“Never Again” After October 7th

Scholars of the Holocaust discuss the mobilization of Jewish memory in the wake of Hamas’s attacks and Israel’s war on Gaza.

Linda Kinstler
November 29, 2023

Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan wears a yellow Star of David that reads “Never Again” while addressing members of the UN Security Council, October 30th, 2023.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP Photo

Since Hamas’s October 7th attack, amid Israel’s ensuing war on Gaza, the Holocaust has been widely invoked by politicians, journalists, and observers around the world as analogy and historical precedent. Hamas’s attack has widely been referred to as “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has compared Hamas to Nazis, and earlier this week, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich extended the metaphor to seemingly apply to all Palestinians, stating that there are “two million Nazis in the West Bank.” In the wake of the attack, Israel’s ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan donned a yellow Star of David for a session of the UN Security Council and Germany emblazoned the statement “Never Again Is Now” on the Brandenburg Gate. Not only are the actual events of the Holocaust being deployed as analogies for the current situation, but so too is the question of Holocaust memory. An Israeli government spokesman, for example, made the case that denying the October 7th massacre is a “Holocaust denial-like phenomenon,” an utterance that at once gestures to the imperiled status of Jewish memory while also engaging in its own manipulation of the Holocaust’s legacy. All of this is being wielded to produce unthinkable death and destruction in Gaza, as the death toll has climbed to at least 15,000 and 1.7 million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes.

To discuss the role of Holocaust memory in the events of the last six weeks—and how it fits into a broader tradition of states appropriating Holocaust history for their own ends—I spoke to three scholars of the legal, political, and historical contours of genocide: Omer Bartov is a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University and the author of many books interrogating the relationship between war, genocide, and antisemitism. Jelena Subotić is a professor of political science at Georgia State University, whose recent book, Yellow Star, Red Star, analyzes practices of Holocaust remembrance and the appropriation of Holocaust memory in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Raz Segal is a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Stockton University, whose work documents how the Holocaust unfolded in the Carpathian region.

This conversation was recorded on November 13th, 2023, at an event sponsored by Jewish Currents and Diaspora Alliance, an international group dedicated to fighting antisemitism and its instrumentalization. It has been edited for length and readability.

Linda Kinstler: Omer, how has Holocaust memory historically been deployed as part of Israeli national discourse and state building, and how have you seen that history informing the rhetoric in Israel today?

Omer Bartov: I would actually start before the Holocaust because antisemitism and ethnonationalism in Europe are some of the main roots of Zionism as a Jewish national movement. The early pre-state Jewish community in Palestine is a response to pogroms and violence against Jews; it was built into the DNA of Zionism.

In the wake of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of survivors became part of the human terrain in Israel, but the Holocaust itself did not become a major component of Israeli national identity right away. It began around the Eichmann trial in the early 1960s when, for the first time, the details of the Holocaust were presented to the Israeli public with the goal of teaching the youth about their national identity—how [the new Israelis] differed from those Jews who “went like sheep to the slaughter.” It was only during the 1973 War that the Holocaust started to be used politically, and it increasingly became a major rhetorical tool for the Israeli government in the 1980s. One of the best examples is from 1982, when Menachem Begin compared Yasser Arafat—then in besieged Beirut—to Hitler hiding in his bunker, which resonated very powerfully in the general Israeli psyche.

At present, Israel’s current government is using Holocaust memory to cover up for its own huge intelligence failure on October 7th, but this rhetoric is not only coming from the top. Hamas’s atrocious attack was the single largest slaughter of Jewish civilians since World War II. It’s extraordinary to see how people have made that connection without being directed by state propaganda. The events of October 7th and the displacement of 150,000 people from rocket fire has created a profound sense of insecurity in Israel, which feeds a long-term anxiety within Israeli society. At the same time, Israel is presenting itself as responding to growing antisemitism around the world. Some of this antisemitism is real, including in some of the demonstrations against Israel. This sense of looming catastrophe, in which the Holocaust is always in the background, means that Israel can do anything to destroy its enemies, and also prevents any pressure on the government to present a plan for the day after the war in Gaza. Any mention of what’s happening in Gaza—and very little of it is being shown on Israeli screens—is perceived as denial of the massacre of October 7th, and therefore as denial of Jewish victimhood and the Holocaust.

LK: Jelena, you have written about how Holocaust memory has been deployed to secure political legitimacy in Eastern Europe, documenting how the process of joining the European Union imposed Western narratives and approaches to memorialization throughout the region. Can you speak to how European states currently invoke Holocaust memory?

