A shocking show of hands

Simon Wiesenthal Center's Efraim Zuroff bemoans disengagement protesters' use of Holocaust imagery.

By SAM SER
September 17, 2005 02:02

 
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It started with the orange Stars of David that Gaza Strip settlers wore this spring to protest the prospect of being evicted from their homes. It worsened with the announcement by Elei Sinai residents that they would greet soldiers in striped concentration camp-style uniforms. Then a group of teens started protesting restrictions on entry to the Gaza Strip by scrawling their ID numbers on their forearms with black markers, like the tattoos of Holocaust victims, and it seemed that no similar protest could be any more offensive. But the final straw came last week in Atzmona, when a settler couple paraded their eight children in front of television cameras, hands raised and wailing, marching from their home. It was an obvious reenactment of the famous photograph of Jews being deported at rifle-point from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. "Absolutely disgusting," said Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem bureau chief this week. In 25 years of exposing Nazi war criminals and confronting unrepentant European regimes, he has never seen the memory of the Holocaust so distorted as it was in Atzmona. "It's the pinnacle of hutzpa," he said. "In recreating the image of the frightened little boy with his hands raised like that, they are trying to not only compare their situation but replace that boy with themselves. They are replacing a genuine image with a false one." The Holocaust theme has played itself out over and over again during the evacuation of the Gaza settlements, as angry settlers and protesters called soldiers Nazis and compared them to German soldiers who "were just following orders." Such actions have largely been the domain of the young. Yet the emotional tactic has also been used by those who, one might say, "should know better." The orange star campaign, for example, was originated by children of Holocaust survivors, and a few survivors have themselves made chilling comparisons to their European trauma. "When I was an eight-year-old girl, Nazi storm troopers came and kicked down the door of my home in Austria and beat my mother because she wanted to go back into the house to get warm jackets for the children," 75-year-old Ruth Matar was quoted as saying a few weeks ago. "Well there is no difference now, except it's Jewish police coming into a home and dragging unwilling people out." Several Knesset members have criticized such statements. Yad Vashem has repeatedly refuted the Holocaust comparisons, and called on the anti-disengagement camp to desist from using the Holocaust to justify its political struggle. "We believe that the events of the Shoah are an unprecedented genocide which represents the total collapse of civilized human values. You cannot [encapsulate] that in a few slogans," chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate Avner Shalev has said. Motti Shalem, who directs the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, has said plainly that any comparison between the Shoah and the disengagement "has no historical basis." "With all due respect to their evacuation," Shalem said of the settlers, "they are not being sent to death camps." EVEN WITHIN the settlements, exploitation of the Holocaust is a red line that many have refused to cross. In Elei Sinai, where a handful of settlers prepared the concentration camp uniforms, settlement secretary Yaniv Ben-Hagai was quoted as saying the initiative was "the silly stupidity of one, maybe two residents. It does not represent anybody. This is sheer ignorance." "We are going through a great crisis," Ben-Hagai explained, "[but] this crisis does not resemble the Holocaust or anything else." Has the Holocaust tactic worked at all? When a girl being forcibly removed from her Gush Katif home told the female soldiers carrying her away that they were "worse than the Nazis," for example, there was no indication that they took it to heart in the least bit. In all the extensive coverage of the past two weeks, it seems that the emotional difficulty soldiers and police have had in carrying out the evacuations has had little or nothing to do with any sense of acting in the manner of the Nazis. It is difficult to discern whether even those making the comparisons believe them. (If so, however, one might expect them to resist with considerable violence, rather than relative passivity.) That Israelis could even make such an analogy, though even if they represent a small minority has led some to ask whether the state has failed to effectively convey the lessons of the Shoah. Zuroff, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Efrat, doesn't think so. Ironically, he said, the use of such imagery can be seen as a symptom of the success of Holocaust education in Israel. "Ostensibly, it speaks to the failure of Holocaust education here, but in a way it is the very opposite. Our society lives on sound bytes, on symbols and images and clearly, these images resonate with the public. They are being used specifically because they make such a [dramatic] impact on the public," he said. Although the exploitation of the Holocaust in the disengagement debate has been especially prominent, the phenomenon is not new. As Zuroff noted, it has become somewhat of a tradition for extreme members on either side of the political divide to call their opponents Nazis, or kapos, according to the argument. "There were the posters of [Yitzhak] Rabin in an SS uniform carried by right-wing activists during the Oslo years," he pointed out, "and people on the Left have called Hebron settlers 'Hitler youth,' too. In the heat of an argument, it's one thing. It's almost possible to understand someone blurting out something like that. But as an intentional campaign... "What we have seen has been the cheapening of the Shoah through the misappropriation of Holocaust images for political gain," Zuroff continued. The danger in that, he said, is that, "When people use this type of analogy and when they say that the IDF is equal to the Nazi army, then by extension they are saying that [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is Hitler they play right into the hands of the worst enemies of the Jewish people." As it is, anti-Semites and Israel's enemies in the Arab world have for decades tried to paint Israel and its army with the Nazi brush. What the Jews suffered at the hands of Adolf Hitler and his regime, the old canard goes, they are now doing to the Palestinians. In Eastern Europe, Zuroff and the Simon Wiesenthal Center have to combat deep-seated denial of responsibility for World War II atrocities; it won't help, he said, that Jews here have twisted their own historical record. "I never thought I would encounter this" in an Israeli setting, said Zuroff. Those who are invoking the Holocaust to describe the Knesset's decision to dismantle settlements, he said, are distorting one historical truth to suit the needs of their own narrative. Ultimately, he said, the attempt to make Israelis think of the disengagement as a holocaust perpetrated by Jews has failed. "I don't think that the mainstream in Israel has been moved by it at all," said Zuroff. "In fact, I think they've been turned off by it." Citing an example close to home, he mentioned the experience of his own daughter, an officer in the Education Corps, who was in Neveh Dekalim and in Homesh for the evacuations. "She was helping settlers pack up their belongings," Zuroff explained. "While there, she was bombarded with every psychological trick in the book, including tons of Holocaust analogies. Even some of her own cousins sent her messages on her cell phone terrible messages... She knows better, of course. They chose the wrong person for that kind of thing."

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