The well-known Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen recently received the Hannah Arendt Prize in Bremen. In her acceptance speech, she tries to explain why she compared the situation in Gaza to that in a ghetto during World War II. She admits that not all comparisons are appropriate, but that you can certainly compare apples to pears because both contain common ingredients.
She is of course right that we often make such comparisons even though the differences may be greater than the similarities. Ghettos existed long before the Holocaust and were established from the beginning as closed and segregated neighborhoods where Jews were allowed to live. Today we are talking about immigrant ghettos, another name for areas of exclusion.
In that sense, Gaza, a small strip of land where 2 million Palestinians are crowded together and which has been and is subject to a blockade, can also be considered a ghetto, even if the historical and political background is different. In the case of Gaza, it is an area that is de-facto ruled with an iron fist by a terrorist organization that ignores the civilian population and completely opposes peace with Israel.
But that description of the context was missing from Gessen’s speech. She doesn’t even mention Hamas’s murderous attack on Israel on October 7th. For her, a ghetto is not a term for a crowded area where people are forced to live in disgusting conditions, but the comparison should bring to mind the ghettos that Nazi Germany established in the occupied territories in WWII.
She does it on purpose, well aware that she will thereby be accused of belittling and trivializing the Holocaust, but she seems to take it in stride. She doesn’t even bother to describe the suffering and devastation in Gaza during the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. But she suggests that the war could lead to genocide in a worst-case scenario.
She seems to think that you don’t need to prove any intent behind genocide. It is, of course, against the convention against genocide adopted by the United Nations after the Second World War. Nor does it seem to matter to her that the surprise attack by Hamas was a massacre of Israelis. “I didn’t stumble into the comparison of the Gaza Strip to a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe,” she admits.
How does she justify the comparison? There is nothing in her speech to show that Gaza can be compared to the Warsaw Ghetto and other ghettos. The Jews were locked up there not because they threatened Germany or had committed any acts of terror but because of the Nazi ideology that deprived them of the right to live. Nazi Germany planned to exterminate all Jews.
In the ghettos they died due to starvation, epidemics and forced labor until the ghettos were liquidated and all surviving inhabitants were sent to the death camps. The outside world accepted the ghettos and no country sent them any humanitarian aid. In their desperation they managed in some cases to revolt and some fled to the partisans in the forests but the bitter end was always the same.
Gessen is not a historian and admits herself that she made the controversial comparison because someone else had already made it in 2003. She also recalls the ghetto in Bialystok where her great-grandfather was chairman of the Nazi-appointed Jewish Council and in the end smuggled weapons into the ghetto.
The few weapons that the Jews in the ghettos managed to smuggle in pale of course in comparison to the arsenal of weapons and the huge military tunnel network that Hamas has built up at the expense of civilian development and without the UN institutions in the Gaza Strip reacting.
The humanitarian disaster in Gaza was wrought upon it by the war that Hamas ignited and doesn’t want to end despite its big losses and the immense suffering of the civilian population. But the international legitimacy for Israel’s defense of war is eroding as the war continues with no end in sight and the deepening humanitarian disaster.
Gessen has made the comparison because she wants to “prevent what we know can happen from happening”. If she really wants to end the war and the suffering, she must make clear demands on both the terrorist organization Hamas and Israel’s right-wing government. The war could end if any country offered free passage to the Hamas leaders in Gaza.
But at this point, neither Hamas nor Israel wants to end the war. Hamas believes it can survive the war, continue to rule Gaza and plan for the next war. The Israeli government believes it can “win” the war, dismantle Hamas and free everyone Hamas has taken hostage. Neither has a political peace strategy for the day after the war, Hamas because of its ideology and Israel because of internal politics.