A Second Holocaust or Zionism and Ethnic Cleansing?

“The example of Nazi Germany proves how dangerous for humanity the combination of evil and advanced technological means can be. This is the reason why the entire enlightened world is currently making a serious effort to prevent evil regimes like Iran – which openly announces the need to destroy the State of Israel – from obtaining nuclear weapons. In this field, we cannot take any chances.” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert , speech to the Knesset May 2007 (1)

A Second Holocaust : How likely?

Israelis for decades have talked of the threat of a new Holocaust brought about by the military defeat or nuclear annihilation of Israel (2). Some still do. For instance in April 2007 a senior member of Israel's Likud party told reporters "We draw a parallel with the Third Reich ....They [Iran's leaders] are mad ... For Ahmadinejad, the cold war idea of mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it's an incentive." (3). President Bush similarly in a speech in August/September 2007 claimed there was a threat of a second holocaust, this time nuclear and against Israel (4) .

That many Israelis and Jews still see Israel as surrounded on all sides and as threatened with another Holocaust is understandable given the history of pogroms from the medieval period through to the 19th century and finishing with the Holocaust itself (5) , (6). However this was not the reality any time after 1948 and it is not the reality now. Israel defeated all the Arab states combined repeatedly and with ease in 1948, 1967 and 1973 (7), (8). The military balance if anything favours it more now – even more so given its alliance with the US. Israel also has nuclear weapons to deter any attempt to destroy it entirely – and the past behaviour of current members of the Iranian government (particularly their push for a negotiated peace in 1988 at the end of the Iran-Iraq war when Iran was close to defeat) show they aren’t going to start a nuclear war which they could only lose . They won’t provide nuclear weapons to terrorist organisations either because this would be just as much national suicide for them. (not to mention the fact that in Iran Presidents have very little power - so Ahmadinejad doesnt control Iran's military and would never control nuclear weapons even if Iran developed them).

The Palestinians certainly pose no significant military threat to Israel. As Israeli Prime Minister Barak (a former General) said in 1999 “The Palestinians…are the weakest of our adversaries. As a military threat they are ludicrous.” (9)

Ethnic cleansing : From America and Ireland to Bosnia and Israel/Palestine

The greatest current threat to large numbers of lives in the Middle East is not of the destruction of Israel in another Holocaust – that is impossible in the foreseeable future. The greatest threat is that the Palestinians will continue to be ethnically cleansed, destroyed by slow-motion genocide or else by what the Israeli historian Baruch Kimmerling has called ‘politicide’(see below). There have already been thousands of Palestinians killed each year by Israeli forces and by hunger and illness due to economic sanctions imposed by Israel and its allies. There are hundreds of thousands living in poverty in tents and shacks in refugee camps all over the Middle East. (Palestinian refugees (mostly Christians or Sunni Muslims) living in Iraq have been attacked by Iraqi Shia militias, get no protection from the Iraqi government or the Coalition and no other country will take them as refugees (10).) The Palestinians face by far the greatest threat of continuing to be killed and starved en masse with the survivors forced into exile.

During the Bosnian war in the 1990s the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was invented by the Serb nationalists as a euphemism for genocide. The US government and those of the European Union also adopted it (11). This was clearly meant to refer to something different from genocide (the attempt to exterminate an entire race, culture or religion). How meaningful is this distinction though? Clearly Bosnian Serbs weren’t trying to exterminate all the Muslims in the world – only to kill or force out those in what they considered Serb territory. However they were also intent on capturing as much territory as they possibly could. There were no gas chambers so clearly the killing wasn’t as organised or determined as the genocide against the Jews. All males of military age were frequently rounded up and massacred though – as at Srebrenica where every male Muslim from 15 to 65 years old was murdered by Mladic’s forces.

One reason the distinction may have been made is that the US and European governments had all ratified the Genocide Convention which places a responsibility on them to intervene, militarily if necessary, to end any genocide. Judging that they would lose votes if they got some of their soldiers killed saving people in another country they invented the term ‘ethnic cleansing’.

The Bosnian Serbs (like their ultra-nationalist patrons in Belgrade and the neo-fascist government of in Franjo Tudjman in Croatia) realised that each massacre would create international media coverage and increase the pressure from foreign publics to get their governments to intervene to end the war. So they would appear to back down temporarily when the international outcry increased, wait for it to subside, then attack again.

