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An Open Letter on the Misuse of Holocaust Memory

fotogoocom/Wikimedia Commons

Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, August 28, 2015

We the undersigned are scholars of the Holocaust and antisemitism from different institutions. We write to express our dismay and disappointment at political leaders and notable public figures invoking Holocaust memory to explain the current crisis in Gaza and Israel. 

Particular examples have ranged from Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan donning a yellow star featuring the words “Never Again” while addressing the UN General Assembly, to US President Joe Biden saying that Hamas had “engaged in barbarism that is as consequential as the Holocaust,” while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that “Hamas are the new Nazis.” US Representative Brian Mast, a Republican from Florida, speaking on the House floor, questioned the idea that there are “innocent Palestinian civilians,” claiming, “I don’t think we would so lightly throw around the term ‘innocent Nazi civilians’ during World War II.”

Antisemitism often increases at times of heightened crisis in Israel-Palestine, as do Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism. The unconscionable violence of the October 7 attacks and the ongoing aerial bombardment and invasion of Gaza are devastating, and are generating pain and fear among Jewish and Palestinian communities around the world. We reiterate that everyone has the right to feel safe wherever they live, and that addressing racism, antisemitism, and Islamophobia must be a priority. 

It is understandable why many in the Jewish community recall the Holocaust and earlier pogroms when trying to comprehend what happened on October 7—the massacres, and the images that came out in the aftermath, have tapped into deep-seated collective memory of genocidal antisemitism, driven by all-too-recent Jewish history. 

However, appealing to the memory of the Holocaust obscures our understanding of the antisemitism Jews face today, and dangerously misrepresents the causes of violence in Israel-Palestine. The Nazi genocide involved a state—and its willing civil society—attacking a tiny minority, which then escalated to a continent-wide genocide. Indeed, comparisons of the crisis unfolding in Israel-Palestine to Nazism and the Holocaust—above all when they come from political leaders and others who can sway public opinion—are intellectual and moral failings. At a moment when emotions are running high, political leaders have a responsibility to act calmly and avoid stoking the flames of distress and division. And, as academics, we have a duty to uphold the intellectual integrity of our profession and support others around the world in making sense of this moment.

Israeli leaders and others are using the Holocaust framing to portray Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza as a battle for civilization in the face of barbarism, thereby promoting racist narratives about Palestinians. This rhetoric encourages us to separate this current crisis from the context out of which it has arisen. Seventy-five years of displacement, fifty-six years of occupation, and sixteen years of the Gaza blockade have generated an ever-deteriorating spiral of violence that can only be arrested by a political solution. There is no military solution in Israel-Palestine, and deploying a Holocaust narrative in which an “evil” must be vanquished by force will only perpetuate an oppressive state of affairs that has already lasted far too long.

Insisting that “Hamas are the new Nazis”—while holding Palestinians collectively responsible for Hamas’s actions—attributes hardened, antisemitic motivations to those who defend Palestinian rights. It also positions the protection of Jewish people against the upholding of international human rights and laws, implying that the current assault on Gaza is a necessity. And invoking the Holocaust to dismiss demonstrators calling for a “free Palestine” fuels the repression of Palestinian human rights advocacy and the conflation of antisemitism with criticism of Israel.

In this climate of growing insecurity, we need clarity about antisemitism so that we can properly identify and combat it. We also need clear thinking as we grapple with and respond to what is unfolding in Gaza and the West Bank. And we need to be forthright in dealing with these simultaneous realities—of resurgent antisemitism and widespread killing in Gaza, as well as escalating expulsions in the West Bank—as we engage with the public discourse.

We encourage those who have so readily invoked comparisons to Nazi Germany to listen to the rhetoric coming from Israel’s political leadership. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israeli parliament that “this is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness” (a tweet from his office with the same phrase was later deleted). Defense Minister Yoav Gallant proclaimed, “We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.” Such comments, along with a widespread and frequently cited argument that there are no innocent Palestinians in Gaza, do indeed bring to mind echoes of historical mass violence. But those resonances should serve as an injunction against wide-scale killing, not as a call to extend it.

As academics we have a responsibility to use our words, and our expertise, with judgment and sensitivity—to try and dial down inciteful language that is liable to provoke further discord, and instead to prioritize speech and action aimed at preventing further loss of life. This is why when invoking the past, we must do so in ways that illuminate the present and do not distort it. This is the necessary basis for establishing peace and justice in Palestine and Israel. This is why we urge public figures, including the media, to stop using these kinds of comparisons.

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Karyn Ball
Professor of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta

Omer Bartov
Samuel Pisar Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Brown University

Christopher R. Browning
Professor of History Emeritus, UNC-Chapel Hill

Jane Caplan
Emeritus Professor of Modern European History, University of Oxford 

Alon Confino
Professor of History and Jewish Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Debórah Dwork
Director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity, Graduate Center—City University of New York

David Feldman
Director, Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, University of London

Amos Goldberg
The Jonah M. Machover Chair in Holocaust Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Atina Grossmann
Professor of History, Cooper Union, New York

John-Paul Himka
Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta

Marianne Hirsch
Professor Emerita, Comparative Literature and Gender Studies, Columbia University

A. Dirk Moses
Spitzer Professor of International Relations, City College of New York

Michael Rothberg
Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Holocaust Studies, UCLA

Raz Segal
Associate Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Stockton University

Stefanie Schüler-Springorum
Director, Center for Research on Antisemitism, Technische Universität Berlin  

Barry Trachtenberg
Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History, Wake Forest University

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