Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
When Nazi Germany barreled into the Eastern Front, they justified their brutality, particularly against Jews, as a prevention against the same kind of barbarism. Communism was considered intertwined with Jewishness, with Bolshevism treated as another Jewish plot designed to destroy Western, white nations and persecute their citizenry. The Jewish-Marxist axis was not simply an ideological or political threat; “Judeo-Bolsheviks,” as Nazi propaganda claimed, were intent on crucifying non-Jewish Europeans.
Jewish Communists were said to throw innocents into mass graves, to ravage the bodies of hostages, to enact violent revenge. Fascist forces, many assuming an incoming Soviet victory, went to great lengths to ensure that Soviet atrocities were well publicized, even supporting the Red Cross in exhuming bodies killed by Soviets to circulate those monstrosities.
“The broadly conceived propaganda campaign even distorted events like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as proof that Jews would destroy Germany if they were not destroyed first,” wrote historian Paul Hanebrick in his 2018 book A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism.
Hanebrick chronicles fascist media campaigns that, particularly near the end of the war, were used to justify a “total war” against a Jewish communist threat who they believed was about to enact cruel vengeance on Axis nations. As more Soviet victims were splashed on the front of fascist-aligned newspapers, the insurgent Nazi violence only increased as a defensive weapon to neutralize the potential violent stranglehold the communists (understood largely as a Jewish-led movement) were about to employ on those losing the war: This is what they will do to you unless you do the same to them.
While demonization and dehumanization are hallmarks of genocide, the victims are also often reframed as perpetrators. Genocide denial is common because those who participate often, at least for a time, cannot accept the fact that they’re the guilty ones.
During the mass murders of alleged communists in Indonesia between 1956 and 1966, which saw as many as nearly 3 million people killed by the far-right government, militia leaders appeared on television to brag about finding a more “efficient” way to execute communists. The Act of Killing, an experimental documentary, featured those now aging political leaders re-enacting their crimes. When the film was released in 2013, viewers were largely shocked by the cognitive dissonance of those original television appearances, which presented exterminations—often by acting out murders portrayed in U.S. mafia films—not just as admirable but also as essential.
Indonesia’s far-right government presented the threat of communist subversion in genocidal terms and treated the “violence” of the communists as so severe that a more ethical, state-led violence was the only protection. This is not just a culturally or politically specific process; it is also one that is mirrored in countless conflicts where the dominant party wants to justify their move past moral boundaries by reframing the diminished party as the true transgressor.
As the body count in Gaza rises now above 24,000 and human rights groups around the world use the word “genocide” to describe the brutal Israeli assault on civilians areas, much of the sympathetic press continues to frame Palestinians as the genociders. British commentator Howard Jacobson, a frequent critic of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, penned an op-ed for The Guardian that alleges that Palestinians are engaging in an attempted genocide of Jewish people. In a Times of Israel op-ed, Yossi Klein Halevi called the attack on Oct. 7, 2023, a “pre-enactment of Hamas’ genocidal vision,” and on Jan. 2, 2024, the Jewish News Syndicate published an op-ed that stated “Hamas has made clear in its words and actions that it is committed to the genocide of the Jewish people, whether they live in Israel or not.”
While it should be clear that Hamas can’t be conflated with the Palestinian people or even broadly defined as the Palestinian “resistance,” Israel has not made those distinctions clear. “The war is not just with Hamas, the war [is] with all the civilians,” Israeli soldier Btzalel Taljah told CNN in October 2023, a point that went unquestioned. “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog said that same month, implying it wasn’t just Hamas that needed to pay for their atrocities, but the Palestinian people as a whole. Israel’s approach to what is often called “mowing the lawn” in Israel, lived up to this framing, using blistering force in civilian areas that has led to an astounding body count in just a matter of months.
The survival of Jewish exclusivity in Israel is always reframed around the survival of Jews, so those seeking to change that are often treated as the genociders amongst us, even as they lose every method of self-sufficiency and survival. Who knows what they would do to us?
The claim that Palestinians intend to commit genocide has been a staple in Israel since long before the Oct. 7 attack. In a chapter in the 1992 book, Human Rights in the 21st Century, Tel Aviv University scholar Irwin Cotler wrote that since early in Hamas’ leadership, its core ideology has been not just antisemitic, but genocidally so. While Hamas is certainly a far-right party whose official documents include antisemitic beliefs, much of the claim that Palestinians have genocidal intentions is largely related to the belief that they want to wipe Israel off the map, meaning cease to be as a state just for Jews rather than for all its residents.
However, the same reading has been extended to other Palestinian movements, particularly the BDS movement, which critics say wants to destroy Israel “from the river to the sea.” This claim displays a particularly important Zionist reconfiguration of Jewish identity: Israel is a Jewish state whose right to exist and capacity as a defensive agent for Jews is based on its ethnically homogenous demography, and therefore any attempts to return it to a pan-ethnic democratic region would be a form of genocide since it would return Jews to the pre-1948 state of precarity. Some are even beginning to reject the notion that human rights are a valid concept if it can be used to indict Israeli behavior. In a December 2023 op-ed for UnHerd, Israeli scholar Yehuda Mirsky wrote that human rights is now a compromised concept because it’s unfairly leveled at Israel’s occupation and dispossession. In a subsequent appearance on the Identity/Crisis podcast, Mirsky doubled down, stating that what’s happening in Gaza is a “humanitarian crisis” rather than a violation of human rights because Hamas rule is the real human-rights violation.
