In his stark and meticulous accounts of surviving Auschwitz, the Italian Jewish chemist and writer Primo Levi said his greatest fear was that people wouldn't believe what had happened in the death camps.
Mercifully, most of the true horror has long been revealed, much of that dark detail recorded by Levi himself before his death in 1987, a year after his last publication The Drowned and the Saved.
After being liberated, Levi had dedicated the tortured remainder of his life to relating the horrors of the camps. But the understanding of that brutality also haunted him for the rest of his days:
"Reason, the weapon with which he was hoping to ultimately slay that Auschwitz Gorgon and unveil its true evil face, does not appear to hold against the lingering, long-term effects of the Shoah. Reason, in fact, can be a double-edged sword for it can also be applied to carry out evil deeds. In the essay "Useless Violence," in The Drowned and the Saved, Levi finally, and sadly, concludes that the actions of the Nazis were not the result of madness but, rather, the result of a "logica insolente" (84) ("insolent logic"). It was a warped and brutal kind of logic the Nazis adopted to justify to themselves the necessity of their evil deeds."In one of the most notable and oft-cited lines from If This Is a Man, Levi recounts how, thirsty and seeing an icicle through his cell window, he tried to grab it, only for a guard to knock it from his hand. "Warum?" ("Why?"), Levi asked, and the guard replied: "Hier ist kein warum" ("Here there is no why").
Levi's task was not only to preserve the detailed suffering of the victims, but also the accounts of the perpetrators. For, perverse as it seems, how can we know 'the why' of what terrible fate befell the victims without having that which helps us try to comprehend the minds of those who committed such seemingly unfathomable actions?
"During the Nuremberg trials, the British ordered the top Nazis to write their memoirs, and these works have become crucial sources for understanding the banal perversions at the heart of the Third Reich. Forty years after the Holocaust, Levi agreed, despite the agony it gave him, to write the introduction to a 1985 edition of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess' memoir, My Soul. Hoess was the man who used Zyklon B to gas Jews, but Levi, while calling him a "blackguard and a scoundrel," provides us with a critical insight into humanity when he says that this blank-faced man was not a “monster.” He was something far worse—an ordinary man with a face like the rest of us, an obedient bureaucrat who never asked why. He goes so far as to describe Hoess’ autobiography as “one of the most instructive books ever published.”"Why there could be 'no why' still seems hard to fathom: not just the magnitude of such crimes - the killing of six million Jews and other millions - but the routine participation in that terror.
I recall a moving experience some years ago on visiting Dachau concentration camp and being affected not only by the obvious horror of what had gone on there, but also by the idyllic, detached beauty of the surrounding environs. It brought home how this industrial-scale murder and brutality had gone on while people went about their daily business, many, of course, knowing.
Such readings and experiences are a vital reminder not just of past barbarities but also of a moral obligation to learn and know all we can about what Levi means by the 'insolent logic' of human suffering, all human suffering, and the ways in which we're screened from knowing about it.
To what reasonable extent can we invoke people like Levi when speaking not only of the Holocaust but of other human calamities? And in what sense might we explore the same 'failure of reason', the same, seeming negation of 'why' in seeking answers about their appalling continuation?
It's remarkable, in these regards, how relatively few people today know about al Nakba (The Catastrophe). And, largely because of this, it's remarkable how relatively few are able to comprehend the massive ethnic cleansing of Palestinians undertaken by Zionist forces in the formation of Israel as a Jewish state.
It's particularly remarkable given the capability of academics and teachers, politicians and journalists to impart and report all this information. How could so many people not know? Or, at least, not know sufficiently well for them to understand the basic background of the Nakba as the formative act of Israel's occupation and apartheid policies?
In considering such questions, notably the 'absent why', it's always useful to think about how people are exposed to dominant narratives, sheltered from others, and how that information is fed through schooling, mainstream politics and the media.
