An Open Letter on Hamas, Antisemitism, and Holocaust Memory
The undersigned are scholars of Nazi Germany, of the Holocaust, of Israel, and of antisemitism. We express our disagreement with the statement by some of our fellow scholars in their “Open Letter on the Misuse of Holocaust Memory” of November 20, 2023, in The New York Review of Books. In the letter they express “dismay and disappointment at political leaders and notable public figures invoking Holocaust memory to explain the current crisis in Gaza and Israel.” The use of Holocaust memory in this way, they suggest, amounts to distortion of the present moment to advance political agendas.
On October 7 Hamas carried out in Israel a deliberate campaign of mass murder, rape, torture, and kidnapping. This was not the Holocaust, but it was the most important mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust. Finding commonalities and differences between historical events has always been essential to understanding the past and the present.
In terms of ideas, there is a Nazi connection to Hamas. A substantial body of research examines the distinctive form of Islamist Jew-hatred that emerged in the 1930s with the Muslim Brotherhood. This scholarship also examines the ways in which Nazi Germany exported European antisemitic conspiracy theories to the Middle East before and during World War II and the Holocaust, and the collaboration of Islamists in that endeavor. A mélange of Jew-hatred resulted, informed by religious fanaticism on the one hand and Nazi theories of Jewish global control on the other. The body of scholarship also examines the use and misuse of Holocaust memory in Arab political life. The signers of the November 20 letter overlook this scholarship.
This mix of Islamist and European Jew-hatred, while not shared by the entire Arab/Muslim world, has maintained a shadow over the Middle East as regards the existence of a Jewish state. It began with the Muslim Brotherhood and Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, and it continues with Hamas, which itself is an offshoot of the Brotherhood. In its call to destroy the Jewish state, Hamas’s Charter of 1988 is replete with the Brotherhood’s vicious Jew-hatred on the one hand, and Nazi conspiracy theories on the other. Hamas’s revised statement of 2017 expresses the same determination, albeit in slightly more secular terminology.
The authors of the November 20 letter point to geopolitical differences between October 7 and the Holocaust. The Nazi genocide, they say, began with “a state—and its willing civil society—attacking a tiny minority.” But Hamas has had a state in Gaza for seventeen years, five years longer than the Nazis controlled Germany. Like all dictatorships, Hamas holds a monopoly on lawmaking, communication, and the use of force. Gaza is also a civil society, terrorized by Hamas but also with willing Hamas supporters. In Hamas’s core documents, Israel represents an intolerable minority embedded in the Muslim world. The signatories of November 20 do not mention these realities.
The open letter of November 20 warns that certain language in today’s discourse can induce racism and Islamophobia. It objects especially to the term “barbarism,” used by President Biden and others to refer to the attacks of October 7. The term fully applies to the actions of Hamas on that terrible day. The antisemitism of extermination, whether in 1941 or in 2023, includes dehumanization of Jews as well as the celebration and even recording of their murders as historic liberation from a global and existential enemy. Indeed, the Hamas killers of October 7, in contrast to the secrecy which the Nazi regime hoped would shroud the Holocaust, proudly publicized the horrifying details of mass murder.
Our colleagues similarly charge that misapplication of the term “antisemitism” stifles legitimate calls for Palestinian rights. Yet the linkage by many people of the chant “free Palestine” to approbation of the crimes of October 7 fits any definition of antisemitism. Our fellow scholars also characterize Israel’s relationship with Palestinians as “seventy-five years of displacement, fifty-six years of occupation, and sixteen years of the Gaza blockade.” This, they say, has made impossible a political solution with Palestinian organizations. None of us would argue that Israeli governments have not made their share of poor decisions in recent years. But again, there are large bodies of archivally based scholarship concerning Israel’s history and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The notion of constant Israeli perfidy going back to 1948 does not stand up to scholarly scrutiny.
It is not an exaggeration, nor is it a misuse of history or memory, to assert that Hamas is a contemporary expression of ideas that stand in a longer, reactionary tradition of Jew-hatred, racism, and terror. An unflinching gaze at the connections between past and present in the Hamas dictatorship and its actions is essential.
