Why can Lula compare the genocide in Gaza with the Holocaust?

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By DÉBORA EL-JAICK ANDRADE*

Lula recognizes the Holocaust as a terrible and traumatic event that belongs to global history. Therefore, remembering the crimes of Nazism means trying to avoid their repetition.

1.

On February 18, at a conference at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, President Lula uttered the following sentence: “What is happening in the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian people has not existed at any other historical moment. In fact, it existed. When Hitler decided to kill the Jews.” Although the president's exact words did not mention the word Holocaust, it was understood by many that he referred to the event that occurred between 1933 and 1945 and that killed six million people of Jewish ethnicity/religion.

The Israeli government's reaction was to declare it persona non grata after Benjamin Natanyahu stated that Lula should be ashamed. The profile of the United States Holocaust Museum, through X-Twitter, posted the message: “Using the Holocaust as a discursive weapon is always wrong, especially when it comes to a head of state... That's exactly what Brazilian president Lula did by promoting a false and anti-Semitic statement. This is outrageous and must be condemned.”

In the same vein, far-right Brazilian politicians endorsed the accusations, trying to associate Lula with Hamas and Nazism in memes on social media, accusing him of being anti-Semitic and sending a request for impeachment for making comparisons between Israel's military actions in the Gaza Strip and the extermination of Jews in World War II.

The Brazilian Israeli Confederation (CONIB) condemned Lula's speech and called the comparison a “perverse distortion of reality” that would offend the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. According to the confederation, “The Nazis exterminated six million defenseless Jews in Europe just because they were Jews.” According to editorials in major newspapers, Lula had attacked History and the memory of the Jews. There was, of course, not the same reaction when the Official Ukraine profile compared Vladimir Putin to Hitler with a cartoon in which Vladimir Putin appears as a child being cuddled by the Nazi leader.

Volodymyr Zelensky himself on February 24, 2024 compared the invasion of his country by Russia to the actions of Nazi Germany during the Second World War in a speech broadcast on Facebook. Writer Svetlana Alexievich, Belarusian Nobel Prize winner for Literature, recently compared Vladimir Putin to Hitler and warned about the imminence of a 'world war'. None of these purposeful comparisons aroused any protest.

Although he did not use the term Holocaust, Lula forced a comparison that many prefer to avoid because, in this case, the perpetrator of acts “never seen”, except for those committed by Hitler, is an Israeli Jew of Polish origin, leader of the ruling Likud party and prime minister, who puts into practice the Zionist project of “greater Israel”. The president's speech reopens the debate about the (im)possibility of comparing this event, which transcends just the domain of the history of the Jews, or Israel, and is part of global history.

Historian Avraham Milgram, who worked at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, in an interview with the website with the BBC, considered the criticism of the State of Israel legitimate, but classified the comparison made by Lula as “inadequate and without historical support”. Also historian Michel Gherman stated that Lula's statement has problematic elements, and the main one is that the parallel with the Holocaust is mistaken, as it incorporates the idea that Hitler would have been the last of the possible elements of comparison, while he should have been compared to other genocides (in Yugoslavia, Rwanda), even to differentiate them because the Holocaust “is something unique in history”.

Even more controversial is Michel Gherman's statement that “There is no complex and gradual process of building Palestinian identity in Gaza as targets of extermination for years as happened with the Jewish people during the Holocaust.” After all the racist statements and episodes of dehumanization we have witnessed on social media, this does not seem like a very sound argument.

The same ban came from Senator Jacques Wagner, who in a speech in the Senate corrected the president: “the Holocaust is not used as a comparison”. He said the same in an interview with Globo German culture minister Annalena Baerbock that “Holocaust cannot be compared to anything”.

 2.

I think otherwise. What made the Holocaust different from all other massacres and exterminations was the unprecedented nature of, on the one hand, the production of a sophisticated technology of extermination and, on the other, the work of memory – as philosopher Pierre Ricoeur says – that followed to a strong investment in advertising and LOBBY politician need no comparisons to understand how it happened. Saul Friedlander calls it a “threshold event” because it is the most radical form of genocide found in history, the absolute, deliberate, systematic, industrially organized and largely successful attempt to annihilate an entire human group in 20th century Western society. This “limit event” is accessible, both to representation and interpretation, like any other historical event.

