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"Never Again" After October 7th

On November 13th, Jewish Currents and Diaspora Alliance—an international group dedicated to fighting antisemitism and its instrumentalization—hosted an online event titled “Hijacking Memory: The Holocaust and the Siege of Gaza.” The event, which featured Holocaust scholars Omer Bartov, Raz Segal, and Jelena Subotić and was moderated by Jewish Currents contributing writer Linda Kinstler, explored the dangers of comparing October 7th to the Holocaust and asked what such a parallel obscures about our understanding of the current crisis in Israel/Palestine. Today, we are sharing an edited transcript, published on our website; an excerpt is included below.

“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

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 crossed 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 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.