Comparing the horrors of the Holocaust to Israel’s actions in Gaza or Hamas’s vicious October 7 attack is misguided and anti-Semitic. Despite the profound trauma of the past few weeks, the tendency of both Israelis and Palestinians to portray the conflict as an existential battle against absolute evil will make things worse.
NEW YORK – In 2002, during a visit to Ramallah, Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer José Saramago compared the living conditions of Palestinians in the West Bank to the extermination of Jews in Auschwitz. This extraordinary remark triggered an international uproar, but Saramago asserted that as an intellectual, it was his duty to “make emotional comparisons that would shock people into understanding.”
Saramago was by no means the first (and surely not the last) to invoke Nazi Germany’s attempted annihilation of the Jewish people to condemn the actions of the Jewish state. In the final volume of A Study of History, published in 1961, the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee posited that, through Zionism, “Western Jews have assimilated Gentile Western civilization in the most unfortunate possible form. They have assimilated the West’s nationalism and colonization.” In his view, “the seizure of houses and lands and property of the 900,000 Palestinian Arabs who are now refugees” was “on a moral level with the worst crimes and injustices committed, during the last four or five centuries, by gentile Western European conquerors and colonists overseas.”
Every one of these assertions is absurd: the equation of Gentile Western crimes with “Gentile Western civilization”; the suggestion that most European Jews who migrated to Israel were nationalists, conquerors, and colonizers, rather than displaced refugees from pogroms and genocide; and the attempt to draw a moral equivalence between the seizure of Palestinian lands and property – however reprehensible – and the extreme violence against non-Western peoples by Western colonizers. One can only hope Toynbee was not including the crimes of Nazi Germany.
While history is rife with mass murders, the Nazis’ attempt to eradicate an entire people brd on a grotesque racist ideology remains unparalleled. Comparing it to other forms of violence, whether out of malice or sheer ignorance, such as when US Congressman Warren Davidson likened COVID-19 vaccine mandates to the Holocaust, is not just wrong but also destructive. Such comparisons invariably trivialize the atrocities committed against the Jews during the 1930s and 1940s and distort our understanding of current events.
And yet, these Holocaust analogies are again being used to describe the tragic events unfolding in Gaza. In a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu labeled Hamas the “new Nazis.” He noted that “the savagery that we witnessed, perpetrated by the Hamas murderers coming out of Gaza, were the worst crimes committed against Jews since the Holocaust.”
Netanyahu’s comments undoubtedly reflect the view of many Israelis. I heard an Israeli critic of Netanyahu say that the current situation is like 1940, and the war against Hamas is a “war against evil” that must be won through the “total elimination” of the enemy. But Hamas’s horrific slaughter of more than 1,400 Israelis on October 7 was more comparable in scale to a brutal pogrom than the near-total annihilation of European Jewry.
It is only natural that Israelis would be deeply shocked by Hamas’s vicious attack. The primary motivation behind Israel’s establishment was to create a safe haven for Jews and offer security to a minority that had faced centuries of persecution. Keeping Jews safe from slaughter has been at the core of Netanyahu’s appeal. Israel as the bastion against a second Holocaust has been invoked by several generations of Israeli leaders.
That Palestinians have had to suffer from the Jewish aspiration to feel safe in their own state is a tragedy that David Ben-Gurion, the founder of modern Israel, already saw coming in 1919. Just two years after the British government announced its support for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, Ben-Gurion observed, “There is no solution. We want Palestine to be ours as a nation. The Arabs want it to be theirs – as a nation. I don’t know what Arab would agree to Palestine belonging to the Jews.”
Since then, there has been plenty of violence, miscalculation, and bad faith from both sides. Much like Ben-Gurion before him, Netanyahu believes that the conflict cannot be resolved, only managed. By sowing political divisions among the Palestinians, expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and initiating periodic military offensives in Gaza, Netanyahu thought he could maintain control over the Palestinians and ensure Israel’s security. While this strategy has failed spectacularly, drawing parallels between the actions of the Israeli government and those of Nazi Germany is both spurious and almost invariably anti-Semitic.
At the same time, Israeli leaders’ insistence on framing the war against Hamas as an existential battle between good and evil will make things worse. Evil is a concept that belongs to metaphysics, not politics. As Ben-Gurion himself put it, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fundamentally about land and sovereignty. Such disputes require a political resolution.
But as long as Israeli leaders see the gates of Auschwitz behind every instance of Palestinian hostility, there can be no resolution. Only total domination will do.
The same goes for Palestinians. As long as Israelis are seen as evil “settler-colonialists” and compared to Nazis, horrific terrorist attacks like the one on October 7 will be lauded as brave and necessary acts of resistance. As matters stand now, a political solution is a very long way off, given the traumatic cycle of terrorist violence and brutal revenge. But in a war against evil, it will be impossible.
Ian Buruma is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Year Zero: A History of 1945, A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit, and, most recently, The Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II (Penguin Press, 2023).