Where in the West, for example, would you find any standard history lesson charting the Nakba or see a prescribed text on it like The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by eminent Jewish Israeli historian Ilan Pappe?
It's the book that Israel didn't want written and, like other such 'awkward' history, has no place in Israeli schools.
Pappe, whose parents fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and who lost family members in the death camps, has been demonised by Israel and Zionist others for writing such works and, effectively, exiled for his academic efforts.
How many will be seriously intent, like Pappe, in discussing the Nakba both as an historical event and as a continuing narrative of resistance?
Likewise, how many would be interested in exploring works like Nur Masalha's The Palestine Nakba in an effort to recover the deep, internal stories of Palestinian struggle and to convey the ‘memoricide’ which has served to "remove all evidence of the Palestinians presence in the land substituting for it a synthetic history of Jewish continuity"?
More particularly, how many will dare engage, like Pappe, the issue of how the Holocaust was used to justify the Nakba in the creation of a Jewish state?
Examining the situation of 1948, Pappe writes:
"One can read again and again the arguments put forward by everyone involved in proposing the partition resolution and later on the admittance of Israel as a full member of the UN, while Palestine was erased from the international public agenda, and see clearly that the Holocaust was the sole argument.It's important, of course, to remember that Zionism traces back to the 1890s under its founding-figure Theodor Herzl, and that the essential movement towards a Jewish state was already in motion by the time of the Holocaust.
The argument for a Jewish state as compensation for the Holocaust was a powerful argument, so powerful that nobody listened to the outright rejection of the UN solution by the overwhelming majority of the people of Palestine. What comes out clearly is a European wish to atone. The basic and natural rights of the Palestinians should be sidelined, dwarfed and forgotten altogether for the sake of the forgiveness that Europe was seeking from the newly formed Jewish state. It was much easier to rectify the Nazi evil vis-à-vis a Zionist movement than facing the Jews of the world in general. It was less complex and, more importantly, it did not involve facing the victims of the Holocaust themselves, but rather a state that claimed to represent them. The price for this more convenient atonement was robbing the Palestinians of every basic and natural right they had and allowing the Zionist movement to ethnically cleanse them without fear of any rebuke or condemnation."
Even before the British Balfour Declaration in 1917, small numbers of Zionists had been acquiring Palestinian land (aided, from 1901, by the Jewish National Fund), a settlement process more eagerly facilitated after 1917 by the British mandated authorities.
As Britain and other Western countries sought to restrict fascist-fleeing Jewish refugees, many more came to Palestine, a further settlement which led to the Arab uprisings of 1936-39 and its quelling with brutal force by the British authorities.
By 1948 and its shambolic exit, Britain's collusion with Zionists and betrayal of the Palestinians had become a rearguard containment as Irgun and Stern terrorist units bombed British forces while the Hagana and other Zionist militia carried out Ben-Gurion's Plan Dalet.
Negating the 1947 partition proposal - a carve-up already rejected by the Arabs - awarding the now one third Jewish population (with still just 6% of the land) 56% of the territory, the Zionist leadership was ready to execute its own pre-determined plan to clear all Palestinians from the land, a realisation of Ben-Gurion's 1938 pledge to the Jewish Agency Executive: “I am for compulsory transfer; I do not see anything immoral in it.”
Here, we see the brutal, calculating 'logic' of Ben-Gurion's Consultancy as 750,000 Palestinians were removed from their homes and villages, many massacred in the process.
