The Sunday Times, the Holocaust and Israel: Have the persecuted become the persecutors?

In 2013, David Ward (who was then a MP for Bradford East) “faced intense criticism from the CST and other anti-racist and Holocaust education campaigners when he wrote the following in reference to Holocaust Memorial Day.

Having visited Auschwitz twice – once with my family and once with local schools – I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.

A year later, John Prescott (former British Deputy Prime Minister), in an op-ed about the war between Israel and Hamas, wrote the following at the Daily Mirror:

What happened to the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis is appalling. But you would think those atrocities would give Israelis a unique sense of perspective and empathy with the victims of a ghetto.

Whilst many condemned the parallels Ward and Prescott drew between Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, the passage was compromised by another morally repellent trope – the suggestion that Jews, as a people, didn’t internalize the right lessons from the Holocaust, and have collectively forfeited any rights to sympathy by taking on the role of oppressor.

All of which brings us to an op-ed (Do the right thing – long shadow of the Holocaust demands resolve, Jan. 31) at The Sunday Times by Kevin Pringle, a Times columnist and former communications director for the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Pringle largely used his op-ed to praise education programs in Scotland’s schools by Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), but later pivoted to the creation of Israel which, he argued, became a moral imperative after the Nazi massacre of six million Jews.

Then, there was this:

After the Second World War and for many years thereafter, Israel was a cause and country supported by progressive opinion, which is hard to imagine now.

I deplore the Israeli state’s treatment of Palestinians — a tragic case of the persecuted become the persecutor — and wish to see an independent Palestine as part of a two-state solution. The suffering of Jews through history, however, gives me a sympathy for the people and state of Israel that I cannot, indeed do not want to, lose.

The Times columnist’s need to criticize (Israeli) Jews in an otherwise sober meditation on the tragedy of “the millions killed and many millions more unborn because of the Holocaust” reflects a common refrain suggesting that Israelis have ‘squandered’ sympathy due to their treatment of the Palestinians.

As Howard Jacobson characterized such critics who level the “you of all people” charge when lamenting Jews’ sub-par post-Shoah ethical performance:

“[to such critics] the Holocaust becomes an educational experience from which Jews were ethically obliged to graduate summa cum laude, Israel being the proof that they didn’t.”

In this extraordinarily misleading binary moral tale, reinforced continually in the UK media, not only are Israelis the oppressors and Palestinians the victims – erasing 67 years of Arab and Palestinian rejectionism, war, extremism, terror and endemic antisemitism – but Jews qua Jews have perversely assumed the role of their historic persecutors.

Of course, there’s an extremely important lesson about the Holocaust missed by Pringle.  

Israel’s right to exist is not justified by the Holocaust. Nor, should sympathy for the modern State of Israel be elicited by virtue of the suffering of previous generations of Jews.

Rather, Israel’s continued existence – its role as a safe haven for Jews in a dangerous region and an increasingly inhospitable world, its unique capacity to nurture Jewish life, culture and tradition, and to safeguard Jewish continuity – serves as the only real answer – the final act of resistance – to the Nazis efforts to annihilate the Jews.

Holocaust education demands resolve to honor the memory of six million murdered Jews by honoring the continued sacrifices of six million living Jews. 


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