Soon after Israel’s sweeping victory in the 1967 war with Egypt and Syria, it became clear that rather than returning the territory it conquered, Israel intended to occupy the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and much of the Golan Heights. Foreseeing where occupation might lead, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, one of Israel’s most prominent and acclaimed public intellectuals, philosophers, and scientists—and an Orthodox Jew---warned that if the occupation and the repression that enforced it continued, Israel would be in danger of succumbing to “Judeo-Nazism.”
How has that prediction turned out? Until recently it has been unthinkable in Israel to suggest comparisons between Nazi Germany and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians-- at least in writing. With the latest attacks on Gaza, however, the criminality of the Israel occupation has become so extreme that among some Israeli dissidents that barrier is starting to break down: although usually couched in very careful language, allusions to Nazi Germany are unmistakable.
Most remarkably, last month 327 Jewish Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors published an anything but allusive letter in the New York Times that clearly compares the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to the Holocaust. Here are the key excerpts.
As Jewish survivors and descendants of survivors and victims of the Nazi genocide we unequivocally condemn the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the ongoing occupation and colonization of historic Palestine. ….Genocide begins with the silence of the world.
We are alarmed by the extreme, racist dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli society, which has reached a fever-pitch. In Israel, politicians and pundits ….have called openly for genocide of Palestinians and right-wing Israelis are adopting Neo-Nazi insignia…..We are disgusted and outraged by….Israel’s wholesale effort to destroy Gaza and the murder of more than 2,000 Palestinians, including many hundreds of children. Nothing can justify bombing UN shelters, homes, hospitals and universities. Nothing can justify depriving people of electricity and water.
We must raise our collective voices and use our collective power to bring about an end to all forms of racism, including the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people. We call for an immediate end to the siege against and blockade of Gaza. We call for the full economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel. “Never again” must mean NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE.
Although exceptionally powerful and moving—and as immune from the charge that it is “anti-Semitic” as it is possible to imagine—the question still remains: is it accurate? Has Leibowitz’s famous prediction come true? Not quite: things are really bad, but not that bad.
Even though a good deal of what Leibowitz feared and predicted has either already occurred or is well on the road to occurring, the term Nazism is still much too strong. On the other hand, it is increasingly common for Leibowitz’s successors today—the Israeli philosophers, academicians, journalists, writers and even ordinary citizens who despair of their country—to use the term “fascism” to describe the dominant trends in Israel.
Fascism is not the same as Nazism which represents, on a scale of 1-100, absolute evil. Israel, of course, doesn’t come close, obviously not in its internal policies—though its claim to be a true democracy is increasingly in question. Even its policies towards the Palestinians are not comparable to Nazism, for they are obviously not “genocidal” or anywhere near it. After all, even after the Nakba—the violent expulsion from Israel/Palestine, accompanied by a number of massacres, of some 750,000 Arabs in 1948--hundreds of thousands of other Arabs were allowed to remain in Israel.
Of course, since 1948 this Israeli Arab minority has faced economic, social, and political discrimination--but nothing remotely on the order of what European Jews faced under Nazi Germany. And even when Israel repeatedly attacks Gaza (or, earlier, the West Bank), its intentions are clearly not to wipe out the Palestinian people—which it certainly has the technological capability of doing. It is sufficient for Israel’s purposes merely to impose great suffering on the Palestinians, so as to deter or crush any resistance to Israel’s ongoing colonization of Jerusalem and the West Bank and the continuing repression not just of Hamas but of the Gazan people as a whole.
Consider the full range of the Israeli repression of Gaza in the last ten years, even in addition to the two massive military attacks--“Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-09 and the recent “Operation Protective Edge”-- that killed several thousand Palestinian civilians (including hundreds of women and children) and wreaked enormous damage to the economy, civil infrastructures, and even thousands of private homes and apartment houses in Gaza. Beyond that are the years of assassinations of Palestinian activists and periodic attacks on Gazan government institutions, transportation and communications networks, roads and bridges, electrical generation plants and power lines, industrial facilities, fuel depots, sewage plants, water storage tanks, and various food production systems, including farmlands, orchards, greenhouses, and fishing boats.
