The horrors of the Holocaust are undeniable. But the evocation of those horrors is increasingly being used to delegitimize any criticism of Israel. History is being used to distort the present.
At the end of April, the international edition of The New York Times carried a cartoon depicting Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guide dog leading a blind President Trump. The implication – that US policy was being dictated by Israel’s interests – followed a series of controversial pro-Israel policy decisions by Trump, who has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cut aid to the Palestinians, backed Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights and remained silent over Netanyahu’s intention to annex parts of the West Bank.
The cartoon was widely condemned as being anti-Semitic. For Spiked, a British online political magazine and one of a chorus of protesting voices, it peddled the “classic trope: powerful Jews leading the world’s politicians astray.” The New York Times apologized for its “offensive … error of judgment” and deleted the cartoon.
The Jewish people have six million devastating reasons to be on their guard against the slightest suggestion of anti-Semitism, but not all Jews agreed the cartoon was anti-Semitic. “We should stop being crybabies,” Uri Fink, a leading Israeli comic-book artist, told The Jerusalem Post. “I thought that it’s time we stopped being oversensitive and that we come out of this looking stupid.” For the cartoonist and illustrator Zeev Engelmayer, writing in the liberal-leaning Haaretz, the cartoon was caustic and vicious, “exactly what a political cartoon should be,” but “certainly not anti-Semitic.” To suggest otherwise, he wrote, “reinforces the feeling that [Israel] looks for every possible justification to play the victim to silence critics.”
Criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is becoming an increasingly fraught business. In a speech in Jerusalem in March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of the “hot rhetoric of prejudice” which, he said, “cloaks itself in the language of the academy or of diplomacy or public policy.” Later, in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Pompeo clarified his thoughts. “Let me go on the record,” he said. “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”
The Trump administration is doing more than merely spouting rhetoric. At the beginning of May, Elan Carr, the State Department’s special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, announced the US was reviewing its relations with governments it considered to be anti-Israel. It was “something we are going to have frank and candid conversations about behind closed doors.”
Germany is unlikely to be on Carr’s list. On May 1, the German parliament, the Bundestag, passed a resolution condemning the actions of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as anti-Semitic and reminiscent of the Nazis. Modeled on the movement that helped to end South African apartheid, the Palestinian-led BDS had called on artists to boycott the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv as part of its campaign to end support “for Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism.” The Bundestag resolution was welcomed by Netanyahu, who called on other countries to follow suit, and by Britain’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who congratulated Germany and tweeted: “Boycotting Israel – the world’s only Jewish state, is anti-Semitic.”
More than 60 Jewish academics, based in Israel and across the world, did not agree. In an open letter to the Bundestag, they expressed alarm at “the growing tendency of labeling supporters of Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic.”
The New York Times cartoon may not have been anti-Semitic, but it was inaccurate; Trump is not following Israel’s lead blindly. It’s true, as Netanyahu noted during a visit to the Oval Office in March, that Israel has “never had a greater friend” in the White House than President Trump and that the bond between them “serves the interests of Israel in ways that I cannot begin to describe.
It certainly served the personal interests of Netanyahu who, just weeks away from a touch-and-go election, benefited from President Trump’s endorsement of his claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights. But Trump, who in a speech in April to Americans at the Republican Jewish Coalition referred to Netanyahu as “your prime minister,” also benefits. For a president seeking a second term in November 2020, Trump’s series of pro-Israeli policies are “designed to appeal to domestic constituencies including evangelical Christians, conservative Republicans and a significant number of American Jews,” as global affairs analyst and former State Department Middle East adviser Aaron David Miller noted recently.
Small wonder that Palestinians lack faith in Trump’s America as an honest broker and will not be in Bahrain on June 25 and 26 for the Peace to Progress economic summit organized by the US. As Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh explained on May 20, any solution to the conflict in Palestine “must be political … and based on ending the occupation … we will not trade our national rights for money.”
This isn’t the first time that the fate of Palestinians has been determined by the self-interests of foreign powers. In 1917, a British cabinet desperate to secure US support in the war against Germany agreed to make a declaration “favorable to the aspirations of the Jewish nationalists” in order to secure the backing of “a very strong and enthusiastic organization, more particularly in the United States, who were zealous in this matter.” The result was the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain committed itself to the establishment in Palestine of “a national home for the Jewish people.” It also meant abandoning the promise of an independent Arab state that had been given to secure Arab support for the fight against the Ottoman empire. The fact that a century later the Palestinians continue to be regarded as little more than an irritant in the grand plans of other nations has done nothing to temper the Arab memory of this betrayal.
The world must never be allowed to forget the lessons of the Holocaust. But to play anti-Semitism as a trump card to silence defenders of another oppressed people is to diminish Israel’s moral authority and undermine any hope of achieving the reconciliation that is essential if Israelis and Palestinians are ever to find a way to live together in peace.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.