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Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust Syndrome

Jonathan Kuttab about Holocaust Syndrome


I want to be clear from the beginning that nothing excuses or justifies anti-Semitism. There is no question that classical Western anti-Semitism aimed against Jews (rather than other Semites) is a vile and pernicious phenomenon which has contributed to much suffering over millennia, and ultimately led to the Holocaust in Germany.

The history of this vile phenomenon is well known and documented, and has many causes. Understanding these causes is crucial, but does not in any way justify anti-Semitism.

Part 1

One of these causes was the religious conflict with Christianity. Christians are fully aware of the Jewish roots of their faith. They share with Jews the Old Testament as the foundation of their faith and see in Christianity the legitimate extension and fulfillment of Judaism. Nonetheless, many Christians historically felt outraged that Jews did not accept Jesus as their Messiah, and they felt a deep theological need to force them to “see the light” and acknowledge Christianity as the true successor and fulfillment of their scripture. They also were taught that Jews had murdered Christ, shouting that they demanded his crucifixion and agreeing to have “his blood upon us and our children” (Matthew 28:25). Other causes had to do with the scapegoating of Jews in Europe and the ease of blaming them for economic and other woes.

Yet the trauma of the Holocaust, rooted as it was in historical anti-Semitism, was a qualitatively different phenomenon, and has given rise to a distinctive syndrome which has impacted many, particularly the modern Israeli government and its apologists and supporters. For many Jews and non-Jews, the experience of the Holocaust led to a determined, principled opposition to all forms of racism and discrimination, and an impassioned commitment that “Never Again” shall we allow this to happen to anyone.

For others, it became a carte blanche for exemption from all rules and laws and moral strictures other than the prevention of this evil from ever reoccurring to the Jewish People. In other words, “Never Again” will this be allowed to happen to Jews, and in seeking the power to achieve that end, everything is permissible. This syndrome has included a deep distrust of all people, and an exaggerated reliance on military power to ensure survival.

For the people of the Middle East, however, discrimination against Jews, and antipathy and hatred towards them as a group, is an entirely different idea, more akin to the garden-variety form of tribal and ethnic rivalries and antagonisms that they lived with for millennia. As in every society where different tribes and ethnicities live in close proximity, there is a lot of group solidarity, and conversely, some vile manifestations of racism and discrimination against other, particularly minority, groups.

It is true that the Prophet Mohammad had a mixed history with Jews (and Christians) and was particularly upset at two instances of betrayal when he had a military pact with Jewish tribes which they breached. This led to harsh statements about Jews in the Hadith, and even the Qur’an, but the dominant attitude of Islam and Moslems towards Jews (and Christians) is that they are “People of the Book” whose prophets were recipients of divine revelation, and were revered by Moslems. They were inspired by the same God, with the final revelation and “seal” descending on Mohammad to complete and “perfect” divine revelation, which was previously given to Jews, then Christians. Unlike early Christianity, therefore, Islam did not embody any deep theological conflict or animosity towards Jews or Judaism.

Arab Muslims, and Palestinians in particular, have had a long history of neighborly relations with Jews, who lived in their self-defined neighborhoods, particularly in Jerusalem and Safad, and who, until almost a century ago, were viewed as Palestinians of the Jewish religion. In language, social habits, food, music, and identity, they were Arab, living under the relatively progressive autonomy granted by the Ottomans to different non-Moslem minorities under their rule. Jews living in other Arab countries as well, like Iraq and Yemen and Egypt, also had similar experiences and recall fondly their neighbors and relationships for centuries before the creation of the State of Israel and the political catastrophes that drove them from their homes in Arab countries.

The Zionist movement, the influx of European and other Jews into Palestine, and the creation of the State of Israel, with its concomitant Nakbah, changed the whole picture. The new understanding of anti-Semitism, rooted in the Holocaust, deeply impacted the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the impact of the Holocaust must be fully understood by anyone who is involved in it.

There is no doubt that for many Zionists and their supporters, the event of the Holocaust seared their consciousness and led to a deep wound that has produced totally irrational positions that have no relationship to reality or to the actual dangers or challenges they face. In the wake of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and any of its manifestations, however mild, were elevated to a unique status. The status of absolute and pure evil, of a genocidal variety, that must be fought relentlessly, without compromise. I call this “The Holocaust Syndrome.”

