The Shoah after Gaza

By Pankaj Mishra

In​ 1977, a year before he killed himself, the Austrian writer Jean Améry came across press reports of systematic torture against Arab prisoners in Israeli prisons. Arrested in Belgium in 1943 while distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets, Améry himself had been brutally tortured by the Gestapo, and then deported to Auschwitz. He managed to survive, but could never look at his torments as things of the past. He insisted that those who are tortured remain tortured, and that their trauma is irrevocable. Like many survivors of Nazi death camps, Améry came to feel an ‘existential connection’ to Israel in the 1960s. He obsessively attacked left-wing critics of the Jewish state as ‘thoughtless and unscrupulous’, and may have been one of the first to make the claim, habitually amplified now by Israel’s leaders and supporters, that virulent antisemites disguise themselves as virtuous anti-imperialists and anti-Zionists. Yet the ‘admittedly sketchy’ reports of torture in Israeli prisons prompted Améry to consider the limits of his solidarity with the Jewish state. In one of the last essays he published, he wrote: ‘I urgently call on all Jews who want to be human beings to join me in the radical condemnation of systematic torture. Where barbarism begins, even existential commitments must end.’

Améry was particularly disturbed by the apotheosis in 1977 of Menachem Begin as Israel’s prime minister. Begin, who organised the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in which 91 people were killed, was the first of the frank exponents of Jewish supremacism who continue to rule Israel. He was also the first routinely to invoke Hitler and the Holocaust and the Bible while assaulting Arabs and building settlements in the Occupied Territories. In its early years the state of Israel had an ambivalent relationship with the Shoah and its victims. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, initially saw Shoah survivors as ‘human debris’, claiming that they had survived only because they had been ‘bad, harsh, egotistic’. It was Ben-Gurion’s rival Begin, a demagogue from Poland, who turned the murder of six million Jews into an intense national preoccupation, and a new basis for Israel’s identity. The Israeli establishment began to produce and disseminate a very particular version of the Shoah that could be used to legitimise a militant and expansionist Zionism.

Améry noted the new rhetoric and was categorical about its destructive consequences for Jews living outside Israel. That Begin, ‘with the Torah in his arm and taking recourse to biblical promises’, speaks openly of stealing Palestinian land ‘alone would be reason enough’, he wrote, ‘for the Jews in the diaspora to review their relationship to Israel’. Améry pleaded with Israel’s leaders to ‘acknowledge that your freedom can be achieved only with your Palestinian cousin, not against him.’

Five years later, insisting that Arabs were the new Nazis and Yasser Arafat the new Hitler, Begin assaulted Lebanon. By the time Ronald Reagan accused him of perpetrating a ‘holocaust’ and ordered him to end it, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had killed tens of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese and obliterated large parts of Beirut. In his novel Kapo (1993), the Serbian-Jewish author Aleksandar Tišma captures the revulsion many survivors of the Shoah felt at the images coming out of Lebanon: ‘Jews, his kinsmen, the sons and grandsons of his contemporaries, former inmates of the camps, stood in tank turrets and drove, flags waving, through undefended settlements, through human flesh, ripping it apart with machine-gun bullets, rounding up the survivors in camps fenced off with barbed wire.’

Primo Levi, who had known the horrors of Auschwitz at the same time as Améry and also felt an emotional affinity to the new Jewish state, quickly organised an open letter of protest and gave an interview in which he said that ‘Israel is rapidly falling into total isolation ... We must choke off the impulses towards emotional solidarity with Israel to reason coldly on the mistakes of Israel’s current ruling class. Get rid of that ruling class.’ In several works of fiction and non-fiction, Levi had meditated not only on his time in the death camp and its anguished and insoluble legacy, but also on the ever present threats to human decency and dignity. He was especially incensed by Begin’s exploitation of the Shoah. Two years later, he argued that ‘the centre of gravity of the Jewish world must turn back, must move out of Israel and back into the diaspora.’

Misgivings of the kind expressed by Améry and Levi are condemned as grossly antisemitic today. It’s worth remembering that many such re-examinations of Zionism and anxieties about the perception of Jews in the world were incited among survivors and witnesses of the Shoah by Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and its manipulative new mythology. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a theologian who won the Israel Prize in 1993, was already warning in 1969 against the ‘Nazification’ of Israel. In 1980, the Israeli columnist Boaz Evron carefully described the stages of this moral corrosion: the tactic of conflating Palestinians with Nazis and shouting that another Shoah is imminent was, he feared, liberating ordinary Israelis from ‘any moral restrictions, since one who is in danger of annihilation sees himself exempted from any moral considerations which might restrict his efforts to save himself.’ Jews, Evron wrote, could end up treating ‘non-Jews as subhuman’ and replicating ‘racist Nazi attitudes’.

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