The Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


The question of whether the Holocaust has a place in the discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be distilled into a simple yes or no. 

For starters, Israel’s relationship with the Holocaust is complex. While Israel’s existence is not a product of the Holocaust (significant Jewish immigration to Palestine began in the 1880s, long before the rise of Hitler), the Nazi genocide hastened the creation of the Jewish State. Given the ease with which Israel’s leaders reference the Holocaust today, it may come as a surprise to learn that in the early years of statehood, discussion of the Holocaust was taboo. Israel’s stunning victory over neighboring Arabs in 1948 wrote a new chapter in Jewish history, which for first-generation Israelis defined any mention of the past as forbidden. Many survivors kept silent their haunted histories: this was the “Israeli way.”

It was not until the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s that Israelis began openly discussing the Holocaust and its impact on their society. From then on, the Holocaust and the Israeli psyche were inextricably linked. When Egyptian and Syrian troops amassed on Israel’s borders in May 1967, it was the fear of another Holocaust that ultimately led Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to order the preemptive strike that started the pivotal June 1967 War. It was this same fear that drove Israel to develop its nuclear deterrent and accompanying strategy, the so-called “Samson Option.”  

To this day, the relationship between the Holocaust and the Israeli psyche remains complicated at best. Look no further than Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. A casual visitor to Yad Vasham may notice that the memorial is situated directly next to Mount Herzl, the Israeli equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery. This placement is intentional, and is meant to underscore the inherent connection between the Holocaust and the Jewish State. A more curious visitor may also notice that Mount Herzl rests higher than Yad Vashem. This too is intentional, as it is meant to demonstrate the quintessential Israeli belief that only through strength and strength alone can a future Holocaust be prevented. It is no accident that Mount Herzl, a monument designed to personify the Israeli spirit, looks down on Yad Vashem, the memorial designated to honor the victims of the Holocaust. This duality of the Israeli psyche only further highlights the underlying complexities in the relationship between Israel and the Holocaust.

The Palestinian relationship to the Holocaust is no less complex. For more than 60 years, the Palestinians have struggled to find a way to acknowledge the horrors of the Holocaust without confirming its central role in the Israeli narrative. Over the years, this struggle has manifested itself through Palestinian Holocaust denial and the exclusion of the Holocaust from Palestinian textbooks. It doesn't help that Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a prominent Palestinian leader in the 1930s and 40s, collaborated with Hitler and actively recruited Muslims for the Waffen-SS, which Israeli leaders have endlessly exploited. While Israelis struggle with how to appropriately remember the Holocaust, Palestinians struggle with how to appropriately forget it.

What is lost in all of these complexities is the original question: Should the Holocaust be a part of the discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Naturally, in a perfect world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be reconciled in the absence of the shadows of the Holocaust. But our world is anything but perfect. Genocide casts an incredibly large shadow, and many generations will pass before the horrors of the Holocaust no longer haunts the Israeli psyche and before recognition of the Holocaust no longer weighs on the Palestinian narrative.

But for the sake of distilling these complexities into a simple yes or no answer, I will return to the original question: Should the Holocaust be a part of the Israeli-Palestinian discourse? No.

Will it? Yes.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons