First, I think all agree (and if not, need to agree) that the holocaust during WWII was one of worst moments in human history. But I also believe, separately, that the holocaust was made worse by the forms of American intervention in the war in ways that are I think are relevant to thinking about Palestine.
Before America entered the war, German treatment of the Jews basically entailed a hostage crisis. Hitler was rounding up and imprisoning every Jew in the areas he controlled. He had monstrous, elaborate plans to kill all of them and threatened to do so, but had not begun yet. It’s true Hitler was totally insane, so it’s hard to make sense of his reasoning, but I think it’s safe to say he would that refraining from killing all the Jews was the most reliable possible insurance against what he most wanted to avoid or delay: the US attacking him. Likewise, I think he also knew that if he started killing hostages, the US would have to intervene. This is how a hostage crisis works.
So, how does one respond to a hostage crisis? I watched Inside Man last month, kind of a disappointing movie but basically there seem to be three options: negotiation, tactical strike, or frontal assault. We always hear in movies that you don’t negotiate with hostage takers. I guess the reasoning for it is that it emboldens future attempts. Terrorists will think they can get away with robbing another bank or ransoming another rich kid or bus or Air Force One because the authorities will meet their demands. Now on the scale of brutally interning every Jew in Western Europe as a first step toward ruling the hemisphere for centuries, I don’t think the idea that some future tyrant would think “Yo lemme give that a shot, it could totally work again” is a real concern that warrants a “Boy we need to teach Hitler a lesson that this kind of shit ain’t cool, to set an example” response. In fact, thinking on those terms with a problem of this scale and gravity is totally childish, but it’s precisely the response the Allies chose, and I’m arguing it resulted in the deaths of millions Jews.
As for the two remaining options, both involve military intervention. Some kind of tactical strike focused singularly on liberating the camps is perhaps difficult to imagine but I doubt it would have been impossible, and certainly worth considering given the stakes. It was clearly never considered. In fact, there’s evidence the US never really cared about specifically saving the Jews. It’s very apparent that the State Department vigorously denied visas to European Jews seeking asylum even as Nazi efforts to round them all up were underway. There’s obviously nothing that would have saved more Jewish lives than helping Jews leave Europe as Hitler began sending them to concentration camps. Negotiations to firstly rescue vulnerable Jews were obviously well outside American thinking.
As for intervention, as I said, there were two options, a surgical or a frontal strike. The Allies chose a massive frontal assault. The results were disastrous. This isn’t Inside Man where Denzel believes Clive Owen won’t kill hostages and sure enough the killing is fake. No, Hitler was a genocidal monster bent on eradicating the Jewish people and thrilled to begin killing his hostages. In choosing to attack, the US gave up the most valuable possible negotiating chip it had over Germany, the threat that it could flatten it. Instead, it began to flatten Germany at the precise moment Hitler had securely rounded up most Jews in Western Europe and was ready to begin slaughtering them. To make matters worse, the Allies intervened in the most dangerous way possible. Churchill made very clear that he intended for the slow, persistent bombing of urban centers to demoralize the civilian population and inspire a revolution against the Reich.
This intended effect obviously never happened. Instead, Hitler just blamed the bombing and whatever on Jews “meddling,” and the people lent whatever shreds of political will they had left to rallying behind their leader, and against the Jews. What followed is indisputably one of the most traumpatic episode of human suffering the world has ever known and hopefully will ever know. Why do I bring all this up? Well besides the fact that people still suggest the Nazis explain or justify Israel today, there are three reasons.
