As I write this, smoke is still rising from the smoldering rubble of the refugee center in Qana. Bodies are still trapped in the collapse of the building. The children who gathered there sought to escape Israeli violence. It found them where they were, and killed them.
According to Israel, the problem is not that they are slaughtering civilians. It is that Hezbollah is firing rockets from civilian areas. What Israel would prefer is that Hezbollah come out into the open with its weaker military force and allow it to be decimated by Israeli air power. This, of course, will not happen. As M. Ben M’Hidi, leader of the FLN forces in the movie The Battle of Algiersresponded when accused of placing bombs in women’s handbaskets, “Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be much easier for us. Give us your bombers and we’ll give you our baskets.”Hezbollah is far from untainted. It is emblematic of the religious ferocity that has swept our world. But it is not stupid. Nor is its murderousness a match for that of the IDF.
How is it that Israel can persist in massacring people while the world stands by? What justification does it give itself, and what gives the world pause? The answer is as obvious as it is absurd: the Holocaust. The Jewish state receives dispensation for the crimes committed against the Jewish people. It was nearly exterminated, and now it must protect itself.
How many massacres can Israel commit before this dispensation runs out? Kibya, 1953; Sabra and Shatila, 1982; Jenin, 2002; Qana, 2006, and all the others in between. (Let us not forget that for Qana, this is the second time around. In 1996, Israel massacred 100 people there.)
One is tempted to suggest that Israel has overdrawn its credit on the Holocaust. It is perhaps time to reject the appeal to German barbarity in order to engage in barbarity of one’s own. Historians, many of them Israeli, have shown us that the history of Israel is not one of defense against aggression. It is instead a litany of aggressions in which civilian life, as long as it is not Jewish, is expendable. And yet the Israeli state and much of its citizenry continue to cloak themselves in mantle of victimhood and the discourse of self-protection.
It is time, indeed it is past time, to break the discursive link between Israel and the Holocaust. There is no moral relation between the two, unless betrayal counts as a moral relation. The sustaining narrative for Israeli atrocities must be recognized for what it is. It is not a narrative of fear rooted in the historical experience of attempted extermination. It has become instead the cynical manipulation of that attempt in order to bring horror upon those who have the misfortune of being in the way of Israeli desires and the Israeli military machine. This misfortune is, of course, not limited to the Lebanese. One need only talk with any Palestinian, Israeli citizen or not. In the U.S., there is a label for the crime committed by African-Americans when they are pulled over by the police: DWB, driving while black. For Israel’s neighbors (and non-Jewish citizens), perhaps the crime is LWA: Living While Arab.
We must be clear about the exact relation between Israel and the Holocaust. There are two fundamental facts. First, a horrific crime took place against the Jewish people before and during the Second World War. (It is shameful that at this late date we still need to affirm this.) Second, this horrific crime motivated people at the time, particularly in Europe, to support the creation of a Jewish state. The bond between Israel and the Holocaust runs no deeper than this. If there were other bonds that bound the two, they have been severed, their threads gradually frayed by friction of Israel’s massacres.
Why insist on this theme of the Holocaust in the wake of Israel’s actions at Qana? Because, beneath the empty rhetoric of Israel’s survival lay the silent extortion of the Holocaust. To be critical of Israel is to deny either the reality or the relevance of the massive crime against the Jews. The other side of that coin is clear: the Holocaust founds Israeli exceptionalism. Massacres, which for other countries are symptoms of madness, are for Israel an unfortunate side effect of the project of survival in the wake of the Holocaust.
We must abandon this discourse, and no longer allow those who support Israel the luxury of its use. Otherwise, we continue to open the door to what happened last night, and will surely happen again. Israel is to be judged not by the story it tells itself, but by its actions. These tell their own story, one that has its own victims, not all of whom are Jewish. For Israel, as for the U.S., the abandonment of exceptionalism involves a painful recognition of who one is. There is, however, abundant pain in refusing that recognition. Just ask the people of Qana.