Distinguished University Professor, Emeritus, University of Maryland, College Park
Norman J. W. Goda
Norman and Irma Braman Professor of Holocaust Studies, University of Florida
Click here for the full list of signatories
Professor, Department of History, Virginia Commonwealth University
Russell A. Berman
Walter A. Haas Professor of the Humanities, Stanford University
Independent Writer, Brooklyn, New York
Distinguished Professor Emeritus, American University
Professor of History, Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History Munich-Berlin
Lecturer and Scientific Head, Research Institute Ludwigsburg, Universität Stuttgart
Professor of History, Tel Aviv University
Carl von Ossietzky University – Oldenburg
Professor Emeritus, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, Emeritus, Emory University
Professor of Antisemitism Studies, Catholic University of Applied Science North Rhine-Westfalia
Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth University
Senior Lecturer of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London
Erna B. Rosenfeld Associate Professor, Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, Indiana University
Principal Research Associate Emeritus, Tel Aviv University
Independent Scholar, Reinfeld, Germany
Professor of History, Tel Aviv University
Professor Emeritus of History, Bar-Ilan University
Joanna B. Michlic
Visiting Profesor of Holocaust and Contemporary History, Lund University, Sweden
Professor Emeritus of History, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Emeritus, University of Illinois
Professor Emeritus for Contemporary German History, Nottingham, Trent University
Irving M. Glaser Chair in Jewish Studies, Indiana University
Professor of History, Fairfield University
Professor of History, Tel Aviv University
Norman A. Stillman
Schusterman/Josey Chair Emeritus of Judaic History, University of Oklahoma
Professor of Sociology, Universität Passau
Fellow, London Centre for Study of Contemporary Antisemitism
Associate Professor of History, Hampshire College
Professor of History and International Affairs, University of Aberdeen
Professor of Philosophy, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Karyn Ball, Omer Bartov, Christopher R. Browning, Jane Caplan, Alon Confino, Debórah Dwork, David Feldman, Amos Goldberg, Atina Grossmann, John-Paul Himka, Marianne Hirsch, A. Dirk Moses, Michael Rothberg, Raz Segal, Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, and Barry Trachtenberg reply:
We have carefully read our colleagues’ response to the open letter we signed on the misuse of Holocaust memory and find no reason to revise our arguments or our position.
We share our critics’ shock and revulsion at Hamas’s heinous and criminal attack on October 7, yet their response to our letter fails to engage with our main point: namely, that political leaders and figures in the media should avoid referring to those attacks as a Holocaust and to Hamas as Nazis. The effect of such statements is to radicalize political discourse, dehumanize Palestinians, decontextualize the historical situation, and relativize Nazi crimes. In the current asymmetric conflict in Gaza, these statements serve to rationalize the commission of war crimes: if the current war is conceived of as a battle between “the children of light and the children of darkness,” between the civilized and the barbarians, between the Jews and the Nazis, then every act of violence is a priori justified as preventing a second Holocaust.
Indeed, with the support of this rhetoric and the politics it represents, Israel continues to kill thousands of innocent people, including over six thousand children to date; to systematically destroy cities and refugee camps in the Gaza Strip; to turn most of Gaza’s residents into refugees; and, in the words of Avi Dichter, the former head of the Shin Bet and a senior minister in the Israeli government, to inflict a second Nakba. Israel has done all of this while still asserting that its army is the most moral in the world.
There is no basis for a meaningful comparison between the crimes committed by Hamas on October 7, as shocking and horrific as they were, and the Holocaust. Our critics assert that certain ideological affinities between Nazism and Hamas provide a sufficient lens through which to interpret current events. In doing so, they promote what Daniel Schroeter has labeled “the myth of Nazi-like Islamic anti-Semitism.” We endorse the important range of scholarship that cautions against drawing broad conclusions about Arab and Muslim sentiments toward Jews based on the actions of a few wartime exiles in Berlin (including the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem), however significant they were as individuals—and which argues that the development of harsh antisemitism within some parts of the Arab national movements (the Palestinians included) has been more the outcome of the conflict than its cause.
As historians we seek meanings within contexts, and the contexts for Nazism and Hamas differ greatly. The Third Reich was a state built on a system of radical terror, and for a period it was the strongest military power in Europe, which ruled over a continental empire and pursued a policy of total annihilation of the Jews. Jews in Europe and North Africa did not pose a military threat to Germany in any way, but were instead a vulnerable minority lacking any effective ability to defend themselves.
Hamas is a completely different phenomenon. The writers’ claim that “Hamas has had a state in Gaza for seventeen years, five years longer than the Nazis controlled Germany” is specious and tendentious. The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated and poorest pieces of land in the world, which, according to most international bodies, remains under occupation. It has been under siege for sixteen years and depends completely on Israel—from control of the population registry to the amount of water, gas, and even pasta allowed in. Forty-five percent of its residents were unemployed before the war and 81 percent lived under the poverty line. Most of its residents are refugees or descendants of refugees who were expelled or who fled during the Nakba of 1948. How can a comparison to the Third Reich possibly illuminate social and political conditions in this territory?
Israel, by contrast, is the strongest power in the region. It helped establish Hamas during the 1980s, aiming to divide and rule, and has sustained the movement ever since in order to avoid creating a Palestinian state. The terrorist attack of October 7, as ferocious as it was, did not pose an existential threat to the State of Israel, as General Aharon Haliva, commander of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, recently acknowledged. Framing the Gaza war as a war against Nazis, and the horrific events of October 7 as similar to the Holocaust, evades the fundamental issues underlying the conflict and disavows the role of the state of Israel in shaping them. These issues are the Nakba and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees, the lack of equal rights between the river and the sea, the occupation and the settlements, the siege, and the absence of any prospect of positive political change. These are the structural conditions that provide the context for violence and war today, not a handful of “poor decisions” by the Israeli governments, as the misleading response to our letter claims.
Our original letter recognizes the foundational symbolic meaning of the Holocaust for Jewish people, in Israel and around the world. Acknowledging this foundational meaning, we warned against invoking Holocaust memory and history as a way to perceive and support the current war. As we write this reply, the renewal of fighting and its spread to the south of the Gaza Strip are inflicting massive death and destruction on the people of Gaza. This resumption, inevitably, has been accompanied by the abandonment of negotiations to free the Israeli hostages. Today we think our warning is more urgent than ever.