Holocaust survivors and the Palestinian issue

David T Rowlands
Winmalee HS

Although Nobel-prize winning author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has come out strongly in support of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, it is important to remember that opinion in the Holocaust survivor community is strongly divided over the West Bank occupation and the siege of Gaza.

Although Nobel-prize winning author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has come out strongly in support of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, it is important to remember that opinion in the Holocaust survivor community is strongly divided over the West Bank occupation and the siege of Gaza.

There are many survivors, in fact, who instead of falling into the trap of moral blindness as a result of the trauma they suffered, have embraced the cause of universal human dignity.

Since the establishment of the state of Israel, the memory of the Holocaust has been used by the Zionist movement both in Israel and overseas to justify the dispossession and oppression of Palestinians. In order to safeguard the future of the Jewish people in a world full of genocidal intent, runs the argument, a hard line must be taken against those who would “destroy” the Israeli state.

In late July, with the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in full swing, Elie Wiesel, author of the widely-read Holocaust memoir Night, wrote an article that was run as a paid advertisement in several major US newspapers.

The piece, commissioned by the Zionist lobby organisation The Values Group, drew on Wiesel’s Auschwitz experiences to defend Israel’s latest offensive in Gaza: “In my own lifetime, I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire. And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields, in both cases, by worshippers of death cults indistinguishable from that of the Molochites.”

Wiesel called upon “President Obama and the leaders of the world to condemn Hamas’ use of children as human shields” and urged “the American public to stand firmly with the people of Israel who are in yet another struggle for survival”.

Other stakeholders in the tragic Holocaust story have, however, embraced the universality of human rights rather than the path of narrow ethnic chauvinism, and their voices, while often marginalised by the mainstream media, have never been completely silenced.

Take Hedy Epstein, for example, a German-born Jewish American whose parents managed to get her out of Nazi Germany in 1939. All but two members of her family were subsequently murdered in Auschwitz.

Epstein is now a prominent activist on behalf of the Palestinian cause. For this stance, she has frequently been subjected to harsh punitive measures by Israeli authorities.

“At the end of one of my first journeys to the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 2004,” wrote Epstein in one of her many articles, “I endured a shocking experience at Ben-Gurion Airport. I never imagined that Israeli security forces would abuse a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor, but they held me for five hours, and strip-searched and cavity-searched every part of my naked body.

“The only shame these security officials expressed was to turn their badges around so that their names were invisible.”

Epstein, who turns 90 this year, says, “I use every ounce of my energy to educate the American public about the need to stop supporting the abuses committed by the Israeli government and military against the Palestinian people.”

Another prominent critic of Israeli policies, Suzanne Weiss, a Polish-born survivor who now resides in Canada, wrote in 2010, “The tragic experience of my family and community under Hitler makes me alert to the suffering of other peoples denied their human rights today — including the Palestinians.

“True, Hitler’s Holocaust was unique. The Palestinians are victims of ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Hitler started with that, but went on to extermination …
[F]or me, the Israeli government’s actions toward the Palestinians awaken horrific memories of my family’s experiences under Hitlerism: the inhuman walls, the checkpoints, the daily humiliations, killings, diseases, the systematic deprivation.

“There’s no escaping the fact that Israel has occupied the entire country of Palestine, and taken most of the land, while the Palestinians have been expelled, walled off, and deprived of human rights and human dignity.”

Speaking recently on Democracy Now, American Jewish community leader Harry Seigman (who was born in Germany in 1930), explicitly rejected the idea that the Holocaust somehow explains Israeli policies in Gaza: “I always thought that the important lesson of the Holocaust is not that there is evil, that there are evil people in this world who could do the most unimaginable, unimaginably cruel things … The great lesson of the Holocaust is that decent, cultured people, people we would otherwise consider good people, can allow such evil to prevail.”

The bystanders helped the Nazis, Seigman argues, and they help the ultra-Right in Israel today: “My deep disappointment is that the Israeli public, precisely because Israel is a democracy and cannot say, ‘We’re not responsible what our leaders do’, that the public puts these people back into office again and again.”

Rather than using the Holocaust to justify Israeli policies, the Holocaust experience in fact offers compelling reasons to reject the apartheid values that underpin the Israeli state. Elie Wiesel speaks for power and imperialism against the cause of humanity and freedom, dishonouring rather than honouring the memory of those who died at the hands of the Nazis.