“Holocaust, Revival and Nakba”
A discussion of Yair Oron’s new book
By: Eitan Bronstein Aparicio

8.4.13, Zochrot.  35 people attended.

Eitan Bronstein Aparicio:
“Academic Monitor” reported that this discussion would take place, including in its report accusations directed at Zochrot and at Yair Oron.  That’s not very surprising, since any discussion linking the Holocaust and the Nakba undermines the Israeli national narrative, is upsetting and results in accusations whose purpose is to prevent any critical discussion of how the Holocaust is memorialized in Israel.  But the truth is that we repeatedly connect the Holocaust and the Nakba. For example, Palestinians ask:  “How could you, who suffered as you did, carry out the Nakba?”  This question makes such discussions fraught and dramatic.

I remember once talking about Zochrot in Holland.  A man named Hugh Meyer was in the audience; he had a number tattooed on his arm, from the Holocaust.  He was the first to respond when I had finished speaking: “How could a people who’d undergone a Nakba have caused a Holocaust for the Palestinians!?”  His words were difficult to hear.

Eliezer Ben Yosef gave us a book he’d written.  He’d participated in the capture of Lod in 1948.  He’d stood at a checkpoint, frisked the fleeing refugees and took their valuables. He said he’d been good at it because he and his family had undergone a similar experience in Europe a few years earlier. 

There are many contexts where the Holocaust and the Nakba jointly appear.  We’re now reading testimonies from Palmach fighters who refer to that connection.  Gabi Barashi, for example, who was a platoon leader in the Dani operation to capture Lod, recounts his efforts to prevent his men from looting the property of the Palestinian refugees who’d been expelled.  He says the soldiers replied:  “Do you know what they did to us in Europe?  What they took from us in Europe?”  They justify their actions by what was done to them in Europe.

Yair Oron:
The Germans-Jews-Palestinians triangle is tragic, but we haven’t yet come to terms with it.  Israeli society, particularly its official institutions, continue to deny the Nakba and considers any attempt at linking it to the Holocaust as sacrilegious. But there’s no avoiding it; the facts link the Nakba and the Holocaust.  I’m Israeli-born, a member of the Six Day War generation, and have begun to understand there are many questions here we don’t ask, many issues we don’t raise.

Many years ago I began criticizing the country and Israeli society about its policy regarding the Holocaust.  I’m afraid that young people return after their trips to the camps in Poland and in Germany saying, “Now I know why we’re here.”  The focus, unfortunately, is on particularistic Zionist values, and sometimes on particularistic Jewish values.  Never on universal values.

We say the Holocaust is unique.  I won’t argue, because the Holocaust does have unique characteristics that distinguish it from other genocides.  Gas chambers, for example.  In Rwanda they murdered using machetes.  People murdered their neighbors and members of their family.  What does that say about human nature?  But that’s not part of the Israeli discourse on genocide.  I don’t think that in 2013 you can talk about the Holocaust without talking about genocide.

We fear addressing genocide.  The Ministry of Education doesn’t formally prohibit doing so.  I was asked in 2004 to prepare a program on genocide, but after Shulamit Aloni was fired the program was cancelled because the program discussed various views about whether there had been an Armenian genocide, which wasn’t acceptable from an educational perspective.

We don’t look like the image we have of ourselves; the difference doesn’t do us credit.  I wrote the book because I hope I’m able to identify with the suffering of both sides, both peoples.  I’m choosing my words carefully.  Living in Neve Shalom provides me with additional tools to understand the pain felt by both sides.  That’s what moved me to write the book.  People on the left are the target of many accusations.  But the accusers forget, or want to forget, what can’t be forgotten, that the Holocaust occurred three years before 1948.  We manipulate the Holocaust in many ways, but it really occurred, and the effects of the memory of the Holocaust are very present in our lives.  Did the Holocaust make us more hot-headed?  Did we become crueler?  Less self-controlled?  Or perhaps the Holocaust gave us the tools to preserve a humanistic perspective even in wartime?  I haven’t an unequivocal answer.  In a sense, Israeli Jews were already using the Holocaust in 1948 to justify immoral acts, which I think is illegitimate.

