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How the Israeli government is exploiting the tragedy of the Holocaust

World Jewry, not Israel, lost six million people in the Holocaust. It should be the former’s commemoration, not Israel’s
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin cut a ribbon to unveil the Memorial Candle monument in Jerusalem on 23 January (AFP)

I guess it should come as no surprise. Everything about contemporary Israel is embroiled in exploitation of traditions and history for political gain, so why should the Holocaust be any different?

Well, for one thing, it’s the most profound catastrophe in Jewish history. And that includes some pretty devastating events, such as the Roman conquest, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Cossack massacres and the Czarist pogroms. You’d think the memory of six million dead would make the hucksters and charlatans stop and take notice, but no such luck.

The Israeli government decided that it alone was permitted to mark the 75th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Auschwitz [in modern day Poland] in 1945, with an international gathering of world leaders in Jerusalem to mark the momentous occasion. It even ceded control of the event to a Russian oligarch, Moshe Kantor.

Polish-Israeli war of words

No reference was made to acknowledging Auschwitz at the site itself on this anniversary. The museum dedicated to the memory of the dead there also planned its own commemoration, but it was given the cold shoulder by the Israelis. And Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, was denied an opportunity to speak at the Jerusalem event; as a result, he cancelled his participation.

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There are many reasons for the recriminations. The Poles and Israelis have engaged in a war of words for the past year as the right-wing government in Warsaw has taken an increasingly nationalist and begrudging approach to the Holocaust, placing sole blame for the genocide on the Nazis. History shows that while Poles were not the originators of the extermination, many participated once the Germans got it underway. 

Where is the original purpose of the event, to honour the end of the Holocaust and the memories of the six million killed?

This has become a taboo subject in Poland; millions of Poles died in the Holocaust, and there are now laws on the books making it a crime to accuse the nation of complicity with Nazi crimes. 

Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a charm offensive several years ago towards the Law and Justice party, the Polish governing party, which shared many xenophobic tendencies with other right-wing European parties whom he embraced, the death of three million Polish Jews is very heavy baggage - and the Poles made it exceedingly difficult for Netanyahu to excuse their shameful distortions. 

The World Holocaust Forum’s memorial event in Jerusalem, being organised at a cost of millions of euros, is a one-man show, despite having all the trappings of a grand international event. Turning it into a Russian production has caused even more friction with the Poles, who suffered under Soviet rule. 

Political posturing

Israel is nothing if not brutally pragmatic in its foreign relations. Poles were the losers, Russians the winners. But there is another more critical reason for Israel siding with the Russians: Netanyahu’s relationship with Putin has been vital to protecting Israeli interests in Syria and constraining its arch-enemy, Iran. 

Given all this political posturing, you may ask: where is the original purpose of the event, to honour the end of the Holocaust and the memories of the six million killed? As always, to paraphrase Voltaire: political interests are the enemy of the good.

Netanyahu speaks at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on 23 January (AFP)
Netanyahu speaks at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on 23 January (AFP)

This is why a distinction must be made between Israel and Zionism on one hand, and the diaspora and Judaism on the other. The Israeli government's interests are national and political. They are not, despite claims to the contrary, the same as those of world Jewry.

Not to mention, Israel itself has treated its own Holocaust survivors poorly. Despite the fact that these poor souls endured unbearable privation, Israel expected them to transition smoothly as citizens in the new state. It offered few services and benefits to aid them in recovering from their trauma.

Those who would never recover went on to lead lives of penury, and the state did little to intervene on their behalf.

Even at the Jerusalem ceremony, Israeli Holocaust survivors will barely be recognised as speakers before the world gathering. 

Co-opting antisemitism

World Jewry lost six million people in the Holocaust. Israel did not lose six million people. It should be the former’s commemoration, not Israel’s. Joint Holocaust memorial gatherings should have been planned throughout Europe, at every camp where Jews died and every square where they were rounded up like sheep to the slaughter. 

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Survivors and their descendants should have been given pride of place. They are the last witnesses to the horror inflicted on the Jewish people; not corrupt prime ministers desperately clinging to power, or Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin.

The worst outrage over the Holocaust gathering is its exploitation by Netanyahu to prop up his rapidly capsizing political career and to propagate a pro-Israel narrative, co-opting antisemitism to fend off criticism of Israel. 

There is one purpose and one alone to hosting world leaders at this gathering on the hallowed ground of Yad Vashem, built on the location on a Palestinian settlement that existed before 1948. It is to wrangle them together so that they may understand what they must do when they return home: protect Israel at all costs. 

The goal of the Holocaust event is to wipe out any distinction between the Holocaust, antisemitism and Israel. They are all one: an insult to one is an insult to all.

Sheer trickery

This is a noxious approach. It is ahistorical, tramples on the memory of the six million, and bestows upon Israel a legitimacy it has done nothing to deserve. It is sheer trickery.

It is terribly convenient for Israel to argue that it is being singled out unfairly for acts of self-defence, and that such accusations are themselves antisemitic

Netanyahu has also exploited this remembrance by lobbying the world leaders in attendance to sanction the International Criminal Court for agreeing to take on the war crimes case against Israel.

According to a report in Haaretz, Netanyahu was expected to ask the leaders he would meet, chief among them US Vice President Mike Pence, Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and others, “to publish official statements that will back the Israeli claim that the court in The Hague has no jurisdiction in Palestinian territories”.

It is terribly convenient for Israel to argue that it is being singled out unfairly for acts of "self-defence", and that such accusations are themselves antisemitic. After all, this is one of the most “useful” pro-Israel tools offered by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s faux definition of antisemitism.

How does Israel love using antisemitism for its own purposes? Let me count the ways.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield) Photo of RS by: (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)
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