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An Ethical Tradition Betrayed

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I was 20 years old when Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army 55 years ago. This occurred just in time because 10 months imprisonment in Auschwitz-Gleiwitz-1 had weakened me considerably. One needed a hell of a lot of luck in order to survive that long under the circumstances in that camp.

Two important components of luck were on my side. First, during my first years as a refugee kid in the Netherlands I had learned to be a locksmith. So during the very strong winter of '44-'45 I worked in the warmth of a factory. Second, I had acquired a very good and completely trustworthy friend, called Jos. We helped each other as much as possible. The two of us did indeed survive.

Another aspect of my friendship with Jos was that in spite of -- or better, due to -- the extremely high number of people per square foot in such a camp, one felt extremely lonely. Because of our friendship, mutual help and absolute mutual trust we were not lonely. This was vital to our psychological survival.

Psychological survival is at least as important as physical survival. In fact, the Nazi concentration camps were their attempt to dehumanize us Jews. If a prisoner became part of the oppression system by being Kapo, the dehumanization would be successful. Obviously, the non-Jewish members of the oppression system were also no longer fully human. I realized there that anybody from a dominating group who tries to dehumanize people from a minority group, can only do so if by education, indoctrination and propaganda he has already been dehumanized himself, independent of the uniform he wears.

It is a deep tragedy that in Israel this is not what one concludes from the experiences in Auschwitz. To the contrary, Auschwitz is elevated there into a new religion.

"In the beginning is Auschwitz," wrote Elie Wiesel. "Nothing should be compared to the Holocaust but everything must be related to it." This elevation has allowed it to be exploited for political ends. All that was once most valued in a rich and varied Jewish heritage -- the centrality of the ethical tradition, for instance -- disappears beside the Nazi attempt at annihilation. This Holocaust religion translates in the minds of many into the impossibility that Israel can do any wrong.

Auschwitz existed within history, not outside of it. The main lesson I learned there is simple: We Jews should never, ever become like our tormentors -- not even to save our lives. Even at Auschwitz, I sensed that such a moral downfall would render my survival meaningless.

Like most German Jews, I was raised in a secular and humanist tradition that was more antagonistic than sympathetic towards the Zionist enterprise. Since 1967 it has become obvious that political Zionism has one monolithic aim: Maximum land in Palestine with a minimum of Palestinians on it. This aim is pursued with an inexcusable cruelty as demonstrated during the assault on Gaza. The cruelty is explicitly formulated in the Dahiye doctrine of the military and morally supported by the Holocaust religion.

I am pained by the parallels I observe between my experiences in Germany prior to 1939 and those suffered by Palestinians today. I cannot help but hear echoes of the Nazi mythos of "blood and soil" in the rhetoric of settler fundamentalism which claims a sacred right to all the lands of biblical Judea and Samaria. The various forms of collective punishment visited upon the Palestinian people -- coerced ghettoization behind a "security wall"; the bulldozing of homes and destruction of fields; the bombing of schools, mosques, and government buildings; an economic blockade that deprives people of the water, food, medicine, education and the basic necessities for dignified survival -- force me to recall the deprivations and humiliations that I experienced in my youth. This century-long process of oppression means unimaginable suffering for Palestinians.

It is not too late to learn a different lesson from Auschwitz. For example, in the last year, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network has become a means for many -- including young Jews in the United States -- to challenge the precepts of Zionism and support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Their goal, and mine, is to challenge the dispossession and exclusivity of a Jewish state, in their names and in mine. They understand the urgency of the classical Jewish concept of teshuvah, return from the wrong road. Further, they understand that the pursuit of justice and making ethically positive sense out of senseless suffering is not only part of an ancient Jewish interpretation and shaping of history, but is crucial for all of us in creating the world we want to live in, and to our moral survival.

Hajo Meyer is the author of The End of Judaism: An Ethical Tradition Betrayed.