Sixty years ago, the Jews of Europe were at the lowest point of their collective existence. Herded like cattle into trains, they were transported from the rest of Europe by Nazi soldiers into death camps where they were systematically exterminated in gas ovens. They had offered some resistance in Poland, but in most places they first lost their civil status, then they were removed from their jobs, then they were designated official enemies to be destroyed, and then they were.
In every significant instance they were the most powerless of people, treated as insidious, potentially overpowering enemies by leaders and armies whose own power was far, far greater; indeed, even the idea of Jews representing a danger to the might of countries like Germany, France, and Italy was preposterous. But it was an accepted idea, since with few exceptions most of Europe turned its back on them during their slaughter. It is only one of the ironies of history that the word used most frequently to describe them in the hideous official jargon of fascism was the word “terrorists”, just as Algerians and Vietnamese were later called “terrorists” by their enemies.
Every human calamity is different, so there is no point in trying to look for equivalence between one and the other. But it is certainly true that one universal truth about the Holocaust is not only that it should never again happen to Jews, but that as a cruel and tragic collective punishment, it should not happen to any people at all.
But if there is no point in looking for equivalence, there is a value in seeing analogies and perhaps hidden similarities, even as we preserve a sense of proportion. Quite apart from his actual history of mistakes and misrule, Yasser Arafat is now being made to feel like a hunted Jew by the state of the Jews. There is no gainsaying the fact that the greatest irony of his siege by the Israeli army in his ruined Ramallah compound, is that his ordeal has been planned and carried out by a psychopathic leader who claims to represent the Jewish people. I do not want to press the analogy too far, but it is true to say that Palestinians under Israeli occupation today are as powerless as Jews were in the 1940s. Israel’s army, air force and navy, heavily subsidised by the United States, have been wreaking havoc on the totally defenceless civilian population of the occupied West Bank and Gaza strip. For the past half century the Palestinians have been a dispossessed people, millions of them refugees, most of the rest under a 35 year old military occupation, at the mercy of armed settlers who systematically have been stealing their land and an army that has killed Palestinians by the thousands. Thousands more have been imprisoned, thousands have lost their livelihood, made refugees for the second or third time, all of them without civil or human rights.
And still Sharon makes the case that Israel is struggling to survive against Palestinian terrorism. Is there anything more grotesque than this claim, even as this deranged killer of Arabs sends his F-16s, his attack helicopters and hundreds of tanks against unarmed people without any defences at all. They are terrorists, he says, and their leader, humiliatingly imprisoned in a crumbling building with Israeli destruction all round him, is characterised as the arch-terrorist of all time. Arafat has the courage and defiance to resist, and he has his people with him on that score. Every Palestinian feels the deliberate humiliation inflicted on him as a cruelty without political or military purpose except punishment, pure and simple. What right does Israel have to do this?
The symbolism is truly awful to register, and is made even more so by the knowledge that Sharon and his supporters, to say nothing of his criminal army, intend what the symbolism so starkly illustrates. Israeli Jews are the powerful ones. Palestinians their hunted and despised Others. Luckily for Sharon, he has Shimon Peres, perhaps the greatest coward and hypocrite in world politics today, going round everywhere saying that Israel understands the difficulties of the Palestinian people, and “we” are willing to make the closures slightly less onerous. After which not only does nothing improve, but the curfews, demolitions, and killings intensify. And of course, the Israeli position is to call for massive international humanitarian aid which, as Terje- Rod Larsen correctly says, is in effect to cajole international donors into actually underwriting the Israeli occupation. Sharon must surely feel that he can do anything and not only get away with it completely but somehow even to manage a campaign whose purpose is to give Israel the role of victim.
As popular protests grow worldwide, the organised Zionist counter- response has been to complain that anti-semitism is on the rise. Only two days ago Harvard University President Lawrence Summers issued a statement to the effect that an anti-divestment campaign led by professors — an attempt to pressure the university into divesting itself of shares in American firms selling military equipment to Israel — was anti-Semitic. A Jewish president of the country’s oldest and richest university complains of anti-semitism! Criticism of Israeli policy is now routinely equated with anti-semitism of the kind that brought about the Holocaust, even though in the United States there is no anti-semitism to speak of. In the US, a group of Israeli and American academics are organising a McCarthy-style campaign against professors who have spoken up about Israeli human rights abuses; the main purpose of the campaign is to ask students and faculty to inform against their pro-Palestinian colleagues, intimidating the right of free speech and seriously curtailing academic freedom.
A further irony is that protests against Israeli brutality — most recently Arafat’s humiliating isolation in Ramallah — have taken place on a mass level. Palestinians by the thousands defied curfews in Gaza and several West Bank towns in order to go out on the streets in support of their embattled leader. For their part, the Arab rulers have been silent or powerless or both together. Every one of them, including Arafat, has for years openly stated a willingness for peace with Israel; two leading Arab countries actually have treaties with it. Yet all Sharon gives in return is a kick to their collective bottoms. Arabs, he says repeatedly, only understand force, and now that we have power we shall treat them as they deserve (and as we used to be treated).
Uri Avnery is right: Arafat is being murdered. And with him, according to Sharon, will die the aspirations of the Palestinians. This is an exercise short of complete genocide to see how far Israeli power can go in sadistic brutality without being stopped or apprehended. Today Sharon has said that in the event of a war with Iraq, which is definitely coming, he will retaliate against Iraq, thus no doubt causing Bush and Rumsfeld the nightmares they rightly deserve. Sharon’s last attempt at regime change was in Lebanon during 1982. He put Bashir Jemayel in as president, then was summarily told by Jemayel that Lebanon would never be an Israeli vassal, then Jemayel was assassinated, then the Sabra and Shatila massacres took place, then after 20 bloody and ignominious years the Israelis sullenly withdrew from Lebanon.
What conclusion is one to draw from all this?
That Israeli policy has been a disaster for the entire region. The more powerful it becomes, the more ruin it sows in the countries around it, to say nothing of the catastrophes it has executed against the Palestinian people, and the more hated it becomes. It is power used for evil purposes, not self-defence at all. The Zionist dream of a Jewish state being a normal state like all others has come to the vision of the leader of Palestine’s indigenous people hanging on to his life by a thread, while Israeli tanks and bulldozers continue to wreck everything around him. Is this the Zionist goal for which hundreds of thousands have died? Isn’t it clear what logic of resentment and violence is at work in all this, and what power will come from the powerlessness that can now only witness but will certainly develop later?
Sharon is proud to have defied the entire world, not because the world is anti-Semitic but because what he does in the name of the Jewish people is so outrageous. Isn’t it time for those who feel that his appalling actions do not represent them to call a halt to his behaviour?