I had taken up during college about the Holocaust. The creation of the “Us vs. Them” mentality to protect Germany was a key part of bringing on board large segments of non-Jewish Germans to the fight against Jewish people.

Resistance takes place against those in a place of power. Also, oppression, by definition, is about being on the losing side of a power dynamic. Then, how is it that, Israel, a country with one of the most powerful militaries in the world, supported by the most powerful military and economic power in the world, the United States, has tried to paint itself as champion of an oppressed people who must fight against Palestinian resistance movements?

Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), published an opinion piece in Time magazine after the October 7 attack, arguing that there is no way to understand Hamas’ attack except as “hate” and “toxic intolerance in its purest form.” Instead of exceptionalizing Jewish experience so that the Holocaust becomes one example in thousands of years of Jewish hatred, what would it look like to pay attention to the real lessons we can learn from the horrors of the Holocaust? The lesson we need is not that Jewish people have always been and always will be hated. The lesson of the Holocaust is that those with economic and political power used nationalism and the idea of so-called inferior types of people being a threat to the nation-state to justify genocide. Many Jewish and non-Jewish people resisted as much as they could. The problem was not a weak resistance, the problem was the strength of nationalist, eugenic narratives.

The good news is that millions of Jewish people and others are undertaking critical study of the situation and pushing against the messages being brought to us by the most powerful Israeli and U.S. leaders. We are standing in solidarity with Palestinians who are fighting for their right to existence and self-determination. We see changes in public opinion polls, and the number of Jewish-led and supported actions against the current genocide is greater than ever before. Many are speaking out and saying loudly, Never Again means Never Again for Anyone.

Mondoweiss, December 18, 2023