Against Analogy

Masha Gessen's likening of the Gaza Strip to a Nazi ghetto is a master class in Holocaust inversion and distortion. These statements were made in the heat of a polemical debate, but moral outrage should never call the tune. There is a word for when it does: demagoguery.

Godwin’s Law—“As online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches”—has been rendered a dead letter at least since the middle of the last decade. The vogue of dubious historical analogies has now reached the latest, and most lethal, conflict between Israel and Hamas. A barrier has been breached: at protests across the West, demonstrators have brandished signs likening the Jewish state to the Third Reich. This is a clear manifestation of antisemitism according to the widely-adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition. A charge of genocide has been laid against Israel and its supporters around the world. I recall the quip of Alain Finkielkraut on such occasions: one might not believe in God, but such a comparison is enough to make one believe in the Devil.

 

The appropriation of the destruction of European Jewry is not restricted to demagogues and their rabble. The cries of the mob have found an echo in the writings of intellectuals, including Jewish ones. Enter Masha Gessen, the Russian-American Jewish New Yorker staff writer. Gessen touched off a firestorm after penning an essay likening the Gaza Strip to a Nazi ghetto in World War II-era Europe. “For the last 17 years, Gaza has been a hyper densely populated, impoverished, walled-in compound where only a small fraction of the population had the right to leave for even a short time-in other words, a ghetto,” Gessen wrote. While acknowledging essential differences between the ghetto of Europe under the National Socialists, the journalist insisted the term “gives us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now: the ghetto is being liquidated.” Gessen is the descendant of Holocaust survivors, but these statements–made, of course, in the heat of polemical battle–represent a master class in Holocaust inversion and distortion. Analogies can advance or hinder moral and historical clarity; comparisons sometimes illuminate and sometimes obscure. Gessen’s claim belongs to the latter category, hampering our comprehension of the Shoah and the ongoing war, whetting the asperities of both sides in the present dispute, and furnishing a pretext for antisemitic harassment and violence.

 

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Gessen’s claim about the existence of “a 17-year-old ghetto” in the Gaza amounts to a contradiction in terms. No ghetto in the New Europe of the Third Reich could have lasted for such a length of time. This is precisely because the ghettoes of the twentieth century did not resemble those of the High Middle Ages or the Renaissance. The former confined Jewish residents to prescribed areas of the city, both in order to protect and stigmatize them, even as the local Jews often manned the district’s gates. The Nazis resurrected the term “ghetto” to camouflage what was in fact an antechamber to the death camps. This was, in fact, a deliberate choice meant to lull the Jews of Eastern Europe into a false sense of safety based on historical precedent. The Nazi regime liquidated most of the ghettoes within a span of two or three years. (The Lodz Ghetto, a model of political quiescence and dutiful slave labor–managed to hold on for four years.) But this was exceptional indeed, for most of the Jewish “housing districts” were cleared in the summer and autumn of 1942 amid the Gros Aktionen, during which about two-thirds of Polish Jewry–around two million people–were gassed at death camps like Chelmno and Treblinka.

 

Many of the ghetto’s damned perished before being loaded onto cattle cars. Historians estimate that between a fourth and a third of the inhabitants died from a mix of malnutrition, poor sanitation, and disease. David Sierakowiak, the prolific diarist of the Lodz Ghetto—who himself succumbed in spring 1943—wrote that the quarter’s doctors estimated that over 90 percent of residents had tuberculosis. This is not surprising when one considers that, in the emblematic example of Warsaw, 475,000 people were crowded into an area of 1.3 square miles. In Lodz, there were 30,000 apartments for the 210,000 Polish Jewish inmates–a mere 30 had a fully functional bathroom. The new overlords of Eastern Europe intended to starve out the ghetto while extracting as much slave labor as possible, allocating in most cases enough food to provide the denizens with around 200 to 300 calories a day. The ghetto’s endurance rested on the daring-do of smugglers–and no few of them were children. Ten thousand Jews ultimately survived the Lodz Ghetto; 300,000 Polish Jews, of a prewar community of 3.5 million, emerged alive from the Holocaust.

