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The other side of the wall

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Last December, the Jewish Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen caused an uproar with a New Yorker essay that likened Gaza to the walled ghettos created by the Nazis during the Holocaust. On the surface, the comparison seemed oddly ignorant for someone so accomplished and educated.

Like a lot of uproars, though, this one involved a selective, out-of-context reaction to what Gessen was actually saying. The essay is a lengthy and thoughtful exploration of how Germany remembers (and is forced, by law, to remember) the Holocaust, and the resonance of that memory to the current war in Gaza. Gessen, who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, has a deeper appreciation for the event than many others, including most American Jews.

Gessen’s point of view, if I can presume to summarize, aligns with the Israeli left, which criticizes Israel for occupying the West Bank and decries what they call “collective punishment” of Gazans by the IDF. Thus, while Gessen firmly condemns Hamas as “a tyrannical power that attacked Israel and committed atrocities that we cannot fully comprehend,” the essay also equates the isolation of Gaza with the Nazi ghettoization of Jews in Poland and Ukraine.

If you were totally unaware of history and current events, you can sort of see where Gessen is coming from. You could glance at the Gaza war and conclude that Israel created a walled ghetto in Gaza and is now pounding it with heavy weaponry, just as the Nazi’s “liquidated” the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.

I don’t agree with this analysis, for many reasons, including the decision by Hamas to wage war against Israel for nearly 20 years after Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. At the time, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said, “We welcome the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and hope that this withdrawal will be a significant step towards a just and comprehensive peace in the area, and that this withdrawal should be a part of the Roadmap plan.” Abdelwaheb Abdallah, the Foreign Minister of Tunisia, similarly called upon all parties “to take advantage of the recent positive developments witnessed in the region in order to resume the peace negotiations.”

Of course, that is not what happened. Hamas overthrew the PA and made a deliberate choice to attack, firing over 20,000 rockets into southern Israel in the intervening years, among other unprovoked acts of aggression and war crimes, e.g., taking hostages. Hamas well understood the consequences of their actions. Indeed, Hamas seems to have actively sought Israel’s retaliation, hiding its fighters underground while sacrificing its children as human shields. This disgraceful and cynical cowardice furthers their mythical martyrdom.

Gessen’s remarks are useful, however, as they can prompt us to take a closer look at the question of who is actually being ghettoized in the Middle East. Walls have two sides. On one side, we have Israel. On the other, there is the wider Arab/Muslim world. Who is walling in whom? I would argue that, to a great extent, Israel is the walled ghetto, a tiny Jewish enclave sealed off by a thin membrane from a far larger population that has a long history of hating and killing Jews.

As you may know, Israel is about the size of New Jersey and has a population smaller than that of Los Angeles. The 22 surrounding Arab League countries have a combined land mass of over five million square miles (one and a half times bigger than the United States), and a population of over 475,000,000. If the Arab League’s territory were a football field, Israel would take up about as much space as a Honda Civic.

Jews lived in the Muslim world for centuries. Nearly every Arab country had Jewish ghettos, as exemplified by Morrocco’s 15th century segregated mellah neighborhoods, where Jews were forced to live. Jews were in constant risk, with pogroms like the Granada massacre in Muslim Spain in 1066, which resulted in the slaughter of 4,000 Jews.

More recently, in 1929, Arabs killed dozens of Jews in a bloody pogrom in Hebron. In 1941, over 180 Iraqi Jews were murdered by mobs in Baghdad and Basra who screamed “Itbah al Yahud” (slaughter the Jews). Jews were also killed in pogroms in Cairo in 1947, among numerous attacks of this kind throughout the 1940s.

And then, in 1948, the Arab countries violently expelled their 800,000 Jewish residents and caused them to flee, penniless and dispossessed to the newly formed State of Israel. If you want a comparison to Nazi deportation and ghettoization of Jews, you might want to take look at this event, which hardly ever gets mentioned in all the hot-headed condemnation of Jewish treatment of Palestinian refugees.

With this in mind, you can make a compelling argument that it is Israel, not Gaza, that’s the real ghetto here. It’s a miniscule, walled off outpost where the Jews of the region live under constant threat of annihilation. This is not a wild accusation. It’s a fact based on many public (and proudly pronounced) statements of intention from Arab leaders.

The October 7 attack starts to look different if you understand it to be simply the latest in a 1,400-year history of pogroms against Jews in the Arab world. As has happened innumerable times in the past, Arabs decided to perpetrate a mass slaughter against Jews. They breached the wall of the Jewish “ghetto” that is the State of Israel and commenced to shoot, burn, behead, and rape Jews – just as they’ve done in the past.

The only difference today is that the Jews have the capability to defend themselves. Instead of being defenseless victims, Jews are now armed and ready to fight back. This flipping of the script is confusing to the world. How dare they? How dare the Jews fight killing with killing? Well, that’s what we’re doing, so get used to it.

 

About the Author
Hugh Taylor is an observant Jewish writer and essayist whose work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and The Washington Spectator. He has worked at Silicon Valley startups and in the Fortune 100. He earned his BA and MBA at Harvard University.
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