Targets used history of the Holocaust as self-defense manual

Holocaust scholars weigh in on politicians’ comparisons of Hamas to Nazis

US President Biden’s remarks in Tel Aviv stirred emotions, in part for his ‘connection’ of the October 7 massacres with scope of Jewish history. Is it a fair analogy?

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: Palestinians hold a kite adorned with a swastika that is carrying a bomb near the border with Israel east of Gaza City, on April 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
Illustrative: Palestinians hold a kite adorned with a swastika that is carrying a bomb near the border with Israel east of Gaza City, on April 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

NEW YORK — The first comparisons between the Holocaust and massacres perpetrated by Hamas terrorists on October 7 were made during the attacks themselves, when some Israelis invoked the Shoah as they hid from terrorists on a genocidal rampage.

At the Supernova festival in Re’im, where 260 Israelis were murdered, concert worker May Hayat was staffing the event when terrorists suddenly converged on jeeps and paragliders.

Like several other survivors of the Re’im massacre, Hayat and her friend hid in a parked car while terrorists hunted for Israelis to murder.

“We ran out of the car until we noticed a hole in the ground. We entered inside, held hands and prayed. It was just the two of us,” said Hayat of her ordeal.

“I told him, ‘Do you know the stories of the Holocaust in which people pretended to be dead so they wouldn’t be noticed? This is what is going to happen to us,'” Hayat shared on Instagram.

October 7 massacre survivor May Hayat. (Instagram)

When The Times of Israel shared Hayat’s testimony with Holocaust scholar Avinoam Patt, he was briefly at a loss for words.

“I don’t think any of us thought of teaching the history of the Holocaust as a self-defense or survival mechanism,” said Patt, who will soon begin a professorship in Holocaust studies at New York University.

“The event has been devastating for Holocaust survivors to witness and observe,” said Patt. His book about Israel’s relationship with the Holocaust will be published in February.

With the Holocaust so deeply embedded in the Israeli psyche, Patt said he was not surprised the Shoah became the “default frame of reference” for so many Israelis “almost immediately,” he said.

In Patt’s assessment, “October 7 seems to have shattered the notion that Israel exists to protect innocent Jews from the murderous rampages of evil perpetrators. And yet, it seems clear, that for Israelis and many Jews and non-Jews around the world, the memory of the Holocaust serves as the strongest reminder for why Israel must defend itself against all its enemies,” he wrote.

War erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 2,500 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,400 people and seizing 200-250 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly.

‘Holocaust by Bullets’

On October 24, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of the Holocaust in remarks he gave during the solidarity visit of French President Emmanuel Macron.

“It was the worst act of antisemitic violence since the Holocaust. I described to you some of the horrors. It’s impossible to describe all of them. But like Anne Frank, Jewish children hid in attics from these monsters and they were found and butchered,” Netanyahu said.

As he did on a call with Biden two weeks ago, Netanyahu likened one of the Hamas massacres — at Re’im — to the largest German “aktion” of the so-called “Holocaust by Bullets,” which took place at a ravine outside Kyiv in 1941.

After the mass murder of 33,771 Jews at Babyn Yar, Ukraine, October 1941. (Public domain)

“As in Babyn Yar, Jews were machine-gunned in killing pits. Hamas butchered. Hamas beheaded. Hamas burned babies alive. Hamas raped. Hamas kidnapped hostages — over 200: babies, children, elderly, Holocaust survivors,” said Netanyahu.

When Biden visited Israel on October 18, he made comparisons between the Nazis and Hamas. At his central remarks in Tel Aviv, Biden promised the US would not abandon Jews to genocidal enemies for a second time in living memory.

“The world watched then, it knew, and the world did nothing. We will not stand by and do nothing again. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever,” said Biden.

The US president’s remarks reflected the “profound sense of abandonment and isolation” felt by Jews during the Holocaust, said Patt.

In Hebrew, Israeli political leaders took to social media after Biden’s visit, some of them invoking the Nazis.

“The enemy surprised us and chose his own time,” former prime minister Naftali Bennett posted in Hebrew.

“I know that everyone wants an immediate entrance [into Gaza], but our duty is to act right and not according to what’s popular,” wrote Bennett, who echoed Biden’s Hamas-Nazi linkage.

“To crush the Nazi enemy, before we enter our soldiers, our sons. To crush these Nazis with firepower never seen here before,” Bennett posted about the importance of planning the operation before committing soldiers.

‘An inappropriate comparison’

Not all pro-Israel historians agree that Holocaust analogies regarding October 7 are suitable.

“The comparison to the Holocaust is inappropriate. The enemy is different, we are different, yet the venom is the same,” said Prof. Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish University in California.

“The enemy has neither the power nor the infrastructure of Nazi Germany, which conquered most of continental Europe. Israel is powerful, not powerless,” Berenbaum told The Times of Israel.

‘Farhud’ pogrom in Baghdad, 1941. (Public domain)

“The apt description of what happened is a pogrom, the massacre of Jews, women and children, not just men and the rape of women, the wanton destruction of property, the violation of homes while the government looked away,” said Berenbaum, who has helped create Holocaust museums around the world.

The October 7 massacres echoed the pogroms in another “astounding” feature, Berenbaum said.

“This time it was a Jewish government that failed in its most elementary obligation to protect its citizens violating the most basic tenant of Zionism, a Jewish State and Jewish power would keep the Jewish people safe,” Berenbaum said.

Another significant factor differentiating the world today from World War II is the leading superpower has given support to the Jewish state in both words and deeds, said Berenbaum.

“We are not alone. President Biden spoke out in a way that American Presidents have almost never spoken. He came to Israel. The US is sending military supplies and asking for Congress to approve American aid,” said Berenbaum. “The presidents and prime ministers of other European countries have come. This was not true 80 years ago,” he added.

‘Up-close savagery’

One prolific Holocaust scholar told The Times of Israel he has always avoided making comparisons to the genocide — until now.

“The reason that Holocaust analogies usually are inappropriate is because they’re erroneous — they wildly exaggerate the behavior of one side or the other,” Rafael Medoff told The Times of Israel. “But there are times when there are so many similarities between contemporary atrocities and the Holocaust that comparisons are unavoidable,” he said.

Palestinians take part in a protest in support of the people of Gaza, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, in Hebron in the West Bank, October 20, 2023. Flags belonging to both Hamas and Fatah can be seen in the background.
(Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

As director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Medoff has published books critical of America’s response to the Holocaust as it took place. After hearing remarks given by US officials following October 7, Medoff said their analogies were appropriate.

“Secretary of State Blinken was correct when he said the Hamas pogrom had ‘harrowing echoes’ of the Holocaust,” said Medoff, who referred specifically to the intense dehumanization of Jews that pervades Palestinian society.

“The pogromists’ up-close savagery, such as decapitating babies; their use of sexual violence as a weapon; and the dehumanization of Jews in the Palestinian Arab news media and school textbooks, are all examples of behavior that warrants comparisons to the Nazis,” said Medoff.

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