The Holocaust Has Moved Hands

May 24, 2018


A double exposure of a bombed out alley as seen through a doorway

It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. – Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, November 26, 1938

The Nakba, or the day of catastrophe, marks the date, May 14, 1948, when the Israelis moved into Palestine, exiled the Arabs in their own land, evicted them from their homes, and made them political refugees in their own country. Since that day, seventy years ago, the date has taken on a grave significance, as the story of Israel’s occupation of Palestine has turned graver by the year. The graves of Palestinians have multiplied, including the graves of children.

Sahir Abu Namous is one such name we remember from 2014. His tiny, maimed body was found in the rubble of his home, after an airstrike by Israeli forces in the northern Gaza Strip. Diaa Mahmoud, a cousin of Sahir’s father, Salman, who reported the deaths of twenty-two children from the airstrikes, said: “It’s a catastrophic situation here.” Catastrophe is not just a date marked in history and commemorated every year; it is part of the Palestinian condition. In his address to the people in May 2001, the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said with bleak irony that “the Nakba is an extended present that promises to continue in the future.”

In the airstrikes of July 2014 that killed Namous in Tal al-Zaatar, there were reports with photographs of a dozen Israelis on a hilltop outside the Israeli town of Sderot, cheering their military while having popcorn. Allan Sorensen, a Middle East correspondent from Denmark, described one such image, posted on Twitter, as “Sderot cinema.” It was a rare privilege for these Israelis to be spectators of war, to consume the cinematic experience of territorial nationalism served live. War is the best proof of security and, one presumes, of prosperity for people in Israel. The securitization of space has taken on a particularly bizarre form in the borders between Israel and Palestine. Barbed wire and checkpoints convey not just radical separation but intense paranoia. The periodic evictions of Palestinians and the Israeli army breaking into their homes at will, often evicting entire villages, is a norm of war. But what sort of war?

Catastrophe is not just a date marked in history and commemorated every year; it is part of the Palestinian condition.

The French writer Christian Salmon, who visited Ramallah along with seven others from the International Parliament of Writers (a group that included Wole Soyinka, Breyten Breytenbach, Juan Goytisolo, Russell Banks, and Bei Dao) in March 2002, observed in his article “The Bulldozer War” how the Israeli army used bulldozers as effectively as tanks to dislodge the Palestinian people from their homes. Salmon found the problem in the West Bank one of “exophobia, a fear of the outside world” in an “age of agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces.” This caused, in Salmon’s acute insight, “not the division of territory but its abolition.” Salmon calls the phenomenon “endo-colonialism,” which he defines as the colonialism of “an inward-looking variety that seeks more than the appropriation of enemy territory.” The fortification of Israel had to take place in equal proportion to the vulnerability of Palestinian lives. It is offering your enemy the fear you inhabit. It is the fear of meeting the enemy without a shield. It is a fear of vulnerability, and of what vulnerability may cause. Perhaps it is just not the fear of harm but also the fear of love. You are barred from loving the enemy.

The Israeli occupation, I would argue, slightly differing from Salmon, abolishes territory by dividing it. The divided territory exists artificially. It is also unavoidably porous. The enemy and you share the same divided space that you lay claim to. The division, forcibly created by Israel, entitles it to abolish it at will. It does not follow any decree by law but exists in the realm of the occupation’s surplus. Occupation has no law. Occupation exists as a territorial necessity that is established by force. But this force is not the force of law. It is the force of war, for it involves the seizure of land, not any peaceful sharing by agreement or contract. It is using the force of the military. In this sense, the law of the occupation is established by pure violence. In his November 1938 article on Jews in Palestine, Gandhi questioned the biblical sanction of a land in “the shadow of the British gun.”

The division between Israeli and Palestinian habitations is marked by a dual language: Israel is a nation, while Palestine is a “territory.” But it is a territory in the vocabulary and logic of the Israeli state. Palestine is a territory for Israel; having reduced the definition of its status to a lawless land of lawless inhabitants, they can harass and mutilate with impunity. The theft of land creates its own justification, which can only be established by the force of fear. The fear of war extends to the war of fear. The fear of Palestinians keeps Israeli fears alive, but here’s the tragedy: Israel wants to keep this fear alive (within itself and among Palestinians) so that the logic of war exists. Fear is the justification of war.

Even though an event of horror is incomparable in terms of suffering, the form of horror, if repeated elsewhere, is comparable.

