From the editor’s desk
Auschwitz’s long shadow2 February 2013
The German theologian Johann Baptist Metz once wrote that it was forbidden to do theology “with one’s back turned to Auschwitz”. He meant that the “dangerous memory” of the Holocaust must be allowed to cast its dark shadow over all areas of Christian thought. His principle of never forgetting Auschwitz could usefully be extended to any commentary on, or cartoons about, the present internal condition of Israel.
It is facile, simplistic and morally offensive to make comparisons between the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews that culminated in the murder of six million of them, and the questionable policies of successive Israeli governments towards the Palestinians. For instance the Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, David Ward, recently observed: “It appears that the suffering by the Jews has not transformed their views on how others should be treated.” Such remarks seem to imply that there is some moral deficiency in the Jewish character.
The cartoonist Gerald Scarfe and The Sunday Times acting editor Martin Ivens fell into the same trap in last weekend’s edition of the paper. The Scarfe cartoon showed the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall between Arab and Israeli-held territories using the remains of dead Palestinians. Published on Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the day in 1945 when Auschwitz was liberated, the cartoon virtually accused Mr Netanyahu of complicity in mass murder – almost a new form of blood libel – and came a lot too close to invoking collective memories of the sort of anti-Semitic drawings that appeared in Germany during the Nazi era.
The cartoon was condemned, not least by Rupert Murdoch who apologised, calling it grotesque and offensive. Mr Ivens and Mr Scarfe also expressed their regrets, and Mr Ivens met Jewish representatives to do so in person. But this false association of present-day Israeli policy towards Palestinians with the events of the Holocaust is widespread, and whether they meant to or not, Messrs Scarfe, Ivens and Ward have given it further currency.
The only relevant connection between the six million who died in the Holocaust and present-day Israelis like Mr Netanyahu is that they are all Jewish, and Jews believe that the only ultimate guarantee of Jewish survival in a hostile world is the existence of a Jewish homeland. And remembering Auschwitz, they have every reason for thinking so.
The annual commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day serves as a warning that the virus of anti-Semitism is by no means extinct. There is more than a hint of it in popular culture in many parts of the Arab world today, where anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have almost merged into one. This does just as much disservice to the truth as the opposite – assuming that all criticism of Israel is motivated by anti-Jewish prejudice.
It is a fair judgement to say that the security barrier between Israel and most of the West Bank has been routed arbitrarily, and that the living conditions of many Palestinians affected by it are harsh, even while recognising that the barrier has substantially reduced the loss of civilian life from suicide bombings. Though the Palestinians deserve a better deal, Israel has a duty to protect itself. And anything that calls in question Israel’s right to exist, unwittingly or not, must be resisted.
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