Jelena Subotić: I think we need to separate private and public memory. People can have their own individual memories, and orient their lives in whatever way that memory serves them. But public memory—which often deviates from the private—can be used for political purposes. My premise is that public Holocaust memory—represented in museums, official memory practices, or history books—is largely decoupled from the Holocaust itself, and instead serves the contemporary political needs of states. This form of political memory situates national biographies on a spectrum where nations see themselves as having been heroes, resisters, or victims during the Holocaust, avoiding the fact of collaboration, perpetration, or genocidal intent. Everybody was a victim, everybody was a resister, everybody was hiding their Jews all over Europe. Holocaust memory is thus used to put forward conceptions of contemporary national identity, and to create new kinds of domestic and international coalitions and partnerships. We see this in the Israeli far right’s coalitions with seemingly antisemitic governments, like in Hungary, in order to serve particular foreign policy interests.

I’m interested in how different governments have used Holocaust memory to present themselves as incapable of any wrongdoing. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, the Serbs equate themselves with the Jews because they were killed by Nazis, fascists, and Croatians during World War II, and therefore they believe they cannot be perpetrators. This is why they cannot accept responsibility for the genocide perpetrated in Bosnia, especially in Srebrenica. They use the language and imagery of the Holocaust: We were put in a concentration camp, just like the Jews, and we were tortured, just like the Jews, and we were starved just like them. This creates a particular kind of politics whereby—like Israel—every attack is perceived as existential and the only response can be violence.

Holocaust memory has also served to absolve some European countries of responsibility for their own past atrocities during the colonial period. Germany, for example, has developed a self-congratulatory national pride in how uniquely well it dealt with its criminal legacies. This has fueled almost a new form of German nationalism, a sense of superiority that manifests as a kind of memory championship. But it has not forced a reckoning with German colonialism or its problem with Islamophobia today. This approach has shut down any debate about the complexity of both the Holocaust itself and Israel, and led to a flattening view whereby criticism of Israel is taken as antisemitic by default. We now see the blunt force with which all sorts of speech and action—political, cultural, academic, artistic—has been policed in Germany.

Raz Segal: Jelena spoke about the way that Holocaust memory is manipulated by right-wing governments to serve their national story. The Holocaust is supposed to make us think about marginalized groups who face state violence. Yet it is taken by the likes of [Russian president] Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu to legitimize states and their assaults against marginalized groups. In 2020, Putin was a guest of honor at Yad Vashem, the main Holocaust museum in Israel. He used his platform to distort the history of the Holocaust by erasing the Soviet-German alliance in August 1939, and to portray Ukrainians as Nazi collaborators—a narrative he repeated when he invaded Ukraine in February 2022. There is the weaponization of the Holocaust in Israel, but there’s also a broader problem where states are using Holocaust memory to shore up their interests, which are not the same as the interest of persecuted and marginalized groups; it is the world turned upside down.

LK: Raz, you wrote a piece for Jewish Currents arguing that Israel’s bombardment of Gaza was “a textbook case of genocide,” and 800 scholars and public figures have since joined you in sounding the alarm. You have also cautioned against Israeli leaders weaponizing the Holocaust in their public remarks. Could you tell us about the kind of weaponization of Holocaust memory at work in the present?

RS: I see the weaponization of the Holocaust unfolding in three main ways. One is the portrayal of Israel as facing a genocidal assault by Hamas, which also means that Hamas—and by extension Palestinians—are Nazis. This is both false and absolutely decontextualized. Just last week, Republican representative Brian Mast argued against sending humanitarian assistance to Palestinians, cautioning not to portray Palestinians as innocent, as we wouldn’t portray Nazis as innocent in this way. The fact is that Jews during World War II were stateless, powerless people who faced one of the strongest armies and states at the time, Nazi Germany. But Israel today is a very powerful state with an advanced army that enjoys the support of all the Western powers, while Palestinians are stateless, powerless people suffering under decades of Israeli settler colonialism, military occupation, siege, and various other forms of mass violence. None of this takes away from the horrendous character of Hamas’s mass murder on October 7th. But this false and decontextualized portrayal of Palestinians as Nazis, which is very common in Israel today, is a contributing factor to the dehumanization of Palestinians.

