Why do Europeans have Nazis on their brains when they refer to the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs?
The British poet Tom Paulin calls Israeli Jews Nazis and his compatriot A. N. Wilson calls Israeli soldiers “the Zionist SS.” What image comes José Saramago’s mind when attacking Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories? “Auschwitz.” The official Vatican daily refers to Israeli actions as “extermination.” Daniel Bernard the French ambassador to Great Britain describes Israel as “that shitty little country.” And Jews are now afraid as they have not been for fifty years in Italian cities and German cities and French cities and Danish cities and Dutch cities.
This question cries out for an answer, but the answers never satisfy. “I have to wonder about people who compare Israelis to Nazis,” says Elie Wiesel. Wonder, indeed. The current conflict in Israel is a war in which the total casualties on both sides after nearly five years of fighting amounts to 4000 people, less than half of one day’s work at Auschwitz, which kept at it for two years and ten months.
Of course, no such allusion comes to European minds when Palestinians murder civilians and diligently make sure not to miss any infants. Nor were Auschwitz or the SS invoked when Hutus killed 50,000 in one day in 1994, nor when Saddam Hussein or Hafez al-Assad murdered thousands of their own people, nor when Laos or Cambodia were ravaged, nor even down home in the former Yugoslavia.
After all, as the criticism within Israel of Sharon’s policies demonstrates every day, it is perfectly possible to condemn this Israeli government’s policies without resorting to such morally reprehensible analogies or concluding (with Daniel Bernard) that Israel ought to be abandoned, or “reluctantly” (with A. N. Wilson) that Israel has no right to exist, or, in the more subtle words of David Hare in his “balanced” Via Dolorosa, that the Jews have “polluted” the Promised Land and “do not belong here.” Somehow the distinction between death and life, between the fact that only a shred of European Jewry survived Auschwitz while only a shred of Palestinians have died in the intifada, is too subtle a distinction for a Nobel Prize winning European novelist.
No, there is something deeper and profoundly irrational going on here that is continuous with the weird ideas current in Europe that Jews or the C.I.A were responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on the US and that the Israeli Mossad is reponsible for blowing up synagogues in France.
Why the Holocaust? Why the readiness to call Jews Nazis? Why “Auschwitz”?
The answer, I believe, goes back 60 years to January 1942 when the Nazis began the mass murder of Jews by gas in Auschwitz-Birkenau. So let’s ask the question again. Why the Holocaust? Why did this catastrophic horror arise at the center of European civilization? Why did Europeans collaborate or–and Portugal, José Saramago’s nation, is a rare exception to this–stand by as bystanders, while millions of their fellow citizens were murdered?
This is not to say that a majority of contemporary Europeans agree with equating of Israelis and Nazis, and I am half ready to believe that the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to a Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivor reflects, in part, the embarrassment of some Europeans about this curious phenomenon. Nonetheless, the pervasive silence that greets this new hatred of Jews is shameful, as the old and shameful bystander-ism of action has given way to a new and shameful bystander-ism of speech. Nor do I deny the fact that by 1942 the Nazis had conquered most of Europe and were set on the annihilation of the Jews. But the terrible moral failure of Europe as a whole, from France’s collaboration and the Vatican’s cowardice to the British war on Jewish refugees, has marked the European consciousness indelibly.
Such comprehensive moral failure demands judgment. And so for sixty years Europe has been awaiting judgment but has managed to escape scot free. And, I would suggest, has repressed both the shameful moral failure of standing by and the need for judgment that accompanies this failure.
Now with the terrible conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians comes the great opportunity: to be free of this burden of judgment forever. And so Europe said, “Let the Jews be Nazis.” If the Jews are Nazis there is no longer anything to feel guilty about. If the Jews are Nazis there is no Holocaust. And Europe said, “Let the Jews be Nazis. And let judgment cease.”