Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): I have witnessed no shortage of ironies while covering Germany’s addled relationship to Israel and antisemitism over the years, but the outcry over Masha Gessen’s New Yorker essay on the country’s remembrance culture, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust,” has been particularly absurd. Gessen, the descendent of Holocaust survivors (and a member of Jewish Currents’s board of directors), had been slated to receive the Hannah Arendt Prize—supposedly awarded to thinkers who are “not afraid to enter the public realm by presenting their opinion in controversial political discussions”—but was told that the award ceremony would be suspended after they compared the Gaza Strip to Jewish ghettos under Nazi rule.
Gessen’s essay begins by describing Germany’s dizzying matrix of Holocaust memorials and museums. These well-meaning efforts, they write, have “solidified into dogma” that has prescribed new limits on free speech: A 2019 parliamentary resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has created “a McCarthyist environment” in the country’s thriving culture sector while also serving as a “ticket to the mainstream” for the measure’s extremist sponsor, the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD).
As Gessen journeys into eastern Europe, Holocaust memory proves no more immune to realpolitik than anything else. For post-Soviet states, the road to the European Union was paved by Holocaust memorialization efforts. Both Poland and Ukraine have since made revisionist claims about their complicity in Nazi crimes, and Israel has indulged them for its own ends. For example, in 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood shoulder to shoulder with his Polish counterpart to push the false historical narratives of the Polish right in exchange for political insulation from the European Union’s criticism of Israel’s occupation. And today, Israel is leveraging the trauma of the Holocaust to secure buy-in for its assault on the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu has called Hamas’s attack on the Nova musical festival on October 7th a “Holocaust by bullets,” in reference to the massacre at Babyn Yar. Comparisons, then, don’t seem to be the problem. It’s a question of which comparisons are made, and by whom.
Indeed, Gessen’s essay illustrates the very necessity of comparison to political analysis by offering illuminating transhistorical readings of its own; Hannah Arendt, Gessen writes, once compared Israel’s Herut party—the dominant Revisionist Zionist predecessor to Likud—to the Nazis. Certainly, Gessen points out, this would have constituted a violation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism, which forbids “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” In a work that now reads like a preemptive defense against their German critics, Gessen, like Arendt, transgresses the ultimate prohibition of Holocaust memory as it has been rendered in Germany and beyond: to draw on the universal lessons from the history Jewish suffering to criticize Israel.
Daniel May (publisher): Reading Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s short 1923 essay, “The Iron Wall” for the first time in graduate school felt like uncovering a secret document. His overt racism against Arabs—describing them as “savages” who are “culturally five hundreds years behind us”—felt too direct and dangerous to be public. Yet there was also something oddly refreshing about the text. In his unwillingness to temper the violence of his worldview to accommodate the sensibilities of the reader, Jabotinsky cuts through many of the pieties that shape our contemporary Jewish conversation on Israel/Palestine.
For Jabotinsky, Zionism is obviously a colonial project which—like its historical precursors—will be met with resistance. The native population, he writes, have “always stubbornly resisted the colonists, irrespective of whether they were civilized or savage.” Or, take the notion that Palestinians ought to be grateful for the material benefits or political protections that Israel provides its citizens. No people, Jabotinsky notes, will “give up their fatherland for a good railway system.”
The endpoint of Jabotinsky’s logic is that there is no possibility that the Palestinian Arabs will accept Zionist colonization, nor should they. Therefore, he concludes, “Zionist colonization must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population.” And if it is the latter, the only way that it can proceed is “behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.” It is only through sufficient violence that Palestinian Arabs will recognize that Zionism is not going anywhere, and only when they accept it can any kind of agreement be reached.
Jabotinsky resigned from the Zionist movement in 1935 to protest its leadership’s refusal to declare its aim as the construction of a Jewish state, yet it is difficult to overstate how much his brand of revisionism has come to dominate contemporary Zionist thought. In the Jewish world, the idea that the Palestinians will not accept a Jewish state and that resistance can only be deterred through violence has come to be perceived as common sense. The devastation unleashed by Israel in this war is the manifestation of this ideology when pushed to its logical destination.
Jabotinsky’s logic also lurks behind the question that greets any criticism of Israel’s war: what else can you do with those that reject a Jewish state but defeat them through force? But Jabotinsky offers two alternatives to the bloodshed. First, he argues that eventually the Arabs will accept a Jewish state, and when they do Jews must embrace the moment. His point underscores the immense significance of the PLO’s recognition of Israel in 1988 and the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, both of which undermine the constant refrain among Israel’s apologists that there is “no partner.” Second, Jabotinsky defines colonization in a very specific way, and only so defined does he argue that it will necessarily provoke resistance. “There is only one thing the Zionists want,” he writes, “and it is that one thing that the Arabs do not want.” That thing is a Jewish majority that would enable a Jewish government, in which “the future of the Arab minority would depend on the goodwill of the Jews.”
Despite the dark promise of the text, 100 years after his writing, Jabotinsky points to what remains the only way out of the violence he both commends and predicts: a political framework that ensures no group is able to dominate another.
Mari Cohen (associate editor): Seven years ago, while on a road trip through Pittsburgh, I ate at Conflict Kitchen, a public art project and eatery devoted to serving food from countries and communities in conflict with the US. After devouring my Iranian food, I found out that the restaurant had prompted a firestorm two years earlier when it had made Palestine its theme. At the time, B’nai Brith International wrote to the Heinz Endowments and asked them to suspend grant funding for Conflict Kitchen because, they claimed, its food wrappers featuring interviews with Palestinians were “anti-Israel propaganda.” In its press release, B’nai Brith put the word “Palestine” in quotes, as if to accuse Conflict Kitchen of centering a culture that didn’t even exist. The Heinz Endowments president wrote back to B’nai Brith and assuaged them, arguing that the Palestine iteration of Conflict Kitchen was “terribly at odds with the mission of promoting understanding.” As a college student at the time, I was not yet sure how to channel my ever-growing alienation from Zionist politics, but I recall being appalled by a response that suggested that Palestinians had no right to share their food, culture or simply exist as Palestinians in American public space.
It’s this erasure that the writer Karim Kattan takes up in a searing October 31st Baffler piece. Kattan describes being instructed by the organizer of a scheduled keynote address in Austria not to speak directly about Palestine, just one incident in a wave of repression in the US and Europe in the wake of October 7th. After Kattan pushed back, the organizer “didn’t exactly reject my humanity. It was simply a very inconvenient fact for her that I was a human; she had to contend with it and was very uncomfortable.” In beseeching him to “find a positive solution” without reserving his right to directly mention Palestine, she seemed to wish “very politely, that I could, very politely, cease to exist.” Kattan argues that a similar sentiment underlies certain handwringing over the devastation of Gaza that fails to meaningfully oppose it: “If only you could vanish, or—easier yet—if only you had never existed at all, and if only you could spare us the horror, the displacements, the bombings, the killings, the starving of a people that you are forcing us to unleash upon you.” Kattan’s prose is a powerful rebuke to those who have suggested that, for the sake of a more comfortable Zionist narrative, Palestinians should “disinvite [themselves] from the world.”