European and American rejection of anti-Semitism following the Holocaust has favored the rise of the state of Israel. However, 75 years later, Israel has established a regime of ‘apartheid’ – as reported by the United Nations – depriving Palestinians of human rights, including their right of self-determination. Nevertheless, Israel enjoys widespread support in the international realm, and the voices of dissent are not strong enough. In this article, anti-Semitism and historical memory are analyzed as a possible tool in the hands of Israeli Zionist movements to enable action against the international law without meeting substantial obstacles.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has adopted the following non-legally binding definition of anti-Semitism:
“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Anti-Semitism is unfortunately – both currently and historically – a very common perception among non-Jewish populations. Throughout history, Jews have been persecuted and oppressed, most recently under the inhumane Nazi ethnic cleansing perpetrated between 1942-1945, starting with Adolf Hitler’s approval of the ‘Final solution to the Jewish question’ at the 1942’s Wannsee Conference.
In 1933, when Hitler democratically took power, the European economic climate was characterized by a strong recession caused by the 1929 Great Depression and was concomitantly flanked by a period of social instability and fear, resulting in an increased negative perception of the “different”, of the “stranger”. Racism (including anti-Semitism), competition for resources, and arms races were all explosive trends, especially among European populations and states.
Under this unstable climate, populist politicians – including the growing influential Hitler – were looking for scapegoats to blame for the economic crisis and Jews became an easy target, with some of them in control of important positions related to economy within the German society.
After the liberation of the camps and the final defeat of Germany in 1945, the horrors of the Holocaust – also widely known as Shoah – became evident to the world.
Following that horrific experience and the devastation of the war, a European population’s renaissance began on the basis of historical memory: no other atrocities and no other similar mass intellectual manipulations should and could be allowed in Europe. Several European countries endorsed new constitutions to put on paper their will to change, giving the newly formed democratic governments a major solidity. At the same time, states invested in education with the purpose of establishing a collective memory against the atrocities of the Holocaust – and more generally of the war – that could be inherited by future generations.
Meanwhile, as a consequence of the Holocaust, or possibly as compensation, and as a response to the massive Jewish immigration to Palestine, the United Nations adopted – in 1947 – a partition plan following the British mandate.
The idea was to give a land to Jews, who were historical inhabitants of the region and whose presence drastically increased following immigration waves to the previously Ottoman, and later British, Palestine. These immigration waves were motivated by the national movement of the Jewish people supporting the establishment of a Jewish nation-state in the region of Palestine. This movement became known as Zionism.
The United Nations initially promoted the creation of an independent state of Israel and of an independent Arab state of Palestine, conferring the status of international city to Jerusalem, claimed – for religious reasons – by Jews and Arabs.
Following internal conflict between Jews, Arabs and the British, one day before the end of the British mandate over Palestine – on the 14th of May 1948 – the Jewish Agency declared the establishment of a state of Israel without specifying its borders and without referring to the plan proposed the year before by the United Nations.
The declaration was followed – the day after – by the joint attack conducted by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq (with the help of other Arab countries), whose armies entered Palestine to avoid the formation of a Jewish state.
However – although Egypt stably occupied the territory known today as the Gaza strip, and Jordan obtained the so-called West Bank – Israel’s army could advance and gain territory, displacing Palestinians from their territory. This is known in Arabic as the Nakba (or “catastrophe”).
About 75 years have passed since the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the state of Israel.
Only few survivors of the Holocaust are still alive to day. Therefore, now more than ever, the European historical memory is being tested.
Although the historical memory concerning the social causes of the war is deteriorating in recent times (also as a response to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008), the memory of the Holocaust still stands strong in Europe and beyond. Of course, this is a very important and positive situation.
Nevertheless, this has also had unimagined and untold consequences for international politics.
Historical memory of the Holocaust has helped to maintain, for the last 75 years, freedom of religion, tolerance towards the different as well as democratic forms of government in western countries. However, it also acted as a driving force for extremist Zionist forces that believe in and support the enlargement of the state of Israel to East Jerusalem and the West Bank, effectively occupied as a result of the six-day long 1967 Israeli-Arab war.
Indeed, anti-Zionism, conceived as a form of opposition to Israel’s foreign policies, is often pointed at as anti-Semitism.
Historical preservation of the memory of the Holocaust is of primary importance for Israel’s approval and international recognition: western politicians – often – do not stand up against Israel’s aggressive policies and actions, certainly – in some cases – due to fear of being accused of anti-Semitism, a politically destructive element. But when they do so, they are indeed often accused, as in the recent case of Leslie Cockburn, an American politician, or in the case of Jeremy Corbyn – the leader of the Labour Party in the UK – who expressed concern that aspects of the aforementioned IHRA definition of anti-Semitism prevent critiques of Israel that are independent of ethnicity and religion. In line with this article’s expectations, the Labour Party itself has condemned their leader’s words and fully reinforced the IHRA definition.
Historical memory therefore acts as a powerful tool to buy silence, inaction, and support in those countries that could have a say in Israel’s internal and foreign affairs.
In other words, as Brian Klug argued:
Equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism can […] poison the political debate.
For the aforementioned reasons, movements of protest against Israel’s policies are considered a threat to the existence of the state of Israel itself, with the BDS –Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions – movement against Israel serving as a good example. This is highly unacceptable considering that any other state would be normally judged – at the international stage – on the basis of the respects of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States.
The existence of historical and present anti-Semitism is therefore a useful and powerful tool for Israel. Leveraging on the sentiment of historical guilt, the Jewish state – as Israel recently self declared – continues its expansion into East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where Palestinians are being displaced on a daily basis to accommodate Jewish settlers. Although the United Nation issued a debated report stating that Israel has established an ‘apartheid regime’ (IMPORTANT: this report has been withdrawn, again in line with this article’s expectations), Israel’s aggression in the region has not diminished since.
It is therefore of extreme importance to differentiate between anti-Semitism, to be rejected at any level, and anti-extreme Zionism, considered instead as a fierce opposition to the actions of Israel’s government, its repression of the rights of Palestinians, its suppression of peaceful protests with force, its criminal blockade of Gaza’s supplies, and its aggressive stances and policies against neighboring countries.
The language of the debate over Palestine should substantially change, and this change should perhaps start from those countries that historically committed crimes against Jews.
Historical guilt cannot influence the political foreign behaviors of the most influential countries. Oppressed and oppressors should be judged for their actions. Today’s German people are not to be considered as the war criminals that committed tremendous crimes against Jews and other minorities 75 years ago. Similarly, the judgment of Israel’s action should only reflect the current actions themselves: a past as oppressed does not exclude a future as oppressor.
History is an existing, objective reality that should be used as a tool to seek progress. Though, historical narrative can be also used as an instrument to impose a certain view of the world and to drive change towards a future of violence and war: this is something that every influential – well-intentioned – politician and policy maker should not forget.