The Holocaust as moral instruction? Holocaust survival and memory in Zionism and anti-Zionism


Parts of this article are adapted from the posts by the author on Twitter/X.

“My grandpa didn’t survive Auschwitz to bomb Gaza”, reads a placard held by a Jewish woman at a protest in Mexico against a previous Israel assault on Gaza. A photo of the placard went viral on social media in 2021. More recently, the American group Jewish Voice for Peace has shared a photo of a protestor at a demonstration against the current war with a banner reading “My grandparents didn’t survive the Holocaust for Israel to commit genocide in Gaza.”

In both current and prior wars, politicians in Israel and internationally have invoked the memory of the Holocaust to justify the collective punishment of Gaza. No doubt the placard-makers were motivated, in an instinctive way, to push back against this by somehow reappropriating Holocaust memory in opposition to Israel’s wars, rather than in defence of them. But this framing is not only misjudged but risks bolstering antisemitism.

Their Holocaust-survivor grandparents, the placard-makers seem to tell us, survived for some higher moral purpose – unlike, presumably, Zionist Holocaust survivors who failed to sublimate their own experiences of genocide, and whose survival can therefore be seen as in some sense “wasted” on them. Would the placard-makers have perhaps preferred for the Allied armies, on liberating the Nazi death camps, to have said to the Jewish inmates: “We’ll allow you to leave as long as you promise neither you nor any of your descendants will ever do anything oppressive”?

This thinking links to the claim sometimes encountered in critiques of Israel that Israel, or “the Zionists”, are the “new Nazis.” This is, first and foremost, simply untrue. Israel’s colonial occupation and oppression of the Palestinians is brutal. But it is not directly comparable to the Holocaust and its extermination camps. Within Israel itself, the 20% minority of Palestinian citizens faces racism and discrimination, but it is also politically self-assertive, for example participating in a general strike in 2021, and has political representatives in the Israeli parliament. This is not meaningfully comparable to the situation of Jews under Nazi rule.

If one wishes to indict Israel by comparison, rather than simply opposing its oppression of the Palestinians on its own terms, there are, sadly, plenty of readily available contemporary comparators: Russia’s occupation of Chechnya and its attempted occupation of Ukraine; the oppression of West Papua by Indonesia; the colonisation of the Kurds by Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran; the Sri Lankan state’s oppression of the Tamils; China’s colonial projects in Xinjiang/East Turkestan and Tibet; Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. But for those for whom “anti-Zionism” represents an entire, politically-determining worldview, invoking these comparisons might risk “normalising” Israel by locating it within trends of which it is only one example, rather than the ultimate, quintessential expression.

If one really wished to, one could argue that any situation in which a state suppresses the rights of a minority population, buttressing that suppression with ideological claims about their cultural inferiority, is latently Nazi or a potential Holocaust-in-waiting. But that would be an emotional spasm far more than a serious analysis shining any light on either the contemporary situation in question, or on the history of Nazism itself. In the case of Israel, the Holocaust comparison is invoked not because it has any real explanatory value, but to needle and provoke (other) Jews.

The experience of the Holocaust transformed Zionism from a widely contested political current within Jewish life, jostling for hegemony with many other currents, into the majority political identity it is today. As Isaac Deutscher put it, in his 1954 article “Israel’s Spiritual Climate”: “The anti-Zionist urged the Jews to trust their gentile environment, to help the ‘progressive forces’ in that environment to come to the top, and to hope that those forces would effectively defend the Jews against antisemitism. ‘Social revolution will give the Jews equality and freedom; they have therefore no need for a Zionist Messiah’ – this was the stock argument of generations of Jewish left-wingers. The Zionists, on the other hand, dwelt on ‘the deep-seated hatred of non-Jews towards Jews’ and urged the Jews to trust their future to nobody except their own state. In this controversy, Zionism scored a dreadful victory, one which it could neither wish nor expect.”

