Almost a month after the Hamas attack on Israel, the Middle East is on the verge of a political, military and social explosion. Europe and the West are not immune; very serious, high-risk lines of tension are slowly reappearing. If this happens, it will be because precise political wills have constructed and disseminated for decades a distorted and poisonous rhetoric to which millions of people are enslaved, often in spite of themselves. On the right and on the left, in the secular as well as the religious worlds involved in the conflict. So much so that the power of these narratives can easily overwhelm the objectivity of facts, even their relevance. This is the phenomenon that the historian Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, one of the leading experts on anti-Semitism and director of the Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation (Cdec) in Milan, sheds light on.
Professor Luzzatto, it took two whole weeks to reconstruct in detail what happened in southern Israel on Saturday, October 7th: the coordinated incursions of thousands of militiamen from land, sea, air and underground; the organization of the teams to the various targets and who was to kill and who was to kidnap. What makes it comparable, if at all, to other events in contemporary history?
“I really wouldn’t make any kind of comparison. Sure, there are elements that can be compared. But here we are dealing with a war that, compared to all the others that there have been in the Middle East – and there have been so many in recent years – has at its core an unprecedented message: the images that come from this war bring back horrors that we are not used to. Certainly, the war in Yemen, which has been ravaging that country for ten years now, will have been no less bloody and cruel. But we haven’t seen anything, so we don’t know anything about it and we don’t care: three quarters of the Italian population don’t even know where Yemen is. From this point of view, it is obvious that an unprecedented game is being played in which The Image is being used as an instrument of war as never before. From the beginning, there has been a desire to display tortured bodies, that of the real martyr of the massacre or that of the target to be hit: the children torn from their homes by Hamas militiamen or the prisoners taken away. And Israel itself has responded in the same way, using very different images in its propaganda: it clearly shows what crimes the terrorists are guilty of. Now it is clear that this strategy is designed to widen the conflict, to bring it from the dunes of the desert to the gates of Gaza in the eyes of millions of people, forcing the question: ‘So, you who are watching, whose side are you on?’.”
Aren’t those in Israel or the Jewish world right to invoke the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, or even the German house-to-house roundups during World War II, to give a measure of the slaughter?
“Again, I am very much against comparing the act that triggered this war with anything else. As for the first possible comparison, this was not a pogrom, because a pogrom is a people’s revolt – organized or not by power – against another group of people.. The black-hundrists organized the Moldavian population to massacre the Jews of Kishinev (today’s Chisinau, the site of two pogroms in the early 1900s, ed.). On the other hand, those who stormed Israel on October 7th were armed men who, although drugged, knew exactly what they were doing, who went from house to house to slaughter civilians, but who were also very well prepared to defend themselves and armed to the teeth. So it’s not a pogrom. As far as the Holocaust is concerned, it has nothing to do with it except for the scale: since the end of the war, there has never been a single incident in which so many Jewish civilians were killed in 24 hours. But in this case, it is the military and political power and the intelligence services in Israel that are directly responsible, because they left their civilian population unprotected, relying on a military doctrine that has proven to be simply ridiculous.”
Better to leave each persecution and slaughter to its dramatic specificity.
“Definitely yes. International bodies such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance have been working for years in an important way against the distortion of the Holocaust. The Shoah was a historically interesting phenomenon, unfortunately, because it carried to extremes a series of human behaviors of entire populations, of political power, of industrial and military apparatuses, and that therefore it can be studied and should be studied in itself because of what happened. It should not be a symbol of all the evils that happened afterwards. That’s why I’m always very suspicious when one uses these kinds of comparisons with Nazism or with the roundups, because it deeply weakens this historical event (the Shoah, ed.) and doesn’t help us in any way to explain what happened now. But the temptation in Israel to compare violent attacks, let alone this one of nearly 2,000 dead in one day, with the Shoah is the result of powerful historical-political processes.”
“On the one hand, the way in which, from a certain point onward, the Shoah entered into and became central to the founding rhetoric of the State of Israel. Before and during the birth of the State of Israel, such a use was completely outside the consciousness of the founding fathers. In fact, Israel was born in controversy over what was happening to persecuted Jews in Europe even before the Shoah, who did not understand that anti-Semitism would overwhelm them. It took at least 10-15 years to structure a narrative of the Shoah that was compatible with the State of Israel, with the birth of Yad Vashem, and before that of Kibbutz Lochamè haGhetaot. And yet the rhetoric was and still is: from the Shoah we take Mordechai Anielewicz (the commander of the anti-Nazi Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, ed.) and the Jewish resistance to the Shoah, not the Jews sent to slaughter. The extremely significant fact remains that for so many years, now more than fifty, Yad Vashem has become the altar for Israel’s civil religion. Foreign heads of state, in order to pay homage to the State of Israel, do not go to visit the Unknown Soldier – and there would be plenty of reason to do so for all the wars that have been fought – but they go to Yad Vashem to mourn the children who died in the Holocaust, and this is perhaps the clearest indicator of the significance of the central role that the State of Israel has for quite some time given to this narrative. On the other hand, we should not forget that if there are still two, three, four survivors of the Shoah in Italy, there were 5,000 survivors of the Shoah living in the now evacuated area around Gaza: a visible, important, extremely influential human presence. But on the other hand, it is Hamas itself, with its narratives, that has actively contributed to creating this kind of historical short-circuit.”