For one, Jewish immigration to the British territories in Palestine was carefully controlled for several years prior to the beginning of the war, as part of attempts to deal with “the Jewish question” that Western powers, mostly still imperial at this point, had been agonizing over since the Enlightenment. Even after Hitler began rounding up Jews, the British tightened caps on the quotas of Jewish immigration allowed to Palestine. Everyone had their own ideas for how to deal with “the Jewish question” and the British were presumably deliberating on theirs. Ultimately it was Hitler’s “final solution” that won. Six million humans were slaughtered. Afterwards, everyone pretty quickly decided on a better solution: the state of Israel (it’s worth noting here that the state was never intended to be the kind of exclusionary regime it’s become today, even by foundational Zionist figures). In essence, this is a solution to the “Jewish question” decided largely as a way of hastily cleaning up after the worst possible solution to it imaginable, which was the realistic attempt to exterminate all Jews. The problems with that premise should be obvious. It’s also an extremely imperial solution: no meaningful democratic process could have arrived at what we have today (and at the ethnic cleansing and dispossession that preceded it), and that’s an incredible tragedy. It’s understandably something the rest of the world couldn’t comprehend in the immediate wake of the holocaust, but it should be an urgent question at this point. Unfortunately, it’s a question that memory of the holocaust tragically diverts from now.
Second, and I guess this isn’t that distinct: Hitler was perhaps the most powerful truly evil person in modern history. We can all agree on that, which is the beginning of the problem. Once you agree that Hitler is absolutely reprehensible, it becomes hard to disagree on the most ethical way to respond. Was Hitler evil? Sure, no one disagrees. Was firebombing entire German cities also bad? I personally think so. Was allowing Hitler to kill millions of Jews so that we could totally crush his warmaking abilities also bad? I definitely think so. The point is, when you’ve got the worst possible human being at the table, it’s easy to make whatever you do seem ethically sound. There’s almost no room for deliberation. That’s a dangerous moral position to be in, and I think of it as a counterpoint to the extremely depressing idea that we should simply invoke the Holocaust when we want to feel better about what Israel does, the issue that started this discussion. To be glib, the holocaust will make anything look okay, and certainly any of Israel’s current politics, statecraft, and social culture.
Now third, and it’s almost ironic people don’t mean this when they invoke the holocaust: the Nazis should provide a lesson against the ideological direction in which Israel is headed. The fact is that no one will probably ever try or succeed at something as radically evil as the Third Reich, and certainly Israel wouldn’t, we should think. But there’s also no getting around the fact that Israel is an ethnically exclusive state. There are people born in Israel and also within the occupied territories that can never be citizens because of their ethnicity, even if several generations of their ancestors were also born right there. If you’re Muslim, you have no right of any kind to self-determination in Israel, you will never vote; you are legally discriminated against even by the state and treated differently in courts; and you live in a society where generations of Israeli men and women firstly and formatively came into contact with you on the terms of their required military service, policing your poor, totally socially dependent ass with assault rifles and tanks. The Nazis are obviously a good historic example of why ethnically exclusive states, maintained by a legal and cultural regime of ethnic exclusion, astonishingly sophisticated and totally pervasive militarism, the wanton killing of unarmed civilians by that military, and obsession with an epic “founding story” are not a good look. This is the opposite of how we conceptualize liberal society today and is just thoroughly depressing.
The Nazis and the holocaust forgive pretty much whatever Israel wants to do, and that’s a real tragedy. There’s almost nothing Palestinians can do now to live normally. They can’t vote their way into justice, because they’re excluded from the democratic process in their homeland, simply because they outnumber their occupiers and allowing them to vote would allow them to successfully determine their just fate. They can’t fight their way into it, because there’s no violent act Palestinians can do now that will actually advance their cause. Finally, there’s nothing non-violent they can do, because as we saw this weekend, they can peacefully demonstrate just as millions of other Arabs have in the past few months and Israel will shoot them dead without anyone one in the world giving a fuck.
In short, it seems there’s literally nothing they can do to advance the conversation, which is to say it’s an impasse. But it’s not an impasse in the sense of a stalemate or some kind of settled peace, because the Israelis clearly have all the power and priority, and, importantly, the permission to behave as brutally as they please. It’s an incredibly tragic impasse where Palestinians are conquered and silenced not by being wrong or being on the wrong side of some kind of ideological or political progress (which is what I’m asking for references in possibly helping to understand, because maybe there is some heartening reason I don’t understand for Israel to act as oppressively as it does), but simply because the world doesn’t care about them. Because everyone prefers to think about Hitler.