Jonathan Dekel-Chen
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Invoking the Shoah masks how Israel didn’t protect my son, hostage in Gaza

The officials who compare October 7th to the Holocaust turn a blind eye to Israel's very existence, when they should be meeting Israel's urgent needs instead
Jonathan Dekel-Chen, left, holds a picture of his son Sagui Dekel-Chen, as he stands next to Ruby Chen, father of Itay Chen, following a White House meeting of families of hostages held in Gaza on December 13, 2023, in Washington, DC. (AP/ Evan Vucci)
Jonathan Dekel-Chen, left, holds a picture of his son Sagui Dekel-Chen, as he stands next to Ruby Chen, father of Itay Chen, following a White House meeting of families of hostages held in Gaza on December 13, 2023, in Washington, DC. (AP/ Evan Vucci)

Israeli society – barring its extreme political fringes – is still in shock from the massive military failure of October 7 and the even greater governmental failure since then. Most Israelis are also horrified by the loss of civilian life and the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. They want nothing more than for our hostages to return home, for the end of Hamas’s rule in Gaza, and for the killing to stop.

During this time of national crisis, I have been profoundly troubled by the narratives promoted by senior Israeli government officials since that “Black Saturday,” in which these leaders have tried to obscure their accountability for the catastrophe of October 7th and their ineffectiveness since then.

Most frequently, we hear Israeli ministers and other leaders invoking collective memories of the Holocaust. Most insist that Hamas’s attack mirrored Nazi genocide. Recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken a different tack: the October 7th attack was unlike the Holocaust because Hamas was not able to execute a larger-scale massacre. In both cases, invoking the Holocaust absolves the Israeli government for its failures that nightmarish morning in the Negev — the day everything designed to protect us collapsed.

I find our government’s invoking of Holocaust comparisons offensive as a professional historian, as a member of Kibbutz Nir Oz (destroyed during the attack), and as the son of a Holocaust survivor and a refugee from Nazi Germany. Having emigrated from Europe to the United States, my parents never moved to Israel. But they were immensely proud — particularly as Holocaust survivors — of my family and of our country.

Part of me was grateful on October 7th that my parents had died years before; they would have been crushed by Israel’s failure to defend its own citizens, the complete destruction of our kibbutz home that they cherished, and the kidnapping of a beloved grandchild, my son, Sagui.

Invoking the Holocaust and pogroms is neither historically accurate nor necessary to absorb the magnitude and consequences of the October 7th massacre. Doing so insults my parents and countless other victims of antisemitic slaughters in the past, with no Jewish state to defend them.

Netanyahu’s use of Holocaust memory is a distortion of another kind: it suggests that the IDF stopped the attack when, in fact, the vast majority of the defensive actions by Israelis that day came from heroic civilian first-responder teams or uncoordinated actions by small military units — even individual soldiers — who sought out and engaged Hamas invaders with little or no guidance from their commanders.

Until October 7th, we all believed that the Israeli army would arrive to defend our kibbutz within minutes of any breach of the border fence, approximately one mile from our homes. As we experienced on October 7th, that entire system collapsed. Comparing what happened that day to the Holocaust is a cynical mobilization (conscious or otherwise) of collective Holocaust memory for political purposes. On the one hand, comparisons obscure the culpability of Hamas for its butchery. On the other, comparisons muddle the singular accountability Israel’s government bears for what happened and its lasting effects.

October 7th was indeed the deadliest single day for world Jewry since the Holocaust, and the worst military failure in Israel’s history. We Israelis and Jews must remember, however, that in 1939 there was no sovereign Jewish state — Israel — nor a strong, well-equipped and well-trained Jewish army. It is a simple, painful truth that Hamas’s attack should never have happened and would not have been so deadly if Israel’s government and army had done their jobs.

By allowing these comparisons to the Holocaust, we release the Israeli government from accountability for the October 7th massacre and our leaders’ sacred responsibility to return all the hostages alive. 

The true lesson of the Holocaust for Israelis should not be eternal victimhood, as our leaders constantly suggest. Rather, it is that there is nothing of greater value in the Zionist project than Jewish empowerment.

Describing October 7th as a pogrom (anti-Jewish riot) that preceded the Holocaust is similarly unhelpful. Unlike the spontaneous mob violence in 19th and 20th century Eastern Europe, Hamas, the governing body in the Gaza Strip since 2007, formulated, organized, funded, and executed the attack.

Summoning memories of pogroms risks obscuring the sole responsibility of Hamas and its leaders for mass murders, kidnappings, rape, and looting. Whatever the scale of civilian casualties inflicted by the IDF on Gaza’s civilians since that tragic day, Hamas’ brutality must never be brushed over. 

The devastation Hamas wrought on October 7th stands alone. So does the need for Israel’s government to rise to this national challenge and not allow petty domestic politics to condemn the hostages to death in Hamas’s tunnels. This is our government’s moral responsibility to our captive loved ones and to Jews everywhere who believe in the promise of Israel.

In recent weeks, the world has witnessed a wave of pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel protests on university campuses. Ignorant or cynical Israeli government officials compare these protests — or suggest they are a prelude — to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. 

Whatever our opinions about the protesters and their knowledge of the issues or their motivations, these students have come together because of what they see happening in the news or online. Labeling them “Nazis” again obscures our government’s role in pushing them toward protests: the civilian casualties in Gaza and our government’s inability to maintain the moral high ground in public opinion or offer even a hint of a vision about the “day after” in Gaza after the fighting stops. 

Why are these comparisons so fundamentally wrong? First, the student protesters are invariably from minority groups. In Nazi Germany, the angry mobs in the streets were part of an angry ethno-national majority (Germans) seeking to restore national pride after a decades-long crisis.

Second, the campus protesters have almost no support among powerful politicians, industrialists and financiers — the kinds of people who financed and facilitated the rise of National Socialism in Germany.

Third, the campus protesters and their supporters today are not the government anywhere. They have no leader or party structure. They do not have numbers. They have no common ideology. They are not protesting within a failed state, like Weimar Germany, that is too weak to deal with them. On the contrary, if anything, one could say that some of the authorities and police forces around the world are over-reacting to the campus protests. 

Fourth, in the 1930s there was no Jewish state that could work with European and US Jews to deal with a rise in antisemitism. Unfortunately, the problem in facing this challenge for the past 20 or so years is that the Israeli government has increasingly alienated non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry. Comparing campus protests to 1930s Germany absolves Netanyahu’s government from its responsibility for creating and solving these challenges before and after October 7th. 

The rise of antisemitism is indeed a global problem. But blowing it out of proportion to whip up hysteria among Israelis and by erasing Israel’s part in this current cycle of hate is disrespectful to the victims of the Holocaust, distorts the truth about what happened on October 7th and reduces our government’s responsibility for the fate of our hostages. 

The only way to begin healing for our society and for our region is the immediate release of our hostages and ending the carnage in Gaza.

About the Author
Professor Jonathan Dekel-Chen is Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet & East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is a member of the History Department and the Department of Jewish History & Contemporary Jewry. His current research and publications deal with transnational philanthropy and advocacy, non-state diplomacy, agrarian history and migration. In 2014 Dekel-Chen co-founded the Bikurim Youth Village for the Performing Arts in Eshkol (relocated at Kibbutz Ein Gedi in 2021), which provides world-class artistic training for under-served high school students from throughout Israel. Dekel-Chen is a member of Kibbutz Nir Oz.
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