As a result of Holocaust Syndrome, anti-Semitism in Europe began to be treated as a criminal matter. Even the foolish denial of objective historical facts related to the Holocaust, instead of being laughed off and ridiculed, as they would be in any society that values pluralism and freedom of speech, became a specific criminal offense that carried lengthy multi-year prison terms. In this sense, “anti-Semitism” also became a separate and distinct phenomenon, distinguished from other forms of “hate speech,” incitement, racial bigotry, and religious and ethnic intolerance and discrimination.

With the creation of the state of Israel, which was presented by Zionists as the answer to European anti-Semitism, this new understanding became a very useful tool in the struggle between the Zionists and the indigenous Palestinian population. Tremendous support could be garnered for the new state, and failure to wholeheartedly support that state was viewed as a modern manifestation of anti-Semitism, viewed in this new light as a genocidal and absolute evil. Challenges to its policies or behavior, or even offering alternative political solutions (such as a binational state or a secular state accommodating Jews and Palestinians), were viewed as implicitly denying the legality and legitimacy of the Jewish state, and was equated with calling for its physical destruction and demise.

Even calling for “even-handedness” was roundly condemned. Support for Palestinians and their legitimate rights, from this perspective, was seen as akin to calling for a second genocide. Few in Europe or the US were willing to risk even suspicion that they were “modern Hitlers,” and the moral outrage at the Nazi Holocaust, as well as the guilt of failure to prevent it, was conveniently transferred to the Arabs and the hapless Palestinians.

In the United States, the situation became patently absurd, as the “almost white” Jewish community gradually consolidated its power, wealth, and influence in all sectors of society, and became a fully integrated part of the establishment. In crucial sectors like banking, finance, media, the legal profession, academic institutions, arts, the film industry, and political life, their influence both as individuals and an organized community far exceeded their numbers. To be sure, there are still people in the United States and European countries who hate Jews, just as there are people (often the same) who hate Blacks, Latinos, Arabs, Moslems, Catholics, etc…

Yet, as a group, the Jewish community is hardly vulnerable in the US today. As individuals, and as a group, they have access to legal protection, to political power, to the media, and to the institutions of governance and decision-making that other minorities and communities do not have. It is hard to argue that there is today institutional or systematic discrimination against Jews like there is against other minorities. More often than not, the complaint is that they are too securely embedded into the establishment.

However, there are quite a few Jews in the US for whom the experience of the Holocaust is still fresh, whether through the historical trauma experienced or passed to them by an earlier generation, and their sensitivity to real and perceived anti-Semitism is sharp, constant, and out of proportion to the actual dangers and challenges they currently face. This trauma has also been passed down to another generation as part of the historic memory. The very word “anti-Semitism” for them continues to evoke absolute and genocidal evil, rather than repulsive intolerance and discrimination, as in other forms of racism and bigotry.

Jews have sufficiently integrated into the American experience making their narrative compelling and normative for American society as a whole. In this manner, they often paradoxically strengthen conspiracy theories about “Jewish control” that are reminiscent of the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Successful and effective silencing of those with differing views on the Israel/Palestine question and the exacting of a heavy price upon those who resist them adds to this trend, and therefore becomes counterproductive for the American Jewish community itself. Decent and principled public figures, like former President Jimmy Carter, were stung with this false accusation of anti-Semitism, and many more have been silenced by the mere threat of its being directed against them.

The short and long of it is that the Jewish community in the US today is not a victim or a vulnerable community, but part of the powerful and privileged class. Many of its members do, however, continue to be wounded and scarred, and there continues to be bigotry and racism against them in some circles, much of it having been pushed underground, but this is NOT sanctioned, institutional, or acceptable. While such a phenomenon still exists, it is certainly not in the nature of a genocidal, existential threat, however vile it is.

The danger is that excessive sensitivity, and insistence on treating political positions on the Israeli/Palestinian issue as being anti-Semitic, in the sense I described above, runs the danger of heightening, rather than fighting, anti-Semitism, and reinforcing stereotypes which can be tapped into to resurrect real threats and dangers to the Jewish community at some future time.

