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Oliver Sears

The Irish Times, May 6, 2024

Whatever injustice, historic and current, that successive Israeli governments have served to the Palestinians, there is no resonance with the Holocaust.

Today is Yom HaShoah, the day when Israel commemorates the victims of the Holocaust on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

Seven hundred Jewish resistance fighters bravely fought the SS for 27 days in a vain attempt to stem the deportations to the death camps. Brutally crushed, the ghetto was liquidated, leading to the slaughter of over 50,000 Jews who were killed during the fighting or murdered afterwards, industrially in camps. My mother and grandmother had escaped a month earlier on forged identity papers; a great uncle, Jan, and his 11-year-old son, Artur, were murdered after their own attempt to flee failed.

Since October 7th, events in Israel and Gaza have inevitably led to commentary across the political, legal and media spheres, invoking the Holocaust. How can this false equivalence be countered; how can protecting the narrative of the Holocaust and the sober memorialisation of the victims continue against the current front of outrage? Where and to whom do we look to for an equilibrium to counter the extremes of violence, horror and fear that many of us witness and feel, on screens and viscerally in our hearts?

The Irish media, including writers for this newspaper, have too easily sought to equate the unbearably harsh predicament of the Gazans with those of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their proxies 80 years ago. Here lies the road to perdition.

Whatever injustice, historic and current, that successive Israeli governments have served to the Palestinians, there is no resonance with the Holocaust. The worst government in Israeli history it may be, but the Netanyahu regime is not deporting Palestinians and gassing them systematically in purpose-built camps as Jews were, from all over Europe, to be exterminated because they were Jews.

Such comparisons undermine Jewish propriety of the Holocaust, wittingly or otherwise, distorting the narrative and eroding sympathy for the victims. This is the murky habitat of the Holocaust Denier, in all its despicable variations.

Israelis are simplistically cast as Jews and then recast as Nazis. The implication is that the victims deserved their fate during the Holocaust after all, and the anti-Semites feel vindicated; none of which contributes to the Palestinian cause.

Numerous commentators have invoked the term “irony” when describing the fact that the 1948 Genocide Convention was established so that the world would never again allow the atrocities against the Jews during the Holocaust to happen again. Now Israel is in the dock accused of breaking the same convention. Irony?

As already stated, the world allowed six million Jews, two thirds of European Jewry to be systematically murdered on the basis of their ethnicity. In Ireland, as in most countries, there was no outcry, no marches and, other than the UK, almost no help. The inability to distinguish the two sets of circumstances, to distinguish Jews from Israelis and Israelis from an historically unpopular government dismisses the complexities of history and dishonours its victims.

Netanyahu has often cynically invoked the Holocaust throughout his career in politics; rather like Donald Trump, there is nothing too sacred to hijack, insult or dismantle if it’s obstructing his political ambition.

The conflicting needs of a far-right Israeli government, a ruthless, genocidal and maniacal Hamas regime in Gaza, a weak, tired and corrupt Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the malignant theocracy in Tehran has brought terror to Israel and Gaza.

Many Israelis fear that a co-ordinated attack by Iran and its proxies could annihilate the state, a fear made all too real by the missile attacks on April 13th. For Jews, such an extreme outcome is not difficult to imagine; the Holocaust remains in living memory.

I was invited to join PAKH, the study group for intergenerational consequences of the Holocaust, last September. Comprising the descendants of victims and perpetrators, we meet to discuss our impossibly complex family stories.

Recently, online, we listened to Israeli Rami Elhanan and Palestinian Bassam Aramin explain how they work together to promote peace. The subjects of Colum McCann’s 2020 novel, Apeirogon, these heroic men each lost a daughter in the decades-long conflict. Their determination to focus on the importance of respecting the rights of the individual, their lack of self pity and how they have come to rely on each other, emotionally, is humbling to observe.

Both men possess the insight of inherited trauma, along with their own piercing personal loss. Bassam’s stems from the displacement of his people, Rami’s mother was, as he says laconically, a graduate of Auschwitz. They both agree that the absence of Palestinian self-determination was the reason they lost their children and that Israeli society entire needs a total reset. It’s clear to them that both Hamas in Gaza and the settlers who have taken over the Israeli cabinet are a disaster for both peoples.

Their codependency recalls the circumstances of numerous concentration camp inmates who often survived because they had a relative or friend to share the struggle of each day. There are tragic cases of survivors dying shortly after liberation; the dream of freedom being too physically overwhelming when it finally came.

These two remarkably dignified, emotionally literate men are the embodiment of Viktor Frankl’s maxim that to understand your own pain you must first help someone else understand theirs; and that when pain has meaning, it is no longer pain. Bassam says they are not friends but are brothers. They show us what is required to break the cycle of hatred. Rami was clear that it’s not necessary for Palestinians and Israelis to love each other but respect is the key.

The small matter of Iran’s policy of destabilising Israel was not touched on, nor the explosion in anti-Semitism since October 7th. A resolution between Israel and the Palestinians would remove an issue that unifies Iran’s allies against Israel and would expose the regime in Tehran for the oppressive, misogynistic and morally bankrupt entity that it has become.

More Sunni states would join the alliance with Israel and Iran would become even more isolated. Most importantly, given the current crisis, Israelis and Palestinians would feel safe for the first time. Public expressions of anti-Semitism would also recede.

As I think of the hostages and their tortured families and weep for the broken generations in Gaza, I accept with an open heart that, among my fellow PAKH members, I have come to love and embrace children and grandchildren of monsters. And this, in the Ashkenazi tradition of trying to repair the world, headache by headache. On Yom HaShoah, I sense this is the furthest point from despair that a heart like mine can travel within the boundaries of this difficult inheritance.

Oliver Sears is founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland.

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