The Holocaust then is a historical event, and if it is possible to interpret it, it is possible to compare it. Holocaust is a term with Greco-Latin roots, whose meaning is “sacrifice by fire” and designates the extermination of millions of Jews, although other ethnic groups were persecuted and victimized. Historian Dan Stone, professor at the University of London and director of the Holocaust Research Institute, in a 2020 interview with the YouTube channel Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, stated that not only can one compare the Holocaust with other genocides, but that it is impossible not to compare it, as long as there are elements for comparison. From the comparison, establishing similarities and differences with other related events, the uniqueness and unprecedented nature of the Holocaust atrocities is recognized, which allows us to understand genocide as a phenomenon.

In fact, the Holocaust was an archetype of genocide, according to Dirk Moses, at the time of approval of the Genocide Convention in the 1940s. The word “genocide” was coined by the Polish-Jewish jurist who emigrated to the United States, Raphäel Lemkin in 1943/44 , especially in chapter IX of his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, from the Greek prefix genos (race or tribe), and the suffix cide comes from Latin fallen ou caedera (killing). Genocide is a new concept that would address an ancient practice in its modern development. The book was written during World War II, while Raphäel Lemkin analyzed the colonization techniques that the Germans introduced into occupied territories to destroy ethnic groups.

As Raphäel Lemkin defines it, genocide is not just the destruction of a nation by mass murder, but a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at destroying the essential foundations of the life of national groups, aiming at the annihilation of individuals. The objective of the plan is the disintegration of the political and social institutions, culture, language, national feelings, religion, and economic existence of national groups, of the freedom, security, health and dignity and lives of the people of these groups, and because they are members of these groups.

Raphäel Lemkin cites the confiscation of properties, denationalization, colonization, submission to forms of forced labor (for allegedly educational but rather punitive purposes) or poorly paid work, which violates the Hague Convention of 1899 and 1907. The Polish population was removed from their homes to make room for German settlers who receive many privileges to live in these places. Raphäel Lemkin mentions the replacement of the group's language and national characteristics by the imposition of the oppressor group's characteristics. Furthermore, the biological element for the Germans was fundamental, which is why the targets were not armies, but civilians.

In this regard, genocide is a new occupation technique that eliminates biologically, modifies biological interrelations in Europe in favor of Germany, which has been implemented in several countries. Hitler's conceptions of genocide are not based on cultural characteristics, but biological ones. Even the proportion of food destined for Germans, non-Germans and Jews was different and the deprivation of unwanted national groups had the function of weakening health and facilitating death.

It is possible that the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Assyrian genocide in Iraq in 1933 inspired Raphäel Lemkin, and, although he refers to the persecution of the Jews, he mentions several other subjugated national groups, especially the Poles. Mass murders were reserved for intellectuals who organized resistance and non-collaborative groups: Jews, Poles, Russians. Jews were identified with the Star of David, eliminated in ghettos; Children were separated from adults or transported to so-called “unknown” destinations. Raphäel Lemkin did not have all the information that subsequent research provided.

We know that there were, in total, 44 thousand work and concentration camps, but gas chambers were not used until 1941, adapted from concentration/work camps in the occupied territory of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Croatia. The gas chambers that are commonly cited as what characterizes Nazism's industrial murder system were not known to the world in 1943; The Holocaust was a process that was perfected over 12 years of the Nazi regime.

 3.

The fact is that, under the impact of Nazi crimes, the international community was led to set standards for the international legal system. Raphäel Lemkin was an activist with national delegations for the approval of the genocide convention. The United Nations Assembly approved the resolution on December 11, 1946, defining genocide as a violation of the rights of peoples, “the denial of the right to existence of entire human groups”, and prepared a draft convention approved by the General Assembly on December 9. December 1948 with the aim of preventing its repetition.

According to its article II, genocides comprise acts committed with the intention of exterminating all or part of the members of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, which threatens their physical and mental integrity. Alongside this, the group's submission to conditions that cause its physical destruction, total or partial, measures that prevent births and that imply the forced transfer of children to the oppressive group.

Professor Dirk Moses, in the book Problems of Genocide questions the limitations of the UN Convention's definition of genocide, demonstrating that it is a product of its time, but whose use of the term diverts attention from other forms of mass murder as a result of massive bombings of cities and collateral damage from missiles and drone attacks , blockades and sanctions, systematically committed by governments. Dirk Moses mentions in many passages the action of Zionists in the West Bank, including acts of carnage and murders of children and babies in a preventive manner, considering that as adults, they would join the resistance.