There are many who have used the label of anti-Semitism to attack any and all criticism of the state of Israel and who have even labeled acts of nonviolent resistance, such as BDS campaigns, with the same vitriolic attacks that sees such positions as representing genocidal evil that must be eliminated with vigor and without hesitation or compromise. Such positions dilute the meaning of anti-Semitism and deprive it of its ethical and moral power. If the situation ever changes, and Jews once again become vulnerable in this country (through the rise of right wing intolerant extremism, for example), we may find that there will be little sympathy for Jews, as they have cried “wolf” too often.

On the other hand, there is great value in Jewish involvement on the right side of history: by taking principled and ethical positions on the Palestinian issue; by taking a strong position on all forms of racism and discrimination, including Islamophobia, which is a far more “imminent and present danger” than anti-Jewishness; by involvement in human rights, anti-racism campaigns, and by principled support for the truly disadvantaged and marginalized. Such positions are arguably far more in line with the teachings of Judaism than insular, tribal ethno-centrism. But this is a decision to be made by Jews themselves, and not preached to them by outsiders, particularly by Palestinians like myself who have an axe to grind.

In Israel/Palestine, however, the situation is very different, though similarities exist. There, an entire population was raised with the idea that the Jewish state was the answer to the Holocaust. As such, the pain and trauma of the Holocaust was an essential national ingredient used to justify and solidify a wide variety of actions and policies that would otherwise be unjustifiable. Addressing this phenomenon as it has manifested in Israel/Palestine will be the goal of Part Two of this piece.



Part 2

Click here to read Part 1.

To understand this phenomenon, which I am calling Holocaust Syndrome, we must understand its basic elements: First, there is a sense of victimhood and entitlement. The state of Israel and the Jewish people it claims to represent had been wronged throughout history and deserve compensation in all forms: financial, military, privileged access to technologies, preferential trade terms, as well as exemption from onerous requirements of abiding by human rights standards. After all, they are victims, underdogs, and entitled to all forms of compensation.

Secondly, there is a passionate drive for power and military prowess. Security has become a paramount value. The new state developed a powerful and aggressive army, air force, and navy, a global arms industry, weapons of mass destruction including a nuclear arsenal, and a network of military support and alliances with the great powers (including the one great superpower), and a highly militarized society was developed, claiming peace was its goal all along. The specific military threats against the state as well as acts of resistance by the local population were used to stoke up these feelings of insecurity and fears of a repeat of the Holocaust experience.

Third, there is a sense of impunity and disregard for international law, or international public opinion. The world was seen to have failed the Jewish people in their dire hour of need, and therefore it is seen as having no moral authority to dictate to the Jewish state on anything related to its security. In addition, no outsider can be trusted, as the new state was to rely only upon itself.

Finally, there is a sense of uniqueness and exceptionalism which has been used utilized to justify and demand exemption from what was required of other countries and nations. The problem is that when you combine the paranoia of a traumatized people with overwhelming power, as well as a sense of impunity and entitlement, the results are catastrophic, particularly for anyone who stands in their way. It also creates a huge obstacle to achieving any kind of normal resolution of conflicts, or coexistence with people who experience the effects of this syndrome.

Now, logic and rationality would indicate that Palestinians, Arabs, and Moslems have little or nothing to do with the European, Christian anti-Semitism Jews experienced throughout the millennia. After all, the Holocaust took place in Germany, the Inquisition in Spain, and the Pogroms in Russia, but that is irrelevant. Holocaust Syndrome is sub-rational, and logic and facts have nothing to do with it.

It is true there is some historic baggage of distrust Moslems feel towards Jews, arising out of two acts of betrayal by Jewish tribes against the Prophet during his early years, as described above. But who in the Jewish world even knows about that or relates to it in any way? It is hardly part of their historic memory.

Similarly, an objective analysis of the power relationships between Israel and the Palestinians, or the entire Arab world for that matter, is equally irrelevant. Israeli demands, in the name of “security,” are out of proportion to any real or potential threat they face, particularly as it is being bankrolled by the United States. Israeli military and security officials, who need to objectively assess the real situation on the ground, often find themselves disagreeing with the politicians and the government and even the rest of the population on security/defense issues.

But again, Holocaust Syndrome is neither objective, nor rational, and has little or nothing to do with the facts on the ground or the true military situation facing Israel. This is often bewildering to Palestinians, who cannot understand or give any credibility to Israeli protestations of their need for security when they are so overwhelmingly more powerful than Palestinians or Arabs.

