'Shoah' remark sparks uproar

A mistranslation by Reuters has fuelled Arab criticism of Israel's actions in Gaza comparing them to Nazi Germany's war crimes.

vilnaiscratcheshead224.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A warning by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i to the Palestinians that they face a bigger "Shoah" if they increase rocket attacks from Gaza set off a diplomatic and public relations maelstrom, Israeli officials said Sunday. The unintended Shoah brouhaha began with a radio interview Friday that was picked up by the Reuters news agency. "As the rocket fire grows, and the range increases... they are bringing upon themselves a greater 'Shoah' because we will use all our strength in every way we deem appropriate," Vilna'i told Army Radio. The wire service first ran a story headlined "Israel minister warns Palestinians of 'Holocaust.'" The Hebrew word shoah, which means "disaster" or "conflagration," is primarily used in Israel to refer to the Holocaust. The Shoah story "spread like wildfire" and the Foreign Ministry was soon being contacted by concerned Israeli diplomats in Europe who had heard the reports on local media, Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel recounted Sunday. Among the callers were Ambassador to Poland David Peleg and Israel's embassy in Germany, Mekel said. "We saw that we had a problem on [our] hands," Mekel said. Vilna'i's spokesman, Eitan Ginzburg, subsequently clarified that the deputy defense minister had used the Hebrew word only to mean "disaster, ruin or destruction." Seeking to stem the damage, the Foreign Ministry spokesman contacted Reuters, which then put out a second story entitled "Israel warns Gaza of 'shoah'." But in the meantime, the initial headline was picked up by the British media, with The Guardian running a story headlined "Israeli minister warns of Palestinian 'Holocaust'" while The Times of London screamed "Israel threatens to unleash 'Holocaust' in Gaza." Reuters Jerusalem bureau chief Alastair Macdonald said Sunday that the copy spoke for itself. "We tried to make clear that the word has different meanings," he said. "People hear what they hear in comments people make," he added. Macdonald said it had been clear to him that the Israeli official was speaking figuratively, the story's initial headline notwithstanding. "It was a very poor choice of words, you could really expect better from a senior general," an Israeli official in Jerusalem said Sunday. "It could be that he should have picked another word," Vilna'i's spokesman conceded Sunday. For his part, Vilna'i insisted Sunday that the media and the Palestinians had manipulated his words. "It's clear to everyone that I used ['shoah'] to mean 'disaster' or 'catastrophe,'" Vilna'i told Army Radio on Sunday. "You can use other words, absolutely," Vilnai acknowledged, "but that shouldn't divert us from the main point, which is that they are bringing a disaster on their people because of their actions." In the meantime, the Palestinians seized on the unintended introduction of a Holocaust reference into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to use it for their own PR purposes - comparing Israel's attacks in the Gaza Strip with the actions of Nazi Germany. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the killing of 54 Palestinians - about half of whom were civilians caught in the crossfire - in Gaza on Saturday a "holocaust." "The response to these rockets can't be that harsh and heinous," he said. "It is nowadays described as a holocaust." Abbas's doctorate and a resulting book have long been criticized as being laced with Holocaust denial. Hamas's exiled political leader Khaled Mashaal similarly denounced Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, describing them as "the real Holocaust." "I accuse Israel of implementing a real Holocaust against the Palestinian people for the past 60 years. What is happening today in Gaza is a new Holocaust," Mashaal told reporters in Damascus. On Sunday, the Saudi Press Agency quoted an unnamed official as saying "Israeli actions in Gaza are similar to Nazi war crimes," the Associated Press reported. "Saudi Arabia will contribute in building each Palestinian house destroyed by the Nazism of Israel," the official added. Meanwhile, Israel's Holocaust Authority on Sunday lambasted the use of the Holocaust in the political debate, calling such a comparison "fundamentally flawed" and a "distortion" of history. "In principle, Yad Vashem believes that using Holocaust terms to describe the current political situation is fundamentally flawed, since such terms do nothing to cast light on events and serve only to distort them," a Yad Vashem spokesperson said in a written statement. "There are some parties who intentionally [manipulate] such terms to create a false picture of reality."