Israel is a state founded on violence, with a dual origin: the repercussions of the Holocaust and the military takeover of a people’s land. These two actions are ironically intertwined. The Jews, compelled to flee Germany and other parts of Europe, terrorized Palestinians into fleeing their homes to make space for the settlers. The victims of Nazi terror, fleeing in desperation, committed desperate violence against other people. It’s that “big moment” in history, in the words of late Finnish poet and aphorist Paavo Haavikko, “when the oppressed becomes the oppressor.” In such moments, Haavikko wrote, “history takes a deep breath.” Jews, who deserved justice, showed no accountability for their own injustices in Palestine. Maybe years of living in Europe made the Jews forget that Jerusalem belongs to two peoples.

Catastrophe returned in the month of May, not far from the unforgettable date in Palestine’s calendar and memory. On May 14, 2018, as the United States embassy officially opened in Jerusalem, 40,000 Palestinians protested at the borders, and over 770 were wounded by gunfire and bombs. The town of Gaza was back to arranging funerals, amidst worldwide condemnation of Israel’s actions. The US is the hawk-eyed bird of the world, a capitalist hawk, infringing upon nations and other people’s lives and memories with crude lures and imperialist designs on offer. Since the US has nothing to do with the rich history of Jerusalem, the only way it can make its presence felt is by opening an embassy building whose aesthetics resemble a capitalist fortress, a place where deals are done. Jerusalem does not represent a sacred place for the US but merely a strategy toward symbolic hegemony. It is a move to disenfranchise Palestine from its historic ties with Jerusalem.

The sacredness of grief finds its ethical value only when the other is welcome to receive it. To violate that relationship is to reduce and expunge the value of one’s grief.

The late Portuguese novelist José Saramago, speaking to journalists in Ramallah while among the contingent of international writers visiting Darwish in 2002, said: “What is happening in Palestine is a crime we can put on the same plane as what happened at Auschwitz. . . . A sense of impunity characterizes the Israeli people and its army. They have turned into rentiers of the Holocaust.” Horrors and tragedies are incommensurable. They can’t be compared. They are unrepeatable. Yet Saramago compared the two events on a similar “plane” to perhaps indicate that even though an event of horror is incomparable in terms of suffering, the form of horror, if repeated elsewhere, is comparable. Israel has turned Palestine into Auschwitz. To exploit grief as a property to inflict harm on others is to treat grief as a convertible item. The sacredness of grief finds its ethical value only when the other is welcome to receive it. To violate that relationship is to reduce and expunge the value of one’s grief.

Saramago predictably drew a lot of opposition and outcry on his comparing the situation in Palestine to the Holocaust. But he stubbornly reiterated his carefully picked words. Today such a grim view has grown in justification, since Israel has kept its guns and bombs blazing in Gaza, irreparably harming a beleaguered people. In an emotional response to Al Jazeera on May 14, 2018, the inconsolable Palestinian American poet and writer Ibtisam Barakat said, “I cannot see the Palestinian experience in separation from the Holocaust. The Palestinian experience happened right after the Holocaust, in order to move people outside of Europe and give them a national home. Basically, the Holocaust has moved land, moved language, moved hands, but it continues. A people were facing genocide in Europe, and now a people are facing genocide in Palestine, with the same forces at play. . . . It just changed places.”

Exploitation has changed hands like money, like power, changing the names of oppressor and victim, but retaining the form of horror. The name holocaust can no longer be the monopoly of one people. Its singularity has been broken (and extended), ironically, by the people who suffered it first. The holocaust has come to be the name of a violence that has taken newer, technological forms where history has posed the nastiest challenge to a modern philosophical (and ethical) problem: How to invoke an ethics that overcomes the problem of race or racist thinking.

In a radio program in 1982, responding to a question on Palestinians by Rabbi Shlomo Malka, the Jewish ethical thinker Emmanuel Levinas said, “There are people who are wrong.” Levinas did not treat the Palestinians as “other,” denying them a place in his discourse of ethics or justice. This is precisely how Israel treats Palestinians, as a competing political mass, an enemy. The enemy has no face. Jewish ethics violates its premises, loses face, facing the question of Palestine, denying the Palestinian her face. By territorializing the idea of home and identity, refusing to grant the neighbor his land, it is Levinas’s people who are in the wrong.

New Delhi

Editorial note: For more writers’ perspectives, read Ghassan Zaqtan’s “We Were Born in the Houses of Storytellers” and Rima Najjar Merriman’s “No Ordinary Place: Writers and Writing in Occupied Palestine.”

Photo by Rajarshi Dasgupta

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, and political science scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is the author of Nehru and the Spirit of India (Penguin Random House, 2022).