Skip to content


Denounce discrimination to commemorate Kristallnacht

November 2008.

Denounce discrimination to commemorate Kristallnacht

Draft by Yakov M Rabkin*

Seventy years ago, on November 9, 1938, Jews and Jewish property were violently attacked in Germany. Remembered as the Kristallnacht, this event opened the way to mass murder of millions of Jews during the Second World War.  It was the epitome of “scientific” racism that emerged in Europe in the late 19th century and has since spread around the world.

Different lessons have been drawn from this tragedy. Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis to the United States, firmly believed that murderous amorality is not limited to one nation or one ideology. She, alongside with the theologian Martin Buber, the philosopher Ernst Simon and the physicist Albert Einstein, warned against the inherent dangers of exclusive ethnic nationalism.

However, those who dominated the Zionist movement interpreted the Holocaust as a consequence of the Jews’ military weakness. Soon after the end of World War II, the Zionist forces in Palestine waged a successful campaign of ethnic cleansing, which squashed the egalitarian hope of many Jews and turned nearly 800 000 Arab inhabitants of Palestine into refugees. This created living space for a state for the Jews and engendered incessant bloodshed.

This outcome was not inevitable. Before the 1948 war was over, Arendt had foreseen the perils of establishing an ethnocracy that would chronically rely on military force:

And even if the Jews were to win the war, … the “victorious” Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defence…. And all this would be the fate of a nation that — no matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how far it extended its boundaries — would still remain a very small people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbours.

These words have lost none of their poignancy. Israel’s overwhelming might has not brought it peace. This is why many Israelis expect Canada, alongside other world powers, to prod Israel towards compromise and integration in the Middle East.

Many Canadians mean well but they confuse Jews, who suffered in the Holocaust because of their ethnicity, with the state of Israel, conceived as an ethnocracy for the Jews. Harper’s blank support for the state of Israel ignores the lessons many Jews drew from the Holocaust, encourages intransigence and undermines the future of Jews and Arabs alike.

Israel’s dominant ideology is predicated on the impossibility of a Jew to be fully accepted in any country except Israel. It is quite clear that most Jews do not share this belief. This is why, when given a chance, they prefer peaceful pluralistic democracies to the perennially threatened Israel. For example, hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviet Jews chose to move to Germany and other Western countries in the late 20th century, and nearly a million of Israelis chose to live elsewhere.

This is why it is important not to confuse Jews with the state of Israel, and, consequently, anti-Semitism with opposition to Israel and Zionism. This confusion may be grievous and dangerous. When Israeli leaders speak “in the name of the Jewish people”, they consciously blur distinctions between Diaspora Jews and Israelis and encourage anti-Semitism.

This happens because Israel’s behaviour flies in the face of the lessons that most people in the West, including many prominent Jews, learned from the history of Nazism, namely the need to build a pluralistic democracy based on equality. The kind of Zionism that has triumphed in Israel is not the inclusive and spiritual version dear to Martin Buber but the exclusive and vindictive one developed by Vladimir Jabotinsky, which Einstein and other prominent German Jewish intellectuals had denounced as fascist.

Israel and its supporters attempt to discredit all criticism of Israel and of Zionist ideology by calling it anti-Semitism. Those who create this confusion have scored important successes: some dictionaries have come to define opposition to Zionism as anti-Semitism. This tactic breeds resentment that, in turn, feeds anti-Semitism.

Canada’s continuing genuflection to the state of Israel is based on the myth according to which Israel represents the Jews around the world and constitutes their natural homeland. Rather than treat Israel as a collective victim of the Holocaust, Canada should treat Israel like it treats any other country and insist on abolition of ethnic and religious discrimination, which has been endemic in the Zionist state. While an African American has just been elected U.S. President, Arabs – who constitute twice the proportion of African Americans in the United States – continue to languish as second-class citizens of Israel.  Canada should preach by example and abolish its own recent racial profiling, while supporting those Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, who pressure the state of Israel to do away with its official ethnic and religious discrimination. This would be the most honourable way to commemorate the victims of Kristallnacht.

* The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal and a member of the Independent Jewish Voices. His recent book A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (London: Zedbooks) was nominated for Canada’s Governor General Literary Award, and is currently available in seven languages.

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

You must be logged in to post a comment.