/ 10 November 2023

Israel-Palestine: Empathy lies in the echoes of history

Holocaust A Grim Reminder Of Dangers Of Allowing Racial Hatred To Run Wild

The necessary condition for avoiding the recurrence of historical atrocities — although it is not sufficient on its own — is to recall them. 

And the whole world is still vigilant about keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, lest we forget and conjure the evils of Nazism once again. But, are the signals from the Holocaust survivors compatible with this intention to obviate another crime against humanity? 

An attempt to confront this question is an odyssey through a minefield of justifiably extreme sentiments. Considerable civility must be brought to bear. But reflections on the Holocaust and the post-war hunting of the Nazis are unavoidable. 

To historicise contemporary problems sometimes involves the grim task of recalling tragedy. And although the words “Zionism” and “Nazism” do not belong in the same sentence, the parallels between them are present, and must be exposed. 

On 11 May 1960, Adolf Eichmann was captured by Shin Bet and Mossad secret service agents. He was one of the most visceral embodiments of evil among the high-ranking masterminds of the Holocaust. The Shin Bet and Mossad agents smuggled him onto a flight to Tel Aviv, sedated and disguised as an intoxicated flight steward. 

By all accounts, Eichmann was abducted, triggering an outcry that reverberated across the world. Israel had putatively transgressed international laws and undermined the sovereignty of Argentina. 

The Israeli government’s justification can be summed up as the pursuit of justice, where “the ends justify the means”. The state of Israel, although non-existent during the Holocaust, deemed it proper to administer justice to Nazi war criminals — by any means they deemed necessary. 

It can be inferred categorically that Israel subscribed to the notion of justice and the rule of law. And, therefore, without fear of contradiction (rational or not), it can be argued that Israel could not visit on the Palestinians what the Jews endured at the hands of Eichmann. 

If the state of Israel were to dispute this logic, it could find itself in a predicament. First, judgment by history as bounty hunters who staged a Stalin-style show trial for Eichmann, the verdict of which was a forgone conclusion. Second, they could allow this logic to persuade them but risk losing ground (literally) in Palestine. But even if Israel capitulated, atonement would still require a mirror from the past. 

And one of those is the story of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi whom Adolf Hitler lauded as “the man with an iron heart”. This was one of the many informal titles Heydrich earned for his merciless brutality towards the citizens of Nazi-occupied territories. 

Hitler had appointed Heydrich as deputy governor of Czechoslovakia, which at the time was the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. As the deputy governor, Heydrich made it his priority to execute Czech resistance fighters and other “undesirables”. His ability to carry out the genocidal militarism of the Nazis in occupied territories was superlative — a diabolical talent that earned him the nicknames the Butcher of Prague and the Hangman of Prague. 

On 27 May 1942, Heydrich was assassinated by members of the Czech resistance. The bestiality of the reprisals that followed is one of the most terrifying testimonials to Nazi evil. 

To avenge his assassination, Hitler ordered the Schutzstaffel (SS) to wipe the small village of Lidice off the face of the earth. Lidice was summarily obliterated, but not before the execution of all the men in the village. 

Women and their children were sent to concentration camps in Poland, where they perished in gas chambers. And to add insult to the injury, the SS ploughed the earth for crops where Lidice once stood.

In 1948, barely six years after Lidice, Israel expelled the Palestinian inhabitants of Hunin village, razed it to the ground, and destroyed any signs of its existence. Where Hunin once stood, Israel built a Jewish settlement. And, as if the fates of Lidice and Hunin were designed by the same hands, the Jewish settlers in Hunin grew their crops where the village once stood. 

Of course, Hunin is the tip of the iceberg. Expulsions of the Palestinians from their land and confiscation of their properties escalated over the years.

Back in Germany and its occupied territories, the pogroms against the Jews had already begun in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. The infamous Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass, in March 1933, became one of the many episodes signalling the imminent Holocaust.

But just three years after the Holocaust survivors were liberated from the concentration camps, the founding of the state of Israel was sounding the death knell for the Palestinians. 

By all indications, the events leading up to, and during, the wars of 1948 and 1967 were similar to the events leading up to, and during, World War II. The expulsions of Palestinians, followed by expropriation of their land and property, were not strange events to the Jews who escaped to or migrated to Palestine. 

There are many documented sad stories about Holocaust survivors liberated from concentration camps only to find their homes occupied by strangers. As if the Israelis were afflicted by acute amnesia, they too confiscated the lands “vacated” by the Palestinians during the wars with Palestine, refusing to let them back, even after the UN Security Council Resolutions on the matter. 

And there should have been déjà vu among the Holocaust survivors as the state of Israel began encircling Palestinian settlements with walls, in order to isolate them. It was not too long after the Nazi regime encircled Jews within the walls of ghettos, the halfway houses to the gas chambers. 

In occupied Czechoslovakia, Heydrich made it clear that the Germans did not intend to co-exist with the Czechs. His resolve was to expel the Czechs from their country, leaving only those whose racial features qualified them for “Germanisation”. 

Sadly, evidence seems to suggest that Israel is succeeding where Heydrich failed, as the Palestinians are being pushed further into the desolate fringes of their country. And, ironically, the wishes of Zionists to emigrate the Palestinians to neighbouring Arab countries is akin to the initial plans of the Nazis to “return” the Jews to Palestine.

I agree with the famous physicist Albert Einstein (who was also of Jewish descent) when he said, “The attitude we adopt towards the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards.” 

But handsome is as handsome does. But mirage cuts no ice with evidence. So far, the state of Israel has not convinced the world that its actions are just or moral. 

I am an idealist. Previously, it was my belief that those who had suffered injustices were not capable of being unjust. But I would expect no sympathy from the Palestinians for my naivety. 

Ignorance is a luxury reserved for the sidelines. And sometimes the task is only to hold the mirror and not to judge (yet). That in itself is a hazardous undertaking. But we must be able to say we tried. 

Mzwandile Manto is a thinker and community activist.