This pattern of stop-go uneven ‘ethnic cleansing’ also fits the behaviour of Israeli governments and militaries from the first Zionist settlements in the British Mandate of Palestine to the present in Israel and the occupied territories - with the main difference being that more recent attempts have been even slower motion than the Serbian actions in the Bosnian war. Israeli governments have often openly stated that their aim is to get rid of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs one way or another though. (The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe's book 'The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine' covers the largest scale ethnic cleansing of Palestinians through massacres and forced deportation in the 'War of Independence' as the Israelis call it or the 'nakba' (disaster) as the Arabs referred to it. (12)) The difference is that the Israeli government have the US – the most powerful state on earth – as their financial, political and military patron and so never need to fear that NATO might intervene to end the process.

Another Israeli historian Baruch Kimmerling has termed the Israeli government method as typified by the career of Ariel Sharon as being ‘politicide’ – the attempt over decades to destroy the Palestinians, their culture and their identity as a nationality, by massacring them, by impoverishing them to make them emigrate or become refugees elsewhere, by stealing their territory (13).

Settlers’ Myths

The process is also similar to most colonial ethnic cleansings and genocides. For instance the massacre of native American Indians by European colonists and later by the US military in the 17th to 19th centuries is now widely recognised as having been genocide though at the time it was justified as supposedly being a war for survival with the natives painted as the aggressors – much the same way Israeli governments still frequently portray Palestinians and Arabs in general (14).

The myth of a war for survival was also used as an excuse by Serb nationalists in Yugoslavia who, when asked about the Srebrenica massacre gave an excuse common among Zionist nationalists for Israeli military atrocities “It was war” (15). Of course if there was a war involved it was a very one sided war with no risk of the stronger side losing in either Bosnia or Israel/Palestine. Finkelstein has pointed out that European settlers in America also used the myth of the circle of wagons surrounded by Indian attackers to paint themselves being the defenders when they in fact were invading and the territory of Indians whose military forces were far weaker than theirs with Indian civilians frequently massacred or dying of hunger and illness after being forced off fertile land onto barren "reservations" (16).

Professor Norman Finkelstein has pointed out that myths such as that that the land conquered was previously uninhabited , that the natives were backward and barbaric , or that the natives had only arrived very recently are common to all colonial settlers throughout history ; Zionists and now Israelis in Israel/Palestine, Germans in Eastern Europe , Europeans in the Americas ;British and Dutch Boer settlers in South Africa (17). (We could add English and Scottish Protestant settlers in Ireland from the 17th to 19th centuries to the list).

The fact is that what is now going on in Israel and the occupied territories is a straight-forward attempt to gradually kill or force out the entire Palestinian and Bedouin Arab population so that the Israeli settlers can take their land for themselves. It is as much genocide as what happened in America in the 19th century, as much ethnic cleansing as what Serb and Croat nationalists did in Bosnia.

Why the dominant version of Zionism is now an anachronism and a barrier to peace

Zionism, like the nationalisms of the former Yugoslavia in the 90s it is (as Norman Finkelstein has argued) a backward looking primitive form of romantic nationalism involving the destructive belief that each state must have only one nation or cultural group controlling it. Zionism was an attempt to ensure Jews would be safe in their own state – a reaction to European romantic nationalisms that involved anti-semitism and pogroms (massacres of Jews) beginning in the Medieval period and only ending after the Holocaust in the 1930s and 40s. (Zionism was not created by the Holocaust but by pogroms across Europe and the Middle East - it began in the 19th century long before the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s) The Zionists attitude was basically ‘If we can’t beat the anti-semites lets join them’ by establishing our own state with a Jewish majority. While entirely understandable in the circumstances this was taken to extremes and has resulted in the other kind of anti-Semitism within Israel – with killings and massacres of Arabs and Palestinians for decades now far exceeding the numbers of Israeli Jews killed by Palestinians (18).

Ben Gurion's reaction to the Holocaust as revealed by Israeli historian Benny Morris shows how worship of the state of Israel in the sectarian form of Zionism has blinded many Zionists to what should be their priority - saving lives and reducing the suffering of others.

In December 1938 - a month after the Kristallnacht Pogrom which heralded the oncoming Holocaust - David Ben Gurion, future Prime Minister of Israel, said "If I knew it was possible to save all the [Jewish] children of Germany by their transfer to England and only half of them by transferring them to Israel, I would choose the latter." In December 1942, two years after the Holocaust began Ben-Gurion said "The catastrophe of European Jewry is not, in a direct manner, my business." He was prepared to sacrifice any number of lives - even Jewish lives - to strengthen the state of Israel.(19).