Since the earliest expulsions of what became known as the nakba, the catastrophe, in 1948 when approximately 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland to create the State of Israel, defense was always the justification, even when Zionist writing of that time showed that the expulsions were a self-conscious effort to create the kind of exclusively Jewish enclaves necessary to establish an ethnocratic state.
Hamas was elected into power in 2007 after the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, and Israel nearly immediately imposed a blockade around the small strip of land, limiting resources, economic exchange, and movement for those inside, becoming so restrictive that the Gaza Strip is often termed an “open-air prison.” All of this was framed, first and foremost, as a defensive measure. After the 1967 war where Israel rapidly defeated surrounding Arab armies and then began what has proven to be a permanent military occupation of the West Bank, the creation of “settlements” was largely framed as the creation of defensive outposts to protect against another attack. As they expanded and entrenched a form of apartheid, claims of protection continued, even as Palestinian homes were demolished, olive trees torn up, and administrative detentions proliferated. We had to keep Israelis safe, after all.
The Zionist vision of Jewish safety is not encased in the liberal democratic project; instead, it’s a European nationalist model for Jewish protection. Israel’s founding idea was then, at least in part, on demographic homogeneity surrounded by strong national borders, and ethnic cleansing was necessary to achieve this goal. This strategic notion was based, largely, on a reading of history that assumes antisemitism, particularly in its most genocidal form on display in Nazi Germany just a few years before Israel’s founding, is endemic to modern society and, unfortunately, inescapable. The only solution is to employ the same level of violence used against Jews to defend us—like weapons against like threats.
If the story of Jewish history is laced with the fear of genocide, then the narrative of Jewish future is about the measures necessary to stop the next one. And if that threat is embedded into the very subconscious of gentiles, particularly those on the other side of the West Bank’s defensive wall, then perhaps the only thing to be done is to eradicate the threat before it eradicates us. Never again.
“[Israelis] are committed to completely eliminating this evil from the world,” Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu said (in Hebrew) in October 2023. “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.” Amalek is the Biblical enemy race whom G-d commands the Israelites to eradicate. There is no goodness to be found in them, and they must be plucked off the land before they spread their lethal wickedness. After Oct. 7, I heard the term Amalek show up in rabbinic sermons, Jewish articles, and from Christian Zionists, always eager to appropriate Torah.
By framing Palestinians as Amalek, two things are accomplished. First, those being occupied are positioned not just as enemies, but as inescapable and eternal ones, poisoned at the core and whose anger is, by definition, irrational and without merit. Second, they are diagnosed incurable, so the only treatment possible is eradication. As the bombs accelerated on Gaza, and October turned to November, Israel said it was excising Hamas, but flinched at any effort to separate Hamas from the Palestinian people as a whole.
Holocaust Remembrance Day should not be used as a political football, but as it sparks the horrified memories of what we’ve lost, it would be negligent to deny the resonance of our past. There is no doubt that the Holocaust was an overwhelmingly Jewish tragedy, that its antisemitic contours are distinct and its role in Jewish memory unparalleled. We cannot, however, allow that to spark a fatal myopia. There is no reason to think that a genocide should naturally lend survivors some particular insight into the ethics of violence, to assume so continues to portray Jewish suffering as some kind of righteous pain by which society can find moral rectitude. But the reality is that more than 75 years later we can’t ignore the lessons that are so glaring that they indict our moral ineptitude today.
We have an opportunity to stop it this time, if we just act. More than this, we know exactly how demonization can eradicate the pleas of the suffering in the minds of many, how those at the end of a rifle can be intellectually Photoshopped to appear as though their finger was on the trigger.
So tonight when I light the yahrzeit candle and say the kaddish for those who disappeared, with names unspoken and graves unmarked, behind the gates of Birkenau, Treblinka, Sorbibor, and Majdanek, I’ll think about what it means to stand as shomer around their memories, ensuring they remain a blessing. And I’ll wonder about those who scrawled on the side of bunkhouse walls, promising that none of this, or anything kindred, would ever happen again. To anyone.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017) and Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021), and the editor of the upcoming book No Pasaran: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis (AK Press, 2022). He is currently co-authoring a book on antisemitism for Melville House Books. He previously was the editor of a special issue of the Journal of Social Justice entitled “Antisemitism in the 21st Century.” His work has been featured in NBC News, The Baffler, Al Jazeera, Jacobin, The Independent, Full Stop, and The Daily Beast. He is a member of the News Guild, CWA Local 7901, the National Writer’s Union (UAW 1981), and the IWW. He speaks English.