A significant proportion of the soldiers who fought in the Jewish forces in the 1947-9 wars over Israel’s foundation were Holocaust survivors. According to Yad Vashem, perhaps as many as half. In the course of that war, it is certain Holocaust survivors were involved in war crimes against Palestinians. Clearly, those crimes were not somehow “less wrong” because they were perpetrated by survivors of genocide. But they were not “more wrong”, either. Nor is what Israel is doing today “more wrong” because the pilots bombing Gaza may be descended from Holocaust survivors, as some surely are. All that is needed to oppose Israel’s war is a commitment to universal rights, such as the right to self-determination. Colluding in the implication that some Jews have failed to learn the correct lessons from the Holocaust demeans that commitment.

Today, when Holocaust survivors are held hostage by Hamas, their families might retort with a placard of their own, in support of Israel’s war: “My grandmother didn’t survive the camps to be taken hostage by Hamas.” Where could a “debate” on those terms possibly get us? Ventriloquising Holocaust survivors to promote one’s own interpretation of the conclusions they should have drawn from their experiences, to bolster a pre-existing political analysis one would articulate anyway, is, to say the least, unseemly.

Elsewhere, Deutscher likened the Jewish flight from Europe (he might’ve added the later flight of many Mizrahi Jews from persecution) to a person jumping from a burning building, only to land on and injure someone walking in the street below, and then continually kick them back to the ground for fear of reprisal for having landed on them in the first place. It’s limited, like all metaphors, but it goes some way to encapsulating the historical tragedy of Jewish escape to what they hoped would be a safe national home involving the dispossession of another people. 

Something of the same idea was implied by Edward Said’s description of the Palestinians as “the victims of the victims and the refugees of the refugees.” One does not have to draw a crude and inaccurate equals sign between the Holocaust and the Nakba to understand that both Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab national identities are shaped by experiences of oppression. An intervention into contestations around Jewish identity that seeks to develop this into a politics of mutual recognition and coexistence surely has more emancipatory potential than one which seeks to excoriate some Jews for not having learnt the right lessons from the Holocaust.

To face, let alone shape, the future, we have to study and learn from history as it actually occurred, and not as we might wish it to have occurred. Who would not agree with Deutscher that “it would have been better that Israel should remain unborn and the six million Jews should stay alive”? Who amongst us “Jewish left-wingers”, people who still believe that “social revolution will give the Jews equality and freedom”, does not wish that history had unfolded in a way that affirmed our arguments, rather than seeming to affirm those of the people who preached statist nationalism? 

We can, and should, lament these historical tragedies. We can, and must, strive to build political forces that can fight for a better future, seeking to redress historical injustices by winning equality for those living today. And we can, and should, celebrate Jewish radicals who managed to carry their politics more-or-less intact through the nightmare of Nazism, and became advocates for Israeli-Palestinian equality. But we inhibit the struggle to win that equality if we promote the idea that the Holocaust should have served as a moral instruction to Jews.


Why does any of this matter? The weeks since the latest war began have seen various interventions and debates, from and between Jewish leftists, about how to navigate the political implications of the unfolding horror. And then, social media responses to those exchanges by others, Jews and non-Jews, suggesting that for them to even take place is a form of particularist self-indulgence, a profligate waste of time at a moment when no breath or keystroke or drop of ink should be spent in any cause other than that of denouncing Israel’s war, without anything that might be seen as qualification or caveat.

Perhaps all of these interventions are self-indulgent and solipsistic, the “why-are-you-even-talking-about-this?!” ones included. They won’t save lives either; ultimately, war machines are fuelled by fuel, not by tweets and “discourse”. One might ask oneself whether, in a brutal world of war and oppression, there is ever a “good time” or “right moment” for doing anything that does not seek to be directly preventative of some atrocity or outrage. Perhaps there isn’t. But if we want our politics to equip us to transform a world that produces atrocities, and not only to rage at it, then we surely need to be able to think them through.

How our politics treat the legacy of the Holocaust is a subset of how they treat antisemitism, the Holocaust’s organising ideology, more generally. Radical social transformation cannot be affected by a movement that has left any room in its own perspectives for any form of bigotry, including antisemitism. To maintain that horizon, we need to confront antisemitic implications whenever we encounter them. That imperative is in no way counterposed to the imperative to speak, write, and act against war and occupation; in fact, the imperatives are fused.


Daniel Randall (DR) is a railway worker, trade union representative, and socialist activist based in London. He was written extensively about antisemitism, especially on the left. His book Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists was published in 2021 by No Pasaran Media
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