A second example of this weaponization is in response to the shock to the international legal system as a result of Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. The international legal system after World War II emerged on the basis of the idea that the Holocaust—and by extension Jews and the self-proclaimed Jewish state—is unique and exceptional. This is not very surprising when we think about the foundational role that Jews play in the conception of the so-called Judeo-Christian world. The Nazis also thought that Jews play a foundational role, a negative one, of course—an idea which the international legal system has turned on its head. The idea that Israel could perpetrate any crime under international law, let alone genocide, became unimaginable within this framework, which means that impunity for Israel was baked into the international legal system from the very beginning. This is why Israel is not held accountable in this system, even as evidence has been mounting for decades of war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law. This is also why we’re seeing a lot of pushback against the genocide narrative predicated on weaponization of the Holocaust, even though I think that the evidence is clear and increasing by the day.

The third place we’re seeing this weaponization is among Holocaust scholars. Dozens of Holocaust scholars, including some very central figures in the field, signed a statement that completely dehumanized Palestinians and made no mention whatsoever of any form of Israeli mass violence. Palestinians appear in the statement only as “human shields”—this is so common today, where Palestinians are only humanized when they’re called human shields. This reflects the rationalization of Israeli mass violence—and the silencing and intimidation of those who dissent—by quite a few scholars of Holocaust and genocide studies, for whom Jews and Israel enjoy a special status in the field. There needs to be some kind of accountability for how we’ve been talking about Israel and Palestine, about how we’ve pushed the documented Israeli mass violence against Palestinians to the margins quite well. This represents a major crisis in the field, and business as usual will not be possible.

LK: Omer, you have registered some disagreement with Raz. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, you argued that you believe that this is not yet a genocide, but that “we know from history that it is crucial to warn of the potential for genocide before it occurs, rather than belatedly condemn it after it has taken place.”

OB: Indeed, I’m still not convinced that there is genocide happening right now. But there have been many, many statements of genocidal intent. Even since my piece came out there has been a clear effort of ethnic cleansing with a million Gazans moved from northern Gaza to southern Gaza, which is a very good indicator of a potential genocide.

Also, while I see the international legal system as a response to World War II [more broadly], rather than centering Jews and Israel, I do agree with Raz that this system is being challenged, and this can be seen by the responses to my op-ed. Though it gave some people license to make this criticism, other people, not least from Israel, have seen what I wrote as treasonous, and some have said that I should be stripped of my Israeli citizenship. This is because this argument is challenging the whole paradigm of thinking about Israel—a paradigm that has to be challenged for any change to occur.

RS: I agree with you, Omer, that there is an element of ethnic cleansing. And we know that forced displacement is not listed as one of the acts of genocide in the UN Genocide Convention. But forced displacement could be considered an act of genocide when it is part of act number three under the convention: creating conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of the group. This is exactly what we’re seeing now in Gaza, because the forced displacement is happening under conditions of total siege and carpet bombing. Deporting people to a desert—as Israeli politicians have proposed to do with the Palestinians in Gaza—has also historically been used as a weapon of genocide: It happened in the Armenian genocide, when the Armenians were deported to the Syrian and Iraqi desert. It also happened in the genocide of the Herero and Nama under German colonial rule in southwest Africa.

LK: You’re both speaking to this really difficult paradox, where the system of international law is built in order to prevent genocide from recurring. And yet we are seeing that system being invoked in the present even as it is being evacuated of all meaning, shown to be absolutely powerless to prevent genocide from occurring.

I wanted to return to the question of comparison. It’s not only this dehumanizing language comparing Hamas and the Nazis but also language calling October 7th a pogrom. Can any of you speak to how this kind of language is being wielded to alter the public perception of this war?

JS: I’m perfectly comfortable as a scholar of genocide using the term pogrom, which doesn’t relate exclusively to the Holocaust. If we argue that what’s going on today in Gaza has genocidal intent, then we can say the same for Hamas—or at least that [the group demonstrates] genocidal ideation. Still, the blunt language flattens any nuance, and makes it all sound very simple: If Hamas are Nazis, then they have to be eradicated by all means necessary. But things are more complicated. This is not Nazi Germany, and a military operation with a limitless cost is only going to make the problem worse. This language contributes to a poverty of imagination, and it strikes me that nobody [in the Israeli government] has a plan. All Netanyahu has is a revenge fantasy.

OB: Hamas is indeed a very unpleasant organization, and their original charter is in many ways genocidal. But they’re not Nazis, and talking about them in this manner has been used by people like Netanyahu as a means of clear incitement. What do you do with people like that? As Netanyahu said, you should do to them as you did to Amalek—a biblical reference that signals that you should kill their men, women, and children. The comparison also diverts attention, it draws the eye away from what Israel is doing elsewhere. It says, “They are the Nazis, and we are just protecting ourselves.”