While I understand this phenomenon, and appreciate how it affects many Israelis and their supporters, and recognize that it is a reality that needs to be addressed, I am also aware that for some, it is merely a convenient tool that can be exploited and expanded to justify otherwise unacceptable positions.

I am particularly sensitive to those who knowingly use the charges of anti-Semitism and deliberately use Nazi analogies where they do not belong for achieving political ends. One example of this was with respect to the Iran nuclear deal, but a more blatant example was when Prime Minister Netanyahu recently accused the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem of having “persuaded” Hitler to burn the Jews, when the Fuhrer only wanted to deport them from Germany! Not only is that accusation totally preposterous on many levels and historically false to the point of ridiculousness, but the point is that it did not need to have anything to do with facts or history. It was a deliberate attempt to tap into the sickness of the Holocaust Syndrome by evoking the fears and revulsion and determination to prevent a second Holocaust, to cast Palestinians today as the modern Nazis, and to blame them (however incongruously) for the millennia of Christian western anti-Semitism. In a struggle between Jews and Nazism, there is no room for compromise. It is a fight for desperate survival against the evil of genocidal hatred. All people are required to be on Israel’s side in that fight, and all weapons, tactics, and means are justified in this “most moral of all” battles.

The reality, then, is that we are dealing with a deeply wounded, traumatized, and sick population, and that there is little chance for peace in the Middle East until this population is healed of this destructive syndrome. How then can we achieve this herculean task?


I have a few concrete and specific suggestions:

  1. We must state unequivocally our opposition to anti-Semitism and racism and discrimination of all kinds, but must not accept the view that elevates every instance of anti-Jewish expression, position, or behavior into genocidal evil. While being vigilant and ready to resist all form of racism, we must resist the temptation to allow erstwhile victims to themselves be racist or discriminators. We must also make a clear distinction between classical Western anti-Semitism and political positions taken against Zionism, the State of Israel, or its policies.
  2. We must insist on an objective reading of the facts on the ground today, rather than to read the Holocaust Narrative into everything. While the actual Holocaust Syndrome is emotional, not rational, facts and reason should be used, whenever warranted, to replace paranoia and fears.
  3. We must challenge the implicit reliance on military power and “security” alone, which is an essential part of this syndrome. Refusing to grant paramount and absolute importance to military strength and violence has implications both for Palestinians and Israelis: This means that Palestinians, who have every legitimate moral and legal right to resist their oppressor, must think a thousand times before using military and violent forms of resistance, as it would trigger and reinforce Israeli fears, and therefore reinforce this dangerous syndrome. They must instead choose nonviolent forms of resistance. For Israelis and supporters of Israel, it means that they must seek other ways to ensure their safety and survival and address their actual security needs through methods that do not depend on ever-increasing reliance on military power and its destructive capabilities. The value of diplomacy, concessions, and reconciliation must top the list of actions needed to “safeguard” Israel’s security and insure its survival, rather than more weapons and “greater deterrence.”
  4. The argument that Israel needs more weapons so that it can feel “safe enough” to negotiate and compromise with its neighbors is not helpful. Israelis must think about how they can become an acceptable part of the Middle East, instead of trying to demand and coerce the Middle East countries into “recognizing” and “accepting” them despite their policies. Israel must seek security through a just resolution of its conflict with Palestinians, based on equity and mutual respect, rather than attempt to impose its will on them through superior force.
  5. Appeals to “exceptionalism” must be resisted. Language of “chosenness” and particularity must be reexamined. Israel must be encouraged to abide by and promote international law and universal values. If laws and international institutions are weakened and disregarded, and sheer power and force becomes the only arbiter, Jews in Israel will be in great danger once the balance of power shifts, which it inevitably will.
  6. The idea of Israel being a “state of the Jews” responsible for Jews everywhere, and not responsible, or accountable to its own non-Jewish citizens is both destructive and promises future problems. Israel needs to strive to be a normal country like other countries and stop demanding or requiring special privilege. It is also not the only answer for Jews worldwide, who may seek and have sought their destiny in their own respective countries.
  7. We need to encourage everyone to “opt out” of the language and mindset that relies on that sick phenomenon, the Holocaust Syndrome: Every time we dwell on that paradigm, we reinforce it. Every time we repeat that Israel needs “security” and that its security needs are paramount and non-negotiable, we reinforce the same sickness.