Public Comment

Who Remembers the Holocaust?

By Annette Herskovits
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 07:16:00 PM

Three weeks into the Hamas-Israel truce, the Gazans are still imprisoned. The Israeli military, poised on the border, enters and shoots at will, the terrifying sound of jet fighters and helicopters continues, day and night. Truckloads of humanitarian aid are barred from entering.  

The plight of Gaza’s children has particular resonances for me. In 1944, after my parents had been deported to their death in Auschwitz, my brother, 17, and I, almost 5, were hiding in a Paris hotel room. The Allies were bombing a nearby train station, a terminus for Nazi supply lines. I clearly remember once being alone in the room, listening to the sirens’ whine, the roar of the planes, and the explosions. 

Several times during Israel’s 22-day attack on Gaza, I awoke at night, heart beating violently, from dreams of children in the dark under bomber planes. Gaza’s children have endured much worse than I—air strikes hour after hour, tanks on every street, no shelter, scarce water and food. What will become of these massively traumatized children? 

When they withdrew Jan. 18, Israeli forces had killed 700 civilians—including 450 children—and injured several thousands more. Evidence of deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure—war crimes—accumulates. In all, 10 Israeli soldiers were killed, which casts doubt on Israeli claims that Hamas “terrorists” booby trapped every house and hid behind every civilian.  

As a Holocaust survivor, I often receive literature from Jewish organizations calling on memory: “We must never forget.” But Israel’s leaders have forgotten the one important thing there was to remember: never dehumanize/demonize another people.  

There has been much speculation about the goals of Israel’s offensive. But few knowledgeable analysts find the stated objective of stopping Hamas from launching rockets into Israel more than a thin pretext. Israel could simply have accepted Hamas’ offer of a one-year truce in exchange for ending Gaza’s blockade. Hamas scrupulously observed a ceasefire from last June until Nov. 4, when Israel broke it, purportedly to destroy a tunnel dug by Palestinian militants to kidnap Israeli soldiers—difficult to believe in light of a report by Israeli newspaper Haaretz’ that Israel had prepared the attacks for months.  

Published photographs show Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barack smiling broadly as they congratulate each other on a job well done. This stunning callousness evokes the words of Moshe Dayan, one of Israel’s “fathers”: “Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.” And so it has become, or always was—establishing itself by expelling 750,000 Palestinian Arabs, committing atrocities such as forcing the inhabitants of the cities of Lydda and Ramle onto roads to the east in August. No one knows how many died. 

The crimes of Israel’s birth—the 1948 Nakba, or “catastrophe” to Palestinians—were almost inevitable consequences of the West’s malfeasance: from 2000 years of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, to England giving away land it did not own with characteristic colonialist insouciance. Those Jews who believed collective rebirth demanded a Jewish state bear only part of the blame. 

But the first Israelis bequeathed a terrible legacy. Dayan’s dreadful advice encouraged a society where violence against “Arabs” has become habitual and undiscriminating. Many Israeli Jews remained unmoved by the suffering of Palestinian children—claiming, absurdly, this is what Israel must do to survive. 

Most Israelis have simply erased from awareness the dispossession and destruction inflicted on Palestinians. “What have we done to them?” said a Jewish settler in the West Bank. A young woman clerk in an Israeli Embassy complained to me: “We built such a beautiful country; but the Palestinians will not leave us peace.” 

Yes, “we” had beautiful dreams: we only forgot they involved clearing the land of another people. The Palestinians might in time have forgiven 1948, but the expulsions resumed in 1967 and continue, as settlements grow and multiply in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and 2.3 million Palestinians are treated like intruders on their own land. 

Whether Barack Obama will stand up to Israel’s recklessness is still unclear. Many peace activists now call for cutting military aid to Israel and boycotting Israeli products. Such campaigns would pressure US politicians to listen to those few legislators who condemn Israel’s slaughter, and would also help Israelis who oppose their country’s policies. They have learned the true lesson of the Nazi genocide: we are fully human only when we are able to see the world from the perspective of others and behave with compassion.  


Annette Herskovits became a writer and peace activist after a career as a linguist and college professor. She is the daughter of Holocaust victims.