Yitzchak Blau

The New Yorker’s Zionism Problem

Though I never purchased a New Yorker subscription, I have enjoyed reading second hand copies inherited from other family members for many years. In particular, I derive pleasure from Adam Gopnik’s insightful, learned, and beautifully expressed essays. The magazine’s negative attitude to the state of Israel always troubled me but a recent article reached a new low. Masha Gessen, an author, LGBT activist, and columnist for the New Yorker, wrote an article titled “In the Shadow of the Holocaust” (12/9/23) which compares the Palestinian situation in Gaza to Jews living in a ghetto (think Warsaw or Lodz) under the Nazi regime. I cite three full paragraphs to give the full flavor.

“For the last seventeen years, Gaza has been a hyperdensely populated, impoverished, walled-in compound where only a small fraction of the population had the right to leave for even a short amount of time—in other words, a ghetto. Not like the Jewish ghetto in Venice or an inner-city ghetto in America but like a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany. In the two months since Hamas attacked Israel, all Gazans have suffered from the barely interrupted onslaught of Israeli forces. Thousands have died. On average, a child is killed in Gaza every ten minutes. Israeli bombs have struck hospitals, maternity wards, and ambulances. Eight out of ten Gazans are now homeless, moving from one place to another, never able to get to safety.

The term “open-air prison” seems to have been coined in 2010 by David Cameron, the British Foreign Secretary who was then Prime Minister. Many human-rights organizations that document conditions in Gaza have adopted the description. But as in the Jewish ghettoes of Occupied Europe, there are no prison guards—Gaza is policed not by the occupiers but by a local force. Presumably, the more fitting term “ghetto” would have drawn fire for comparing the predicament of besieged Gazans to that of ghettoized Jews. It also would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated.

The Nazis claimed that ghettos were necessary to protect non-Jews from diseases spread by Jews. Israel has claimed that the isolation of Gaza, like the wall in the West Bank, is required to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinians. The Nazi claim had no basis in reality, while the Israeli claim stems from actual and repeated acts of violence. These are essential differences. Yet both claims propose that an occupying authority can choose to isolate, immiserate—and, now, mortally endanger—an entire population of people in the name of protecting its own.”

The first two paragraphs emphasize parallels and only the third paragraph mentions a very convincing reason not to equate the two situations; the Nazis had no reason to fear the Jews whereas the Israelis have every reason to worry about Palestinian violence. Immediately following that crucial distinction, Gessen returns to equating the two situations. One might think that a dissimilarity of such magnitude would receive more prominent mention than the middle of the third paragraph unless the author purposely chose to downplay it by hiding it away in a later section.

In truth, differences between the two situations are much broader and deeper. Let us begin with the Nazi side of the equation. Jewry was not a threat to the German regime in any way. Nonetheless, the Germans declared that the Jews were vermin who should be exterminated. They confiscated Jewish homes and possessions and moved all the Jews into overcrowded and disease infested ghettos. Ultimately, the ghettos were liquidated and the Jews were sent off to concentration camps to be murdered. The Germans killed Jews from Russia, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Greece, etc. and not only those residing in Germany. As is well known (except to Mahmoud Abbas), the Nazis murdered six million Jews.

On the Israeli and Palestinian side, Jews and Arabs have contested sovereignty over the land of Israel since the early parts of the twentieth century. Arab countries declared war on the Jews in 1948 and 1973 and their militaristic rhetoric, expulsion of UN peace keeping forces, and mobilization of troops on the border caused the 1967 war. Even when not formally at war, Palestinians have engaged in many years of terrorist activity trying to murder as many Israeli civilians as possible. The latest and most deadly example occurred this past October seventh in a massacre that included rape, brutal murdering of children and the elderly, over a thousand Israeli deaths, and the taking of more than two hundred hostages.

Did the Palestinians have an alternative during the past century? The Jewish side offered many compromises over the years and received only negative answers. From the partition plan, to the three Nos of Khartoum, to rejection of the offers of Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, the Palestinians have given no indication of their willingness to accept a Jewish state while receiving their own. Hamas is quite explicit about this point in their charter and in their public statements. It often seems that the Palestinians prefer harming the Jewish state over forming a Palestinian one.

In 2005, Israel evacuated over 8,000 Israelis from their homes and ceded the territory of Gaza to Palestinian control. The Palestinians responded by electing Hamas into power thereby supporting a party dedicated to Israel’s destruction. They used their new -found territory as a launching pad for more deadly rocket strikes on Israeli villages.

Why are there impoverished conditions in Gaza? Other countries have poured millions of dollars into this area which could have gone to schools, hospitals, businesses, and infrastructure. Instead, the Hamas government utilized those fund to build an incredibly expensive tunnel system and to acquire more advanced weapons with which to attack Israel. They bear direct responsibility for any poverty in the Gaza strip.

The Palestinians could easily improve their lot immediately. Stop terrorism and they would discover that, absent legitimate Israeli security concerns, it is not difficult to leave the area. Channel the money into beneficial causes rather than violence and the economy and quality of life will improve drastically. Recognize a viable Jewish and democratic state and they can achieve their own statehood.

Gessen writes that “the ghetto is being liquidated.” The Israelis drop leaflets and make phone calls to warn Palestinian civilians to leave areas that will be bombed. Israel only wants to kill Hamas terrorists but when those fighters embed themselves in a civilian population and store weaponry in hospitals and schools, significant collateral damage is inevitable. Nazi Germany certainly did not offer their Jewish victims an escape route nor did the US or England do so for the residents of Dresden. Comparing Israel’s actions against Hamas to Nazi ghetto liquidation is insane.

The New Yorker is well known for its careful fact checking and meticulous copy editing but seems to have fallen asleep here when it comes to basic decency. Gessen may benefit from being Jewish themselves and from the automatic victimhood of an LGBT individual yet neither factor justifies making outrageous comparisons that castigate a state struggling mightily to maintain a moral posture under impossible conditions. Not sure if I will give up on Adam Gopnik but I also cannot support a magazine publishing such moral rot.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.