In addition to these military attacks, Israel has imposed an economic blockade or siege on Gazan trade and commerce. Although the blockade has eased somewhat since 2010, Israel continues to prevent Gaza from exporting its goods and products to other countries, severely restricts Palestinian drinking and agricultural water, places substantial restrictions on the use of electrical power (mostly imported from Israel), and often prevents farmers from reaching their lands and orchards and fishermen from fully plying their trade.
Finally, even in the West Bank, where nearly all violent Palestinian resistance has ended, the Palestinian people continue to be occupied, to suffer grave economic damage from that occupation, and in a variety of ways to be humiliated, reminded on a daily basis of their powerlessness. Even nonviolent resistance is either ignored or violently crushed by Israel, increasingly by deadly force.
Given these undeniable facts, it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that while far short of Nazism, Israel is well on its way to fascism and to be widely regarded as an international outcast, indeed a criminal one. And it is not just the behavior of the Israeli state that is criminal, for the actions of the state are wholeheartedly supported by a large majority of the Israeli Jewish population—indeed, far more Israelis demand even greater Israeli violence and repression than deplore it.
In this light, if we compare Israel’s behavior to the Palestinians, not to the full range of Nazism but to Nazi Germany’s occupation of European countries, is it really the case that the comparisons or analogies are outrageous? One way to approach this question is to reexamine the question of what constitutes legitimate self-defense.
After both Cast Lead and Protective Edge, even strong critics of the scale of those Israeli attacks have typically argued that “of course, Israel has the right to defend itself” from Hamas rocket attacks, but its response has been “excessive” or “disproportionate.” That criticism is far too weak: aggressor states have no “right of self defense” when it is their criminality that has provoked violent resistance—and that holds true even if their response is somehow “proportionate.” In any case, throughout its history Israel has engaged in massively and deliberately “disproportionate” attacks on Arab (and not merely Palestinian) civilians, their homes, their businesses, their economy, and their civil infrastructures.
Consequently, some analogies are appropriate. For example, suppose the French resistance to the German occupation in the 1940s, lacking any other effective means, had sent rockets into Berlin, resulting in German “retaliation” that killed hundreds or thousands of French civilians. Would the Germans have been acting in “self-defense,” although—regrettably—in a “disproportionate” manner?
To be sure, comparing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians with Nazi Germany’s occupation of Europe is risky, for it will surely be seen, even by many critics of Israel, as “counterproductive,” resulting in an outraged rejection of all legitimate criticisms of Israeli behavior. And it is also the case that less provocative analogies can make the same point: for example, suppose Hungarian groups, lacking any other means of resisting the Soviet invasion of 1956, had fired rockets into Moscow: would the Soviets then have had the right of massive retaliation in the name of “self-defense?” The problem with the hypothetical Soviet-Hungarian analogy, however, is that it doesn’t have the same impact as the Nazi-French Resistance one, and would therefore be less likely to result in a productive shock of recognition in Israel and among its friends. After all, even the most severe criticism of Israel can hardly be counterproductive, in light of the fact that nothing else has proven to be productive. That is not to deny that any even limited or hypothetical analogies to Nazi Germany are risky. Nonetheless, because Israel has gone so far down the road to fascism (not Nazism), the risks must be run-- desperate times require desperate measures.
A final observation. Handwringing and ineffectual critics of the massive Israeli military attacks on Gaza five years ago and again last month ask: but how else can Israel respond to Hamas terrorism? It is a sign of the ignorance and poverty of discourse in this country concerning Israel’s behavior that this question even is asked. It ought not to be necessary to spell out the obvious, but evidently it is: end the occupation, end the repression, let the Palestinians have their own state. But what if Palestinian attacks continue, which in those circumstances could no longer be considered as resistance? Then--and only then-- Israel would have a true right of self-defense.