 

The situation in the Gaza Strip prior to October 7 can simply not be compared to that of a Jewish ghetto in New Order Europe. Gaza’s population has doubled to 2.3 million since the start of the millennium. The Strip is crowded-there is a density of 15,700 people per square mile-but this hardly can be compared with the 365,000 people per square mile in the Warsaw Ghetto. Israel and Egypt do regulate the entry and exit of goods into the territory, but enough food has entered so that recent studies have found one-fifth of Gaza’s residents are overweight or obese. Life expectancy in the Strip, at 76 years, is higher than the global average. In contrast to the ghettoes, before October 7 tens of thousands of Gazans worked and accessed medical care in Israel–among the peace activists murdered was Vivian Silver, who met many such patients at the Erez Crossing. No one would claim that the pre-October 7 Gaza Strip was some Middle Eastern Venice Beach-severe deficiencies in access to clean drinking water and electricity prevailed even then–but it was an order of magnitude better than the Warsaw Ghetto. Palestinians mourning the destruction of the enclave’s gleaming beach resorts, luxe boutiques, chic restaurants and handsome universities implicitly admit this. Sure, Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto both had a wall surrounding them and an internal police–though Gessen has erroneously asserted that Israel deliberately turned over control to Hamas when it completed its disengagement in 2005-but in the former a semblance of normal life was possible; in the latter, the specter of death proved ineluctable.

 

The human catastrophe of the Israel-Hamas war rightly elicits concerns for the well-being of the Palestinian people. Two million in Gaza have been displaced; 20,000 and counting are dead (the ratio of civilian to combatant casualties has not been firmly established); nine in 10 report not eating a meal every day; half the buildings in Gaza City, the territory’s largest city, have been rendered uninhabitable. Israel’s politicians have engaged in unsettling rhetoric, from President Isaac Herzog’s claim that there are no innocents in Gaza, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s references to Amalek, to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s comment about fighting “human animals.” The campaign’s rules of engagement appear to flout basic international law on the matter of the protection of civilians–disturbing reports from +972 Magazine have confirmed that the military is deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure in pursuit of the so-called Dahiya Doctrine. Similarly, the IDF’s shooting of three hostages waving white flags raises disconcerting questions about indiscriminate use of firepower against ordinary Gazans. The fever dreams of Israel’s far-right also might become a reality–leaked memos from the Intelligence Ministry envision the expulsion of the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip into Egypt and settler leaders close to the present government have loudly fantasized about rebuilding Gush Katif, the settlement bloc that existed in the Strip before Israel’s unilateral 2005 disengagement.

 

Pace the conceptual inflation and verbal excesses of the left and the human rights world, these actions do not constitute a genocide, or in Gessen’s turn of phrase, “the liquidation of the ghetto.” The Genocide Convention stipulates that a population must be targeted for destruction as such and that one must demonstrate genocidal intent. Even though the number of dead in Gaza is less than one percent of those murdered in the Holocaust, Israel’s campaign could be labeled “genocide” if the aim were in fact to annihilate the enclave’s population. A desire to immiserate civilians–and even maim or kill them–as part of a counterinsurgency strategy to undermine support for Hamas is plausible. But there is a key difference between ethnic cleansing and genocide–each of them species of inhumanity one is loath to see repeated in this century: in the first case, the victims are generally alive afterward, whereas in the second, almost all of them are dead. The morality of the IDF’s treatment of civilians can also be condemned, but the strategy serves a defined, legitimate aim: the destruction of Hamas. For the Third Reich, the murder of Jews constituted an end in itself, in what Saul Friedlander has christened “redemptive antisemitism.” The war aims of Germany often ran counter to the genocidal drive of the National Socialists–trains carrying soldiers to the Eastern Front were diverted in the last months of the war to convey Jews to their death. No substantive comparison can be drawn between the Holocaust and the present war.

 