I don’t agree with calling it a pogrom, which traditionally refers to a mob attacking a minority, often under the auspices of state authorities. Israel was created as a state for the Jews: It has its own army, police, and government which are made up of Jews, which failed to protect its own people from a terrorist attack. When you say the word pogrom, you’re alluding to deep Jewish memory, you’re placing this event within the long Jewish history of persecution. But this is not part of the Jewish history of persecution. This is part of the history of Israel, which was among the creators of Hamas. Much of what you see here is a product of Israeli policies. That’s not to condone anything that Hamas did. It was a war crime, and one might even say it was a genocidal massacre, but it’s not a pogrom and it’s not part of that long history.

RS: It’s important to remember that perpetrators of genocide always see their victims as threatening and powerful. This mechanism was used by the Nazis against the Jews, and it is now being used by Israel against the Palestinians. In this way, we understand the equation of Hamas, and therefore Palestinians, with Nazis as a genocidal mechanism.

I don’t think, as Jelena said, that what Israel is now perpetrating in Gaza has anything to do with revenge. I think this government has a plan that’s the same as all the previous governments: creating a larger Jewish state with as few Palestinians as possible, however possible. This could be through short bursts of intense violence, like the expulsions of 750,000 Palestinians and the destruction of hundreds of villages in the 1948 War and the Nakba, or through longer-term processes of violence. Israel has dropped 20,000 tons of explosives on Gaza[1] (at least one and a half times what was dropped on Hiroshima) and has used white phosphorus bombs, which set people and objects on fire. It has destroyed almost half of all the buildings in Gaza. It has killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, including over 5,000 children[2], which is more children than Russia has killed in Ukraine in almost two years. There are already starvation conditions in Gaza. And Gazans are now living on three liters of water a day per person, while the World Health Organization recommends between 50 to 100 liters a day. There are dozens of examples of proclamations of genocidal intent from people with command authority in Israel—state leaders, people in the war cabinet, senior army officers—in addition to a media environment and public sphere awash in shocking annihilatory language.

I also want to note that in thinking about preventing genocide, we need to think about urgently stopping the escalating attacks on Palestinians across all the territory that Israel controls. Since October 7th, the ethnic cleansing in the West Bank has also intensified. Fifteen communities of Palestinians—more than 1,000 people—have been displaced through Israeli army and settler violence[3], even though Hamas doesn’t control the West Bank. We are also seeing mass arrests and incitement against almost two million Palestinian citizens of Israel—a community that was held under military rule from Israel’s establishment until 1966. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has now distributed thousands of weapons and set up hundreds of new “self-defense units” inside Israel and the West Bank. When you have this clear intent to destroy, and you add it to the dynamics of violence right now, then you understand that we are seeing genocide unfold right before our eyes.

LK: It seems perhaps that the language of collective or inherited Holocaust trauma is no longer proving useful. Do we have to redefine the way we relate to this kind of Holocaust trauma as it’s being wielded for political ends? And is there an alternative model for thinking about and studying the Holocaust that could provide hope for a better future?

OB: There is another question to add to these, which is how do we step away from these cycles of violence, when the perpetrator always sees themselves as the victim, and this sense of victimhood actually produces violence? The Holocaust has given license to Israel to oppress others in the name of its own victimhood. But there is another way of approaching it, which is to recognize that there are two groups in Israel/Palestine that have carried deep traumas with them over generations. As well as forming the core of the conflict, the deep generational trauma of Israelis and Palestinians—whether from the Holocaust or the Nakba—could also serve as a basis of mutual empathy. The seven million Palestinians and seven million Jews who live in the territory of historical Palestine have no choice but to figure out how to live together, and two constitutive traumas could be a way in.


This figure has risen since this conversation took place: Israel has dropped 25,000 tons of explosives on the Gaza Strip as of November 2nd, according to the NGO Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.


This figure has risen since this conversation took place: More than 15,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip since October 7th, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.


This figure has risen since this conversation took place: Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem has calculated that 16 communities in the occupied West Bank comprising 1,079 Palestinians have been expelled since October 7th.

Linda Kinstler is a PhD candidate in rhetoric at UC Berkeley and a Jewish Currents contributing writer. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian Long Read, The New York Times Magazine, 1843 Magazine, and more. She is the author of Come to this Court and Cry.