What are you referring to?
“Just a few years ago, Hamas organized demonstrations in Gaza against Israel, sending incendiary balloons with swastikas. The message was and is: ‘We are on this side and you are on that side, those who wanted to destroy were doing a good thing”. It works rhetorically, but not in reality. Hamas is not the Nazis: it is a completely different thing, it is a completely different apparatus. And it is an apparatus that should frighten not only Israel, but the entire Western world, of which we are a part, willingly or not. Because, as my colleague David Bidussa has been pointing out for years, Islamic fundamentalism, like all religious fundamentalism, is not a phenomenon of late antiquity, it is not a return to the Middle Ages: it is a hyper-modern project, with modern tools and modern technologies, of conquering power. It is a totalitarianism based on an idea of state and power that manipulates religious rhetoric, first of all internally, against women and anyone who is alien to this kind of culture and propaganda, and wants to impose it on the world. As for Hamas, speaking of propaganda, ‘Let’s go liberate Palestine’ is a convenient slogan from a communication point of view, but it has nothing to do with their real key project, which is to kill Jews because they don’t belong there. Period.”
Is anti-Semitic sentiment among Arabs more related to Jewish settlement in Palestine and the founding of the State of Israel? Or is at the root of something deeper and older?
“It is both ancient and very modern. As I have been trying to explain for decades, anti-Semitism is a modern political language that, since the end of the 19th century, has provided the entire political world with an arsenal of tools – the idea of conspiracy, the construction of the enemy around certain symbology – that has proved so effective that it has been adopted very quickly even in very different environments. The Arab-Islamic scenario is a concrete example of this: it did not go through the whole process – the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the rise of the bourgeoisie, nationalization – that was the cultural and political humus in which contemporary anti-Semitism was born. But it was not even necessary for them, because the Arab masses and those who maneuvered them already had a perfectly usable tool in their hands. So it is not surprising that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were translated into Arabic in Beirut in 1926 and gradually became an increasingly powerful tool of narration and mobilization. Even today, when the Lebanese television channel Al Manara broadcasts dramas featuring a Jew, they seem to have been lifted from nineteenth-century caricatures of the French Dreyfus affair. And so, for Hamas, anti-Semitism is a very modern tool for conquering power, because it creates the enemy and provokes immediate sympathy: an essential tool in its arsenal.”
The demonstrations throughout Europe and the U.S., where slogans of explicit support for Hamas and thus for the destruction of Israel were heard alongside support for the Palestinian cause, caused a stir. How is this possible given the brutality of what has happened? Oliver Roy observed how this support found a nest in the universities rather than in the streets, in the upper middle class rather than among the marginalized.
“I agree, and at the same time it seems to me that this is a failure of Israel to communicate its message. For a long time, the Jewish state has failed to communicate its internal articulation, so that throughout the West and Europe, even at the middle and upper levels, we find ourselves flattened on the image of Israel as the soldier who kills Palestinians, the persecuted who become the persecutor, and so on. And every time a conflict erupts in the squares, there is automatically a renewal of this rhetoric, which is hardly thought about except by those who want to rule those squares. When I saw 3-4 thousand people marching through the streets of Milan with a huge Palestinian flag, shouting “Allah Akbar” and praising Hamas as a resistance movement, I remembered, with optical distortion due to considerable ignorance, how in 1979 people marched to praise the Islamic revolution of the Ayatollahs who had finally deposed the Shah. It was the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism, but in those early days, blinded by Third Worldism, it was not understood. The rhetoric is very durable in Italy. The Jew works as a victim when we talk about the Holocaust Remembrance Day, otherwise he is the butcher of Palestinians. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism, like any prejudice, flows in the unconscious, in massive doses, and as soon as a conflict erupts, it emerges.”
This interview was originally published by the Italian newspaper Open.
Cover photo: demonstrators hold fliers, including one featuring the photo of 3-year-olds Emma and Yuli Cunio, as they gather to call for the release of Israeli hostages in front of the Red Cross headquarters in Washington, DC, on November 5, 2023. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP.)
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