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One might dismiss the foregoing as an exercise in pedantry. Precision ought to be cast to the wind in order to alert the world to the horrors of the war. Histrionics might actually serve the humanitarian case: Gessen too has spoken with a forked tongue–in one breath asserting the historical accuracy of The New Yorker piece’s description, and in the next defending it as a rhetorical excess intended to prevent a genocide. But the cornerstone of the intellectuals’ vocation is distinction, not comparison: he must rise above the layman’s impulse to encompass discrete phenomena in the same term. Right reason precedes right action; the absence of reason precedes wrong action. Events at first need to be viewed in their immediacy before a comparison can be drawn, lest an analogy blind us to essential differences. Moral outrage should never call the tune, and there is a word for when it does: demagoguery. Hannah Arendt was not the oracle some imagine her to be–she botched the historical record in asserting that Adolf Eichmann was a banal figure, and that the Judenrate were culpable in the destruction of the European Jews. But even she tried to put aside her rage–well-deserved as someone who had fled for her life from Europe, and had been stateless for two decades–in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In a later introduction to the volume, she lamented that the original edition of the book had been suffused with grief and had failed to uphold the imperative of writing history ‘without scorn or bias.’ There are gradations of good and evil in this world, and it is the intellectual’s task to delineate them in order to guide political action. Of course, disparate episodes of mass violence often resemble each other in the emotions elicited, trauma inflicted, and psyches activated. The American psychologist Stanley Milgram applied his studies of obedience to authority, inspired originally by the Eichmann Trial, to the abuses of American servicemen in the Vietnam War. The United States Army was not the SS, and My Lai was not Babi Yar, but in both cases, Milgram’s anatomy of human cruelty proved relevant. One can learn from the Holocaust without assimilating dissimilar events to it.

 

The implications of false Holocaust analogies also ought to be avoided. Omer Bartov and a host of left-wing intellectuals and academics cautioned in The New York Review of Books against comparisons of Hamas and the Nazis. The signatories correctly warned that such rhetoric collapses critical distinctions and could dehumanize Palestinians, worsening the current spiral of violence. The group opined: “[W]hen invoking the past, we must do so in ways that illuminate the present and do not distort it. This is the necessary basis for establishing peace and justice in Palestine and Israel. This is why we urge public figures, including the media, to stop using these kinds of comparisons.” In a later rejoinder, the scholars continued: “The effect of such statements is to radicalize political discourse, dehumanize Palestinians, decontextualize the historical situation, and relativize Nazi crimes. In the current asymmetric conflict in Gaza, these statements serve to rationalize the commission of war crimes: if the current war is conceived of as a battle between ‘the children of light and the children of darkness,’ between the civilized and the barbarians, between the Jews and the Nazis, then every act of violence is a priori justified as preventing a second Holocaust.”

 

Gessen would be well-served to heed the advice of Bartov et al., for their missive contains an insight pertinent to both sides in this argument: bogus appeals to the Holocaust frame the enemy as a primordial, implacable foe against whom unlimited force is warranted. This discourse exacerbates enmity and puts more distance between the parties to this conflict and their respective supporters. In the Middle East, Israel risks using the Holocaust analogy to macabre ends. In the West, where pro-Palestine sentiment has surged, the flawed comparison is being invoked to stigmatize “Zionists”-often a politically correct shorthand for Jews-as-genocidaires and “genocide supporters.” The spillover of pro-Palestine activism into antisemitic acts can already be observed on the streets and campuses of the West. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, in the space of a week a public menorah display was defaced, and Jewish attendees at a City Council meeting were accused of “using your religion to justify killing.” A speaker on environmental studies was disinvited from a University of California-Berkeley class after the students alleged that he backed “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” because he identifies as broadly pro-Israel. Before this recent flareup in the Middle East, a bevy of student groups at UC-Berkeley’s law school declared they would not invite “Zionists” to lecture on any topic whatsoever. Holocaust analogies in this context assume a sinister aspect: a pretext for a social and professional antisemitism that could in fact turn violent.

 

The invocation of the Shoah often has a malicious, antisemitic edge to it. I again think of UC-Berkeley, where one professor—a ringleader of the campus “Free Palestine” movement—has repeatedly mocked concerns about antisemitism as “narcissistic” and even praised Dave Chappelle’s notoriously antisemitic skit about Kanye West and purported Jewish control of the media. He presented Gaza in these terms: “A million children are terrorized by Israel in Gaza. Hunted for being Palestinian, massacred with their families, trapped in a besieged ghetto with nowhere to hide. The irony is that their tormentors have the audacity to speak and act in the name of Anne Frank.” Here, one can see that the Holocaust charge is leveled precisely because Israel considers itself a Jewish state–it is intended as a twisted form of “poetic” irony, the “story” coming full circle. The image of Israel “hunting children” removes any doubt that the accusation trades on an antisemitic topos to accuse Jews of the crime most hateful to us.

 

Men and women in the public sphere have a duty to do better than this. Recourse to tendentious parallels distorts the facts, contributes to historical illiteracy, stokes animus, and clouds judgment. The moral outrage that propels many polemicists to the precipice of demagoguery cannot override the intellectuals’ primary imperative: the moral obligation to be intelligent.

 

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