I wasn’t aware of many of the massacres that occurred in 1948.  I didn’t know about the massacre in Ein Zeitoun, for example.  A Palmach unit entered the village.  The battalion or regimental commander ordered that prisoners be taken because they were afraid that in the battle for Ramot Naftali Jews would be taken prisoner, so they wanted prisoners to exchange.  As it happened, no Jews were taken prisoner at Ramot Naftali, and they didn’t know what to do with the prisoners from Ein Zeitoun.  They take 70 or 80 or 110 (those are the numbers that are mentioned, 65 years later, after intensive research.  The researchers disagree about the facts.  The disagreement is about the facts, not their interpretation.), civilians, their hands and feet bound, and throw them into a nearby wadi.  They leave them there for two days.  They were afraid a foreign delegation would arrive, from the UN.  So the commander, whose identity is known today, a kibbutznik from HaShomer HaTza’ir (who in the 80’s continued to claim he did the right thing), orders them killed.  Some soldiers refuse, and two sieze the opportunity.  They want to avenge people whose family members were killed in the Holocaust, and they murder the prisoners.  The commander sends Netiva Ben Yehuda to lead 3-4 people to untie the bodies.  She first recounts the story in 1985, 37 years later.  She writes that everything she says is absolutely true, and only the names have been changed.  That experience, she says, changed her life.  Dozens of people must have known about it, and kept quiet.  Because we’re
not supposed to know.  Many people, including me, didn’t know.  

There’s no chance of reconciliation if we don’t at least admit what we did.

Khaled Qassab Mahmid:
I’ve been researching the Holocaust for years.  It’s not possible to compare it with other genocides.  As a refugee, whose father was expelled from Kafr Aljun, I know that you can’t say the Holocaust is like the Nakba.  They’re not comparable, and they mustn’t be compared.  “They can’t be compared” is in itself a comparison.  A crime was committed against the Palestinians; they suffered because of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is used to create an identity of Israelis as victims, and that’s how those victims treat my father and my children.  Israel isn’t a country; it’s a mourners’ pavilion.

Genocide is possible when two parties are unequal.  One of the parties to genocide has almost total control over the victim.  War provides the opportunity to annihilate the victim.  Take the Holocaust, for example.  There were 16-17 million Jews and 62 million Germans.  Allegedly, others weren’t involved.  How could genocide occur?  When the third party, the rest of the world, does nothing to prevent it.  Many support the perpetrators.  Because they provide benefits.  The vast majority remains on the sidelines.  We also usually help the perpetrators.  Genocide isn’t possible otherwise.

Why is a Jewish state strong?  I don’t think the Jewish people would exist without a state.  We needed a state in order to preserve Jewish national existence.

I purposely don’t say “the Armenian Holocaust;” I’m careful to say “genocide.”  Because I know many people are sensitive, and I want to respect their feelings; they’re not ready to use the term, and I respect that, and don’t want to be labeled a “Holocaust denier.”  One of the obvious conclusions to be drawn from the twentieth century is that genocide isn’t possible without first preparing public opinion – that the Tutsi, for example, are germs, mice.  And if they’re mice then it’s simple, necessary and permissible to kill them.  While events in Rwanda were occurring, people in Israel weren’t able to describe what was happening as genocide.  Racism is the basis for all genocide; it’s the necessary prior condition, denying that victims are entitled to be treated as human beings.

In one chapter I analyze Abba Kovner’s writing.  He was a Holocaust survivor and became the commander of the Vilna ghetto underground forces after his predecessor had surrendered to the Germans.  Abba Kovner called upon Jews not to go as lambs to the slaughter. His words continue to be distorted.  He was an officer in the Giv’ati brigade in 1948.  He wrote and distributed leaflets to his soldiers.  They contained shockingly cruel incitement, were terribly racist, referred to the Egyptian soldiers in the most derogatory terms and called for their annihilation.  And a year later he publishes a series of poems filled with humanistic sentiments and understanding of the Palestinians’ pain.  How can the two be reconciled?

I don’t think the Nakba is genocide; it’s ethnic cleansing.  I’ve been studying genocide for twenty years, and accept the UN’s definition.  There’s a difference between ethnic cleansing and genocide.  Genocide involves the extermination of the population; ethnic cleansing involves its expulsion.

That’s what I think.  I know that an increasing number of Palestinians and European researchers are characterizing the Nakba as genocide.  I believe that view will spread, and that it’s a result of Israeli policy.

How do you determine what’s a massacre?  For me, a massacre is defined quantitatively.  It may sound like an argument over semantics, but when everything is called a massacre, then the meaning of “massacre” is diminished.

I don’t think the issue is one of quantity.

I use the term genocide rather than mass murder because genocide is the accepted term internationally.  In Hebrew it would be called “annihilation of a people” or “murder of a people.”

Transcription: Amaya Galili
Translation to English: Charles Kamen

Zochrot online