Holocaust Survivors and Descendants Against Israel?

Three hundred twenty-seven Holocaust survivors or descendants of Holocaust survivors or victims signed a statement dated August 22 and published in the New York Times August 23 unequivocally condemning the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the ongoing occupation and colonization of historic Palestine. They further attack U.S. funding for Israel and the diplomatic cover by Western nations for Israel.

While they don’t call what took place in Gaza, at first, a “genocide,” they have the nerve to say that “genocide begins with the silence of the world.” No similar statement has issued from the group mobilized by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network about real genocide occurring nearby in Syria.  Only Israel arouses their ire.

They go on in the statement to characterize Israeli action as “the continued genocide of the Palestinian people.” They call for “the full economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel.”

This is a craven appeal by people who have long opposed Israel and seen everything wrong in what Israel is and does.  They are united not in their experience of the Holocaust, though they instrumentalize and demean the Holocaust for their political purpose; they are united by their shared anti-Zionism.

The several hundreds of Holocaust survivors that I have interviewed and studied in my ongoing work, including some two hundred of the nearly 1000 boys found at Buchenwald, do not take these positions.  They think of Israel as fulfilling a purpose and function central to their past experience.

These survivors think of Israel as a life raft and a haven, and wish there had been such a place when they were tyrannized by their Nazi overlords.

Many of these young boys I have studied fought for Israel during the independence war shortly after they were liberated from the camps, those who survive today send me emails regularly about the dangers confronting Israel, whether they live in Israel, North America, or Australia, and they continue strongly to support the state, although not without important and relevant criticisms and not without important worries.

Among the signatories of this new anti-Zionist statement are forty survivors, including the Yiddish poet, Irene Klepfisz, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, who was hidden by Poles working with members of the Warsaw Welfare Department in the Father Boduen Children’s Home.  She is the daughter of the hero Michal Klepfisz, a Bundist, who helped arm the resistance and died during the early days of the Warsaw ghetto revolt.  She has long been critical of Israel and in the late 1980s visited Israel and helped form the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Among the signatories are also a large number of children of Holocaust survivors who too have been outspoken critics of Israel.  One is Susan Slyomovics who grew up the daughter of Holocaust survivors in Montreal and has made a distinguished career in anthropology at UCLA studying Palestinians and, most recently, published a study on the meanings of accepting German reparations.

Finally, the signatories include some grandchildren of survivors, including the controversial Anna Baltzer, whose real name is Anna Piller, and who trades on her relative’s experience to speak to Jewish and Christian audiences in the U.S. for the Palestinian cause.  In recent years, she has headed the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a cleaned up version of the earlier International Solidarity Movement.  Piller/Baltzer has repeatedly called for an end to the existence of the Israeli state.

Most of these people, so far as I know, are determined opponents of Israel.  It is not their Holocaust experience or legacy that determines what they think or say, although the poet Klepfisz, attuned to aspects of the everyday experience of oppression, offers in her poetry and writing insights that do stir the mind and torment the soul and can be read for profit by any who continue to care about those who suffer.  The Holocaust is rather that linkage that they publically trade on in order to promote here the political cause they already firmly believe in.

The statement is openly aimed against Elie Wiesel.  A press release says the letter was penned in response to an inflammatory ad campaign in which Elie Wiesel compared the murder of children during the Holocaust to Hamas’ actions in Gaza. Critic of Israel Marc Ellis called it “Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust trump card.”  The theme of the ad was “Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,000 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’ turn.”

The ad referring to Hamas’ human shield tactics appeared in the United States in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.  In England it was published by the Guardian, stirring a campaign of British protest. These signatories suggest that Elie Wiesel abuses Holocaust history to justify the unjustifiable: “Israel’s wholesale effort to destroy Gaza and the murder of more than 2,000 Palestinians, including many hundreds of children.”

But, in putting forward their ad, these signatories also abuse the past, failing in their polemic to say anything about Hamas and its intentions, or about Hamas’ attacks on Israel, or about Hamas’ relations with the Palestinians living in Gaza.  Only Israel acts, only Israel is criticized.

If anything, the Holocaust should teach us all about the value of human life. It was about the Nazis deciding who should live and who should die.  It was about a  movement that took state power and imagined a world completely without Jews.  Yes, the Holocaust should make us raise questions about the cost in civilian lives of the Israeli campaign and whether Israel did everything possible to minimize such casualties.  It should raise questions about the occupation and its continued costs to Palestinians and also to Israelis.  But above all it should also lead us to understand why Jews, and especially Holocaust survivors and their descendants, overwhelmingly defend the Jewish state and support fighting back fiercely when attacked.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.