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L’affaire Zanoli: How newsworthy?

When a Dutch man gave back his Righteous Among the Nations medal, it became an epic anti-Israel commentary

Henk Zanoli, a 91-year-old Dutch citizen, recently returned the “Righteous Among Nations” medal awarded to him by Israel in 2011 for his having saved a Jewish child during the Holocaust.

According to myriad press reports, on July 20 several of Mr. Zanoli’s Gazan family members by marriage were killed in an Israeli air strike. Three weeks later, Mr. Zanoli returned the award to Israel’s ambassador to The Hague. In his accompanying letter, Mr. Zanoli wrote that it would be an insult to his mother and his family in Gaza to keep the accolade. He then proceeded to go beyond chastising Israel for the latest Gaza war and accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and occupying Palestinian areas. Despite having initially supported the founding of a Jewish state, Mr. Zanoli was now essentially calling for it to be dismantled, to be replaced with a binational Jewish-Palestinian state where, according to the letter, everyone would have the same rights and opportunities.

The Righteous Among Nations honor is reserved for those who, during the Holocaust, risked their lives, and often lost their lives, to save Jews. The tribute, given by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, at once acknowledges the courage and humanity of those who took decisive action in the face of evil and, by inescapable implication, the profound moral failings of those who were complicit in the Holocaust or silent in the face of it.

Although it was a newsworthy event when Mr. Zanoli returned his award in a very public manner, the question becomes, how newsworthy? Major publications around the world ran with it, including front-page coverage. The blogosphere and social media followed suit.

Why? Why was this slap at Israel, by a man with family connections in Gaza and in obvious disagreement with Israeli policies beyond the current hostilities, hoisted aloft as a major international news event? Was it simply that Mr. Zanoli demanded attention because none other than Israel had anointed him as “righteous” with respect to nothing less than the Holocaust? To some extent, no doubt (and certainly for the Israeli and Jewish press, which ran the story.) But is that all? Are we sure that there was not something else at work here, something that resonates on a deeper level and accounts for the global reaction?

The answer is not difficult to discern. L’affaire Zanoli provided a potent weapon for those determined to cast the Jews as perpetrators rather than victims. The Zanoli story rocketed to prominence because it suggested that Israel was losing the privilege to invoke the memory of the Holocaust or honor those who fought it because Israel had become a persecutor, an oppressor of the Palestinians. Mr. Zanoli’s sharp reproach provided a vehicle, fit for polite company, to portray Israel as being on the wrong side of the Holocaust, perhaps the ultimate tool for delegitimizing the Jewish state.

Whether Mr. Zanoli’s public rebuke of Israel was the consequence of a sophisticated public relations operation or an individual’s reaction to a family tragedy or some measure of both, we do not know. Nor, for present purposes, is that the essential point. The real issue is that the world media trumpeted the story and presumed that Mr. Zanoli’s gesture provided profound insight into an intractable and deadly conflict. It was not simply a news item; it was epic commentary.

In a sense, the media acclaim accompanying Mr. Zanoli’s decision to return his reward complemented Hamas’s efforts to tunnel under the border and attack Israel from within. L’affaire Zanoli burrows into the consciousness of an all-too-susceptible international community to portray Israel as a pariah state, one that has even betrayed the memory and lessons of the Holocaust. Sadly, one may conclude that this is why a story of relatively limited interest and whose provenance has not been explored became a world-wide media event.

About the Author
Gregg M. Mashberg is a lawyer in private practice in New York City, and has been involved in Israel advocacy
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