Neither Lemkin nor Moses had witnessed the saturation bombings (carpet bombing) and the destruction of public and residential buildings, health services and study centers, the siege of Gaza, the forced displacement of the North of the Strip, as well as the use of white phosphorus on the Palestinian population after the Hamas attack on September 7 October 2023.

In this sense, many human rights experts and genocide historians have emphasized that the Israeli offensive in Gaza has the characteristics of a genocide. Since the announcement of the military offensive, the leadership of the Israeli government has been caught publicly using racist and genocidal language. One of the first human rights experts to speak out in this sense was Craig Mokhiber, human rights lawyer, director of the New York office and high commissioner of the United Nations who wrote his letter of resignation from the commissioner in Geneva in which he admitted: “more Once, a genocide is taking place before our eyes” in Gaza and the entity would be “powerless to prevent it”.

Francesa Albanese, human rights lawyer, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied territory since 1967, stated that Israel was a dominant power under international law. At the press conference at National Press Club of Australia on November 14, characterized the regime in Israel as apartheid, drawing attention to the ongoing ethnic cleansing.

Other experts spoke out recognizing the genocide committed by Israel in Gaza in commissions, on social media, in interviews and academic debates: William A. Schabas, professor of international law at University of Middlesex and professor emeritus at Leiden University and at the University of Galway, Dr. Anthony Dirk Moses, researcher of genocides in colonial contexts, professor of political science at City college of New York, and editor-in-chief of Journal of Genocide Research. The Institute Raphael Lemkin for Genocide Prevention, recognizes the imminence of a genocide of the Palestinians and reinforces the phrase of Antònio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations that October 7th “did not happen in a vacuum”.

To strictly quote historians, Omer Bartov, a native of Israel and professor of European history and German studies at Brown University, in the United States, denounces a “pre-genocidal” situation in the occupied territory, while the Israeli Raz Segal, associate professor of national studies Holocaust and genocide and professor in charge of the study of modern genocide at Stockton University, stated in interviews that the Israeli offensive in Gaza is a “genocide manual”. Mark Levene, historian and professor emeritus at the University of Southampton, researcher of genocide and Jewish history, believes that there are all the elements of a genocide, as the target is civilians and not Hamas.

Wrote in a letter to The Guardian on October 11, 2023: “Because Israel is Israel, it is no less capable of operationalizing and carrying out genocide than China, Russia, Burma, Sudan or Rwanda… Western leaders need to know this and, aware of the responsibility to protect that the international community has, to stop what Israel is doing, before it is too late.”

All of these positions endorse South Africa's petition to the International Court of Justice for the crime of genocide by the State of Israel. The October 7, 2023 attack has already been called by ordinary Israelis and Israeli historians a “new Holocaust.” This inappropriate comparison actually takes away the strength and meaning of the concept. The Israeli ambassador and other delegates on October 31, 2023 Gilad Erdan trivialized the Holocaust when they pinned a yellow star to their clothes during the UN Security Council, alluding to the discrimination suffered in the occupied territories in the 1930s and 1940s. The act was challenged by Dan Dayan, director of Yad Vashen, a recognized authority on the Holocaust who stated on X-Twitter that this act disrespected both the victims of genocide and the State of Israel.

There are many similarities in the way Israel has been conducting not only this offensive in Gaza, as well as its entire policy of colonization and segregation of Palestinians for several decades. There are also many differences in method, legitimation and propaganda that have changed over time. The stance of the State of Israel and allied governments, however, appears to be to ban the debate.

Masha Gessen, the award-winning Russian-American Jewish writer, in her New York Times article In the Shadow of Holocaust warned about what in Germany has become a national creed: the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the curtailment of criticism, with the withdrawal of sponsorship from events that have as their theme the discussion of the Holocaust, or the point of view of the Palestinians, in addition to the criminalization of BDS – boycott of Israeli companies and brands – as a form of anti-Semitism.

The comparison proposed by Lula was not made in order to deny the Holocaust and its historical importance. Quite the contrary, Lula recognizes the Holocaust as a terrible and traumatic event that belongs to global history. Therefore, remembering the crimes of Nazism means trying to avoid their repetition. This is the real meaning of “never forgetting so it never happens again” for all humanity, as President Lula said when leaving the Holocaust museum during his visit in 2010.

*Débora El-Jaick Andrade is a history professor at the Federal Fluminense University (UFF).


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