As Morris wrote "As the noose tightened around the necks of European Jewry the Zionist leadership became increasingly desperate. It was not so much fear that the Jews faced annhilation as that the pool of potential olim [Jewish immigrants to Palestine] - which could supply the critical mass needed to push on to statehood - was about to dry up, and that the whole Zionist enterprise might thus founder." (20)

The belief that each state or country should be dominated by one ethnic group of one religion is a backward one though which is bound to create violence as in reality there are always many religions , national identities and ethnic groups in every country. So Zionism has no place in the twenty first century any more than Aryanism does in Germany.

Those who saw - and see - beyond a Zionism based on fear and power

There are many Jews however , including holocaust survivors and Israelis, who reject the narrow sectarian Zionism of many Israeli governments.

There were also Israeli Prime Ministers like Moshe Sharett in 1953 and Levi Eshkol in the 1960s who respected Arabs as fellow humans who could be negotiated with and saw that a constant state of war with Palestinians and with all Arabs was neither necessary to survive, nor desirable, nor morally justifiable. True they were undermined by those blinded by fear and hatred - by men like David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan whose only concern was the power of the state of Israel and who thought security came from power alone (21).

Israelis still have a chance though to move beyond the outdated and irrelevant image of themselves as victims whose survival can only be assured by force and power politics ; a chance to move beyond the past which has made their government and much of their military into brutal oppressors; which has made them too often into what they aimed to defend against - anti-semitic killers. Many Israelis, like Eshkol and Sharett before them, do not identify with such a brutal misinterpretation of Judaism and they, not the current government or those even more extreme than it, deserve our support.

copyright©Duncan McFarlane 2007

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Sources and Footnotes

(1) = Government of Israel - Prime Minister's Office Press Release 9 May 2007, 'Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Speech at the Special Knesset Session Marking 62 Years Since the Victory over Nazi Germany', http://www.pmo.gov.il/PMOEng/Communication/PMSpeaks/speechger090507.htm

(2) = Shlaim, Avi(2000) ‘The Iron Wall – Israel and the Arab World’ , Penguin, London , 2000 (paperback) pages 231-240, 507

(3) = Guardian 2 Apr 2007, 'Iran forces Israeli rethink', http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,2047915,00.html

(4) = White House Press Release 28 Aug 2007, 'President Bush Addresses the 89th Annual National Convention of the American Legion', http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/08/20070828-2.html

(5) = Morris, Benny(1999) ‘Righteous Victims – A History of the Arab Israeli Conflict’ , John Murray, London , 2000 (hardback) pages 14-15

(6) = ?????

(7) = Morris, Benny(1999) ‘Righteous Victims – A History of the Arab Israeli Conflict’ , John Murray, London , 2000 (hardback)

(8) = Shlaim, Avi (2000) ‘The Iron Wall :Israel and the Arab World’ , Penguin paperback , London, 2001

(9) = Ehud Barak in an interview published in Haaretz newspaper 18 June 1999 Cited by Avi Shlaim (2000) ‘The Iron Wall :Israel and the Arab World’ , Penguin paperback , London, 2001 , page xii

(10) = Human Rights Watch 10 Sep 2006, 'Iraq: Palestinians Under Attack, But Unable to Flee', http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/09/10/iraq14156.htm

(11) = Gutman, Roy and Reiff, David (1999) ‘Crimes of War : What the public should know' , Norton , London and New York, 1999, pages 52-53

(12) = Pappe, Ilan (2006) ‘Crimes of War : What the public should know' ,One World Publications, Oxford (England), 2006

(13) = Kimmerling, Baruch (2003),’Politicide : Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians’, Verso, London, 2003

(14) = Finkelstein, Norman G. (2003) 'Image and Reality of the Palestinian Conflict' (2nd Edition), Verso, London and New York, 2003, Chapter 2 & Chapter 4 , pages 21-50 & 88-120

(15) = New Statesman 31 May 1999, 'A whole nation goes mad', http://www.newstatesman.com/199905310010

(16) = As (13) above

(17) = As (13) above

(18) = Finkelstein, Norman G. (2003) 'Image and Reality of the Palestinian Conflict' (2nd Edition), Verso, London and New York, 2003, Chapter 4 , pages 100-104

(19) = Morris, Benny(1999) ‘Righteous Victims – A History of the Arab Israeli Conflict’ , John Murray, London , 2000 (hardback) page 162

(20) = Morris, Benny(1999) ‘Righteous Victims – A History of the Arab Israeli Conflict’ , John Murray, London , 2000 (hardback) pages 162-3

(21) = Shlaim, Avi(2000) ‘The Iron Wall – Israel and the Arab World’ , Penguin, London , 2000 (paperback) Chapters 3 & 4 , p 95-264

copyright©Duncan McFarlane 2007