Yet, as Pappe asserts, it was Ben-Gurion's repetition and ideological invocation of the Holocaust which gave that Zionist land-grab its decisive moment:
"The Zionist movement had the military power to both ethnically cleanse Palestine of its original population and to face a military confrontation with troops from various Arab armies sent to try and prevent the creation of a Jewish state. However, it needed the Holocaust memory to silence any criticism of its ethnic cleansing operation and to prevent any international pressure on it to allow the return of all those expelled from the land after the 1948 war. Europe's guilt at allowing Nazi Germany to exterminate the Jews of Europe was to be cured by the dispossession of the Palestinians. This created what the late Edward Said called a chain of victimisation. The Palestinians became the victims' victim. This concept was never accepted by Israel and its allies; nor was it ever endorsed by the European political elite that felt very comfortable with the formula of Israel being the only and exclusive victim of the Holocaust and the only victim in Palestine."In effect, the mass murder and calamity of one people was used to inflict catastrophe on another.
Even with the horrors of the Holocaust, it didn't take the mind of Einstein to see the disastrous implications of an enforced Jewish state on the further suffering backs of the Palestinians.
But Einstein did actually issue that prescient warning, indeed, even before the Holocaust or declaration of a Jewish state. Restating that view in 1950, Einstein wrote:
"I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state. Apart from the practical considerations, my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain – especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight without a Jewish state."Einstein thus denounced "the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin later a Prime Minister of Israel, and the Stern Gang, where Yitzhak Shamir also a future Prime Minister of Israel was a member, as terrorist organizations and refused to support these “misled and criminal people.”"
He also refused the presidency of Israel. And, despite some other 'cultural Zionist' leanings, falsely proclaimed after his death as 'evidence' of his support for Israel, Einstein remained firmly opposed to any idea of a Jewish state.
Today, as Einstein and other honourable Jews reliably foresaw, the oppression and conflict goes on with no just resolution for Arabs or Jews. Just as the international community in 1948 turned a blind eye to the Nakba, Palestinians remain "the victims' victim", one that not only feels oppressed but, for sixty-plus years, wilfully ignored.
While visiting the West Bank, I remember a recurring conversation, particularly in the refugee camps, in which Palestinians would variously ask: 'do people in the West, outside this place, really know what's going on?' Palestinians have long demonstrated their own resilient voice, their remarkable fortitude. Yet, still they ask that others amplify their situation: 'please tell everyone you can.'
One humbly complies. But, again, the basic question: why aren't our politicians, our schools or our media conveying such truths?
While those in the occupied West Bank endure daily brutality, from checkpoints and tear gas to routine murdering of children, Israel oversees the prison camp that is Gaza - even a shamed David Cameron was compelled to describe it so.
Calculating the combined effects of Israel's militarist siege, starvation blockade and repeated mass bombing of civilians, many others have come to the reasonable conclusion that Gaza is a "concentration camp".
But what has Cameron, Obama or any other official ally of Israel ever seriously done to help end that appalling situation, this affront to humanity? It seems there is no political 'why' to be answered when it comes to Palestinian suffering.
The answer, of course, is in the question. Over six decades after the mass removal of Palestinians, all these states are still dutifully aligned to Israel. And any 'criticism' they might make of Israel still has to be tempered with cautionary lines about 'supporting Israel's right to exist' and 'commending the peace process'.
Pappe talks about a "conspiracy of silence" over the international community's reaction to what befell the Palestinians in 1948:
"There were so many representatives of the international community on the ground, there were journalists, there were representatives of the United Nations, of the International Red Cross [who witnessed and knew that] Jewish troops were going from one house to the other, village to village, and were expelling by force people, massacring them when they resisted [...] Nobody in the Western world wanted to report that story."The ongoing reluctance of that same international community today to speak about the Nakba and its painful continuation means more shameful shrouding of the issues, more hiding of the victims, more barriers to peace and justice.
And the reticence to speak, as Pappe, Said and others have, about the Holocaust in relation to the Nakba and its ongoing effects only serves that concealment.
There is no dishonouring of the Holocaust, no disrespect of its victims, in knowing and learning of these issues. On the contrary, it properly serves the memory of those victims by recognising the lessons of what the ruthlessly powerful can do in the name of brute 'logic'.
