Politicians Who Abuse the Holocaust Should Be Sanctioned

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Ben Cohen

Ben Cohen

The Israeli government was absolutely right in its decision to announce that Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — known to the world as “Lula” — is persona non grata in the Jewish state in the light of his disgraceful comparison of Israel’s defensive war in Gaza with the Nazi extermination of six million Jews. By the same token, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a grave mistake in proceeding with his meeting with Lula in Brasilia only a few days after the Brazilian leader made his offending remarks.

The key point to bear in mind regarding Lula’s comments is that there was no ambiguity at all; in his view, Israel’s actions in Gaza are a carbon copy of the Holocaust inflicted by the Nazis.


“What’s happening in the Gaza Strip isn’t a war, it’s a genocide,” Lula declared on the sidelines of an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. “It’s not a war of soldiers against soldiers. It’s a war between a highly prepared army and women and children.” There was only one historical parallel appropriate for the current situation, he continued: “When Hitler decided to kill the Jews.”

Frankly, it feels insulting to have to push back against such an outburst. Insulting and demeaning to have to explain that the goal of destroying the “international Jewish conspiracy” lay at the core of Nazi ideology; that before the extermination began, Nazi Germany initiated the legal degradation of the Jews, conferring subhuman status upon them through the 1935 Nuremburg Laws; that the Nazis built an entire network of concentration and extermination camps dedicated, in the main, to the enslavement and murder of Jews from all over occupied Europe; that the Nazis were so obsessed with murdering every Jew under their control that they actually accelerated the killing even when it became clear that the war was lost for them. There is no comparison here with Gaza. Indeed, there are very few historical events that warrant any kind of comparison with the Holocaust — the 1994 genocide in Rwanda might be one, for example — and absolutely none that justify the exact analogy drawn by Lula.

Nonetheless, Blinken went ahead with his meeting with Lula, fully aware of what had been said. Indeed, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller was asked about Lula’s comments ahead of Blinken’s departure for Latin America. “Obviously, we disagree with those comments,” he responded. “We have been quite clear that we do not believe that genocide has occurred in Gaza. We want to see the conflict ended as soon as practical.”

All very well, but the U.S. government should do more than just disagree. It should condemn. It should point out that abusing the Holocaust as Lula did is as morally repugnant as denying the Holocaust altogether and arguably more insidious since it mocks the historic victimhood of the Jews by casting them as no different from their murderers.
Perhaps Blinken did tell Lula forcefully that what he said was wrong; we will never know, as no record of their discussion has been published. What we have been told by Lula’s adviser, Celso Amorim, is that Blinken opened that part of their exchange with a reminder that his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, had survived the Holocaust.

Again, we can only speculate, but maybe, to offer a more generous interpretation, Blinken felt that Lula would shift his understanding of the Holocaust if only he had a better grasp of its nature and enduring impact on subsequent generations of Jews. If this was the case, then it was hopelessly naive.

Lula is many things, not least a crook who went to jail for corruption before being exonerated on a technicality, without disproving the original accusations against him. However, he is not an idiot. He knows about the Holocaust and has had the privilege of visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem — Israel’s national memorial to the Shoah — while on a state visit to Israel in 2010. Yet this was the same visit during which he insulted his Israeli hosts by refusing to visit the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement. Whatever he gleaned at Yad Vashem, this was either forgotten entirely or repurposed for his vile comments while in Ethiopia.

If American and Western leaders are serious about tackling antisemitism, they must do so first of all among their peers. Just as we expect university administrations to sanction college professors who abuse the Holocaust for the purpose of attacking Israel, we should demand the same from politicians; after all, Lula was far from being the first offender in this regard. In the last year alone, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has claimed, “They used to speak ill of Hitler. What difference do you have from Hitler? They are going to make us miss Hitler. Is what this Netanyahu is doing any less than what Hitler did? It is not.” Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, never misses an opportunity to invoke the Nazi analogy. On a visit to Germany last year, he did exactly that while standing next to Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a press conference, sneering in answer to a question from a journalist that Israel had committed “50 massacres, 50 holocausts” since 1947.

At best, we get condemnation. Scholz later declared himself “disgusted” by Abbas’ comments, but he didn’t declare the Palestinian leader persona non grata. Similarly, Erdoğan’s repulsive barbs also meet with rhetorical disapproval, but no more. If anything, those leaders tempted to also make the comparison may well feel emboldened by the knowledge that those who have already done so get away with it!

Just as a university president who can’t offer a simple condemnation of antisemitism doesn’t deserve to be in office, a political leader — whether elected or not — who compares Israel with Nazi Germany doesn’t deserve to be treated as a diplomatic partner. For years now, we’ve allowed Lula, Erdoğan, Abbas and those of their ilk to spit on the graves of 6 million Jews with impunity. Israel, the state built with the blood and toil of survivors, has now said that enough is enough. If there is any decency left in this world, other governments will follow its lead.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

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