As many people, including UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, suggest Israel may have committed war crimes in the Gaza Strip, there are a growing number of comments in the media comparing their actions to similar atrocities in recent history.
Philosopher George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Indeed Israel’s original establishment was supported by world powers, most prominently the UK, as a response to the historic maltreatment of the Jews. But, in the wake of the horrific events of the 1940s, it seems those same nations ignored the new historical narrative they were creating in the Middle East. As the state of Israel became the dominant force in Palestine, one group of refugees were effectively exchanged for another. Few would have believed then that the proto-socialist ideals of those original settlers would morph into the right wing radical government that we see today.
An example being quoted with increasing frequency is the similarity of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to that of South African apartheid. It’s of course arguable that the systematic conquest and marginalisation of a group based on ethnicity, along with a repeated denial of their claims to their own land, would fit that profile. The two tier citizenship rights of Palestinians and Israelis also echoes the treatment of the non-white South Africans. As in the townships, the Palestinian population is being squeezed into smaller and smaller enclaves with radically restricted free movement.
As a result of seven years of such subjugation, the inhabitants of Gaza have also given political support to what much of the world regards as a terrorist organisation, just as many black South Africans did. Let’s not forget that, just as Hamas is now, the ANC and it’s subsequently revered leader, Nelson Mandela, were once classified as criminals by those whom they opposed. They too engaged in violent resistance on occasion, and whilst most people didn’t support those more extreme activities, many understood the motivations. It’s also worth noting at this point that, at one time, two of Israel’s future prime ministers were classified as terrorists by the British Government.
There are also of course more blunt edged references being made to similarities with the behaviour of the Nazis in WWII. Whilst I’m nervous of such simplistic comparisons, there are commonalities that are difficult to ignore. August 1st saw the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising of 1944. A year before that there was the Jewish ghetto uprising. In both cases the resemblance between those brave insurgents and the behaviour of Palestinians in recent years is more than apparent.
In 1943 a demoralized population, forced into a narrow area within a community that they were once a part of, were being crushed under the might of a far superior military occupation force. They too dug tunnels under the barricades to try to circumvent the blockade and allow supplies in. After years of deprivation, and certain in the knowledge that their captors wanted nothing more than to see their ultimate destruction, they decided to fight back.
A year later, the city of Warsaw was largely destroyed by occupying forces as they made a desperate attempt to reclaim their independence amid hopes that advancing Russian and allied forces would provide support. Then as now, much of the world stood by and watched as the occupying army systematically obliterated the city and it’s population. Then as now, their pleas for help went largely unheeded.
Now I know that Hamas fighters are not the Polish resistance army, far from it, and the details are open to some considerable debate. I’m certainly not suggesting that the Israelis are a reincarnation of the Nazis. But in a broad sense there is something of an analogy between the motivations of both parties in these conflicts.
In both cases the population knew that the meagre arms and manpower available to them would be no match for the resources at the disposal of the occupying army. They knew that they would be met with overwhelming force by a militaristic power that was fundamentally opposed to their existence. In Gaza as in Warsaw, a desperate population left with few other choices, chose defiance of that agenda. Even if it cost them their lives.
It’s understandable that Israel would be incensed by such parallels. As the ethnic group who suffered the most at the hands of the Nazis, it’s a suggestion that seems particularly barbed. But it’s one that is being offered with increasing frequency now by respected Middle East commentators, including Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. And Norman should know – both his parents were involved in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
For these people and many others, Israel’s use of The Holocaust as a get-out-of-jail-free card for any treatment they feel justified in inflicting on others, has palled to a mawkish monologue of self-entitlement. In doing so they make their own historical enshrinement of the Holocaust an irrelevance. If the very people who suffered so appallingly during those terrible years don’t use that experience to inform their treatment of their own ethnic nemesis, what hope is there for any of us?
I don’t believe many of those who suffered in the concentration camps would have supported the IDF’s actions now, any more than the many humanitarian Israelis who protest in their own country against the actions of their government. Any more than my own Jewish friends who shake their heads in dismay at the killing of innocent civilians supposedly being carried out in their name.
The Hamas military wing may have it’s own agenda of hatred, but amid a tsunami of dogma and propaganda, something both sides in this conflict are very adept at, Israel seems unable to grasp the irony that it’s becoming the monster their forebears fought so hard to escape from. Indeed one expects Netanyahu to utter the words ‘final solution’ any day now.
The psychology of hatred
As a psychologist I see events in Gaza as evidence of a fundamental flaw in human nature. Even after being victims themselves, people can justify victimisation when their perspectives change. It’s a depressingly familiar scenario we’ve seen played out for centuries by almost every nation on the planet, including the US and the UK.
Less than 20 years after the horrors of the Nazis were revealed, the now infamous 1963 Milgram Experiment showed how many of us are prepared to put aside human empathy when given the right motivation. Anti-racism activist Jane Elliott’s ‘blue eyes/green eyes’ experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment a few years later showed how easily we can de-humanise each other.
Events in Gaza demonstrate that in a similar set of circumstances, we can all very easily repeat a history that we’d vowed never to let happen again. Unless of course that only means it shouldn’t happen to us.
Conflations between Israel’s actions and those of past atrocities will no doubt continue to be drawn. Whilst this may not help to find a solution to the conflict, it does remind us, and it should remind those on both sides of the barricades, that such behaviour won’t be accepted by the rest of the world indefinitely. Regimes based on intolerance, violence and military force may come and go, but none of them last forever.
Although sadly, while the world ignores lessons from history, we’re all doomed to see them repeated for probably just as long.