Some Palestinians and their supporters feel that discussion of the Holocaust detracts from their own suffering. I respectfully disagree. Not only should the Holocaust be vigilantly remembered on its own human merits, it should be viewed as a supportive lesson for Palestinians and all oppressed others.
Nor is there is any need to 'compare' or 'equate' the Holocaust and the Nakba. There is no useful or valid comparison, equation or equivalence to be made. In particular, any comparison between Nazism and Zionism, Nazis and Jews or any other such elaboration is not only empirically facile, but an encouragement to more reactionary mocking and liberal-coated outrage over how, and under what diversionary headlines, the 'issue' does get raised.
Israel's seemingly mindless acts of military brutality can also be delineated as 'logically wicked' without recourse to such labelling - not that this prevents politicians and media hyping ludicrous comparisons between Western-defined enemies like Saddam, Gaddafi et al and Hitler.
What matters in discussing the Nakba together with the Holocaust is, as Pappe relates, their sequential significance; how one mass-murderous event created a key context for allowing further violence and displacement against another people.
So long as people write or speak of the Holocaust and Nakba in these respectfully-connected ways, they show humanitarian concern for both injustices and an interest in illuminating, opposing and preventing any other mass suffering.
In 1982, Primo Levi condemned Israel's bombing of Lebanon, further declaring: "Everybody has their Jews, and for the Israelis it’s the Palestinians". It was a bold and thoughtfully-made criticism from a Jewish victim who had never till that point openly denounced Israel. Yet, whatever task Levi felt compelled to undertake in addressing the evil of the death camps, particularly against Jewish people, he also recognised the wider capacity of the powerful to murder and subjugate the powerless.
As writer and philosopher Judith Butler, also a Jew, addressed this in a finely-argued piece:
"It would later turn out that Primo Levi, whose memoirs on Auschwitz have achieved enormous influence among U.S. intellectuals, would make clear his break with Zionism in 1982, after the assault on Beirut. It was on the eve of Primo Levi's departure to return to Auschwitz to commemorate the dead that he signed the petition, with other survivors, to demand the recognition of the rights of all peoples of the region, published in La Repubblica. In his views, the Israeli bombers in 1982 were not fighting for freedom, but had become the new oppressors, fighting to deprive another minority of their freedoms. He wrote, "Everybody is somebody's Jew. And today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis." claiming that the Israeli state had become morally unacceptable to anyone who survived the Nazi genocide; after Sabra and Shatilla, he publicly asked Sharon and Begin to resign. And though he was told that he needed to remain silent, that in times of war, his open and public criticism could only hearten the enemies of Israel, he stood firm, and deepened his public criticism in 1984, three years before his death, calling upon Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
One can but speculate, in these very regards, what Levi would have made of other mass atrocities, like the West's genocidal sanctions against Iraq - "the price is worth it", thought Madeleine Albright - and the million people killed in its 'logically'-argued invasion. And, it is, indeed, sobering to think of the staggering death tolls the US, Britain and other Western powers are directly responsible for.I cite the example of Levi to you because it shows that precisely from within the moral framework derived from the Holocaust, an opposition to the Israeli state is not only possible, but necessary. This thought is nearly unthinkable within American Judaism or, indeed, from within the progressive Jewish movements who call for the end of the occupation. And until we can unlink the way in which the Nazi genocide continues to act as a permanent justification for this state and its policies, there will be a silencing of dissent, a muting of public criticism. Levi himself claimed that we must not let the sufferings of the Jews under Nazism "justify everything." And the reporter who received this statement responded, "You can reason very coldly." But this was not coldness on his part; it was feeling, it was horror in the face of atrocities committed by Israelis. It was staying alive to the possibility of knowing and opposing the suffering of others." [My emphasis.]
From the Holocaust to the Nakba, the slaughter of Stalin's gulags to the mass crimes of the West, the means and motives of considering the 'insolent logic' of all such inhumanity and Levi's question of why the powerful offer 'no why', remains a universal right of enquiry.