The code for conspiracy

There will never be peace in the Middle East until Palestinians and other Arabs confront the reality

On 3 January 2009, the MP George Galloway spoke in Trafalgar Square. “Brothers and sisters,” he began. “Comrades and friends. Salaam alaikum. Peace be upon you.

“In April and May of 1943 the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were surrounded by barbed-wire fences, by the occupiers of Poland, and they faced a choice, in the words of the song of the partisans: they could die on their knees or they could live for ever. And they chose to rise up against their occupiers, to use their bodies as weapons . . . Today, the Palestinian people in Gaza are the new Warsaw Ghetto, and those who are murdering them are the equivalent of those who murdered the Jews in Warsaw in 1943.”

Mr Galloway and his supporters, and probably the majority of people in this country, are rightly angry about Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza. As many as 1,400 people were killed, women as well as children. Forty per cent of Gaza’s homes were destroyed, and people were deprived of food, water and medicines. The Israeli (and Egyptian) blockade, which in effect kept a million and a half people locked in, has been unethical and politically senseless. Hamas won power through the ballot box; Israel, Egypt and Fatah need to negotiate with them.

But Gaza is not like the Warsaw Ghetto. The Israeli soldiers are not like the Nazis. The claim of moral equivalence is dangerous, not because it exaggerates the horror of Gaza (the reality of that bombardment was probably worse than we can really imagine), but because it minimises the horror of the Holocaust.

This, to remind readers, is what the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was like. Before the war, Warsaw’s Jewish population numbered about 350,000 and was the second-largest Jewish community in the world, after New York’s. The population of the ghetto, at its height, due to enforced deportations into the ghetto, was about 445,000 people, in just over two square miles. From 1940 to mid-1942, approximately 83,000 Jews there died of starvation or disease. In the summer of 1942, an estimated 300,000 Jews were deported from the ghetto, mainly to the Treblinka extermination camp. More than 10,000 people were murdered during the deportations; meanwhile, 35,000 people were granted permission to remain in the ghetto; an additional 20,000 or so stayed in hiding.

In October 1942, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler gave the order to liquidate the ghetto, and deport all Jews to concentration camps.

On 18 January 1943 a small number of resistance fighters, armed with pistols, hid in a column of deportees and fought the German guards. Most were killed. Deportations, however, were temporarily suspended.

On 19 April 1943, on the Eve of Passover, the SS and the police resumed deportations. This was the signal for armed uprising. Mordecai Anielewicz led the first battle, in which 12 Germans were killed or wounded. By the third day, SS General Jürgen Stroop ordered that every building in the ghetto be destroyed. Anielewicz was killed on 8 May.

By June 1943, the ghetto was destroyed; not a house was left standing. The survivors of the uprising were sent to Treblinka and Majdanek, where all but a few thousand perished.

George Galloway was not alone in his Holocaust comparisons. Here are some New Statesman readers’ comments posted on the website during the Gaza bombardment:

“Why does the israeli jewish zionists TERRORIST thug regime keep terrorising palestinians, with their horrific genocidal bombardment over and over”;

“. . . the Gaza Concentration Camp realities”;

“. . . apartheid Israel killed about 1,340 Occupied Palestinians in its Gaza Concentration Camp”;

“why don’t the Jews move to Texas, it would solve all problems”.

This is a conflict that is played out in the realm of words and symbolism.

The Hamas Charter obsessively refers to the Zionist conspiracy, and freely compares Israelis to the Nazis. British liberals may note the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, but they should also recognise that “Zionist conspiracy” is common code for “Jewish conspiracy”.

In the Arab world, anti-Semitism is tolerated, and often publicly expressed. Here are some quotes from the Egyptian cleric Muhammad Hussein Ya’qoub, delivering a speech on al-Rahma TV on 17 January this year:

“You must believe that we will fight, defeat and annihilate them, until not a single Jew remains on the face of the earth.”

“As for you Jews – the curse of Allah upon you. The curse of Allah upon you, whose ancestors were apes and pigs.”

The quotes above are taken from the Middle East Media Research Institute, which publicises Muslim anti-Semitism. It’s real and destructive. It also fuels Israeli nationalism.

We know the narrative of anti-Semitism, but do we know the narratives of racism against Palestinians in Israel? It’s there, and ugly, yet we barely know how to talk about it outside the clichés of anti-Zionism. Do we call it racism?

There is, however, a lively human rights movement within Israel itself, which is establishing a common language for discrimination against Palestinians: B’Tselem, Sikkuy, the Public Committee against Torture in Israel and many other civil society groups are working to advocate Palestinian rights. They transcend the incendiary metaphors of genocide in this conflict, all of which helps to build peace.

There will never be peace in the Middle East until the Palestinians confront the anti-Semitism that they now openly encourage, and which British pro-Palestinian groups and international funding agencies tacitly accept. They must acknowledge the reality and pain of the Holocaust. The Israelis must also acknowledge Palestinian suffering, the loss of life, land and livelihoods, and the present discrimination against Palestinians within Israel.

There will probably never be an agreed Palestinian/Israeli version of history, but mutual acknowledgement of historical and present suffering are a necessary precondition of peace.

The author is a publisher and the head of the Sigrid Rausing Trust. For more information, go to:

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek