Holocaust Survivors Don't Belong in the Israeli-Palestinian Debate

We must push back against the stifling overuse of Holocaust analogies which polarize and diminish real debate on the conflict.

Arlene Stein
Arlene Stein
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A photo taken August 28, 2014, of Palestinian residents inspecting the remains of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City two days earlier.
A photo taken August 28, 2014, of Palestinian residents inspecting the remains of a building that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City two days earlier.Credit: AFP
Arlene Stein
Arlene Stein

In the pitched battle for the hearts and minds of American Jewish public opinion on Israel, Holocaust survivors and their descendants are playing prominent roles.

Last month, Elie Wiesel, in an ad sponsored by Shmuley Boteach’s Values Network, accused Hamas of using children as human shields in recent fighting. “In my own lifetime,” proclaimed Wiesel, “I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire. And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields, in both cases, by worshippers of death cults indistinguishable from that of the Molochites.”

The ad, which appeared in several major American newspapers, including the New York Times, likened the Israel-Palestinian crisis to a clash of civilizations between “those who celebrate life and those who champion death,” pinning civilian deaths on the deliberate actions of Hamas.

Two weeks later, a group of 327 Holocaust survivors and their descendants unequivocally condemned the “massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the ongoing occupation” and took the United States to task for funding recent attacks. In a half-page ad in the Times, they accused Wiesel of “abusing our history,” likening Israeli aggression to genocide.

“We are disgusted and outraged by Elie Wiesel’s abuse of our history in these pages to justify the unjustifiable,” they declared. “Nothing can justify bombing UN shelters, homes, hospitals and universities. Nothing can justify depriving people of electricity and water.” Calling for “the full economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel,” they proclaimed: “’Never again’ must mean NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE!”

That Holocaust survivors would be enlisted in the battle for American public opinion about Israel should come as little surprise. For groups vying for moral authority—the Christian right, gays and lesbians, and even captains of industry (such as when private equity titan Stephen A. Schwartzman said that asking financiers to pay taxes at the same rate as those who work for a living is comparable to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or venture capitalist Thomas Perkins comparing the vilification of the rich to that of the Jews in the Second World War), associating oneself with the Holocaust has become a potent way to draw attention to an issue, claim moral authority, and elicit sympathy for one’s side of a conflict.

In a world of shades of gray, where it is often difficult for many of us to figure out where to stand, the genocide of European Jewry has come to symbolize absolute evil. Its survivors, in turn, have become revered figures, personifying heroism and moral authority.

Conservative critic Alvin Rosenfeld recently took left-leaning Holocaust survivors and their children to task for criticizing Israel in the paid Times ad. Rosenfeld objected to their political stance, charging that being a survivor “carries no special entitlement to superior ethical insight or elevated political awareness.” They are guilty of doing precisely what they falsely accuse Elie Wiesel of doing,” he argued. “Their abuse of Jewish suffering for contemporary political ends comes especially to the fore whenever they proudly parade forth their pedigrees as survivors to defame Israel.”

He was partly right. Survivors are rarely heroic paragons of moral virtue; they’re just ordinary people who through luck, fortune, or fortitude, managed to endure, despite the odds. I know because my father, who settled here in the early 1950s, after losing his home, his family, and nearly his life, was one of them.

But Rosenfeld is happy to listen to survivors who agree with his stance on Israel, like Elie Wiesel. When they disagree with it, like the signatories to the letter from the anti-Zionist survivors and their families, they are guilty of “moral emptiness.”

The problem is not that Holocaust survivors are using their status to make moral arguments about Israel’s recent actions in Gaza. The real problem is that quick and easy Holocaust analogies are easily used to shut down reasonable discussion.

On the right, those who use Holocaust analogies tar critics of Israel, even thoughtful ones, with the brush of anti-Semitism, labeling them as self-hating Jews—and even charging them with inciting another Holocaust. Those on the left, on the other hand, are too quick to liken Netanyahu to Hitler, and call his policies genocidal.

Instead of encouraging debate, such talk discourages it. One can’t debate with Hitler, nor even, at times, with a Holocaust survivor.

Rather than enlist Holocaust survivors as symbols in an already polarized and all-too bloody conflict, we should honor them as the last links to a vibrant prewar Jewish world – a world that was once filled with the cacophonous sounds of debate about the future of the Jewish people.

Sadly, that tradition of debate and dissent hardly exists today, if the current state of organized Jewry is any indication in the U.S. Gone are the days when spirited discussions of Talmud and politics spilled out from synagogues onto the streets. Religious institutions, fearful of alienating their congregants, now shy away from controversy.

That’s why at High Holiday services this week in Jewish communities across the United States, talk of the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict will barely be uttered- other than simplistic injunctions to congregants to stand strong in support of Israel. Like the conversations on Facebook, or sponsored ads in our national newspapers, they will offer a stark alternative: Are you with us or against us?

Though memories of the Shoah will always be in our hearts, they’re not a particularly useful guide for resolving the complex political conflicts that confront us as a people.

Arlene Stein is a professor of sociology of Rutgers University and the author of four books about American culture. Her latest book, Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness, has just been published by Oxford University Press.



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