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Thursday, 11 July 2013

Sir Bob Russell's Holocaust question

I strongly dissent from the opinions recently expressed about the Holocaust and Israel/Palestine by the Liberal Democrat MP Sir Bob Russell. Questioning Education Secretary Michael Gove about the national curriculum, Sir Bob asked: "On the assumption that the 20th century will include the Holocaust, will he give me an assurance that the life of Palestinians since 1948 will be given equal attention?"

The Holocaust was the deliberate, state-sponsored murder of millions of Jews and other people, in an attempt to wipe out every person who had any Jewish ancestry, based on the racist belief that Jews were sub-human and evil. Two thirds of the Jewish people living in Europe at that time were therefore deliberately murdered in line with state policy, as were many other people including gays, Roma, the disabled and political opponents of the Nazi regime.

That such a thing could have been done by Germany - a literate, cultured, law-abiding democracy at the heart of Western culture - beggars belief and raises profound moral questions about the Western civilisation of which Britain is a part. We therefore teach British children about it at school, because we want them to grow up with an understanding of the moral and ethical implications of this recent, profoundly important historical event.

Of course, there have been other tragic, genocide-type events in recent history, including (I would argue) those that happened in Cambodia in the 70s and Rwanda in the 90s. I am underground on the Tube at the moment and so cannot look up how many people have been killed in recent years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but that too is a figure that, in its sheer size and moral magnitude, evokes comparison with the Holocaust.

Such events deserve to be remembered alongside the Holocaust, and they are, each year at Holocaust Memorial Day, the remit of which is specifically to commemorate the Holocaust and other genocides that have happened since.

The simple, blunt reality is that nothing remotely comparable to the Holocaust has happened in "the life of Palestinians since 1948" (as Sir Bob puts it). So why equate the two, which is what one does if one asks for them to be given "equal attention"? What point was Sir Bob intending to make?

Israel's War of Independence in 1947-9 (called by Palestinians "al-Naqba" or "the Catastrophe") was a conflict in which many people (including the British, the colonial power in Palestine at the time, whose brutal torture of Jewish detainees is well-documented from that time) did many things that were wrong. It was a war that led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Arab people, and it therefore perhaps stands comparison with the partition of India at around the same time (in which it is surely true that far more people were killed - does Sir Bob want "equal attention" for that as well?). It does not stand comparison with the Holocaust.

We all know the headline figure of roughly six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Want to know how many people have been killed on all sides in the entire history of the Israeli-Arab conflict since the 1940s? Want to hazard a guess? It is around 65,000, a figure dwarfed even by the minimum of 90,000 people killed in Syria in a conflict that only started not in the 1940s, but in 2011. It is, of course, still 65,000 too many - one death would have been too many - but as it is nowhere near to being one of the post-war conflicts that compare numerically to the Holocaust, why single it out for "equal attention"?

Yes, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza suffered after 1948 under Jordanian and Egyptian occupation, prior to Israel's occupying those same territories in 1967, since when much has happened which I would wish had not happened. Yes, Palestinians living as Arab citizens in Israel itself have not always enjoyed the full social equality to which they are entitled, despite (as equal citizens of a Parliamentary democracy) enjoying civil rights that outshine anything 'enjoyed' by Arabs living in every other, non-democratic country in the Middle East.

But there has been no genocide, no systematic attempt to wipe out every single person with ancestry from a particicular ethnic group, so why suggest that there has? Over decades when the Palestinian population has actually grown, and at a time when Gaza's Palestinians actually have a higher life expectancy than do people living in some parts of Scotland, it is entirely inaccurate to compare the injustices suffered by Palestinians to the genocide suffered by Jews; to make such a comparison is to misunderstand the former and to trivialise the latter.


  1. If protagonists of all racial or religious persuasions cannot put aside their prejudices and accept that the majority of Palestinians are not terrorists and that they have suffered many injustices in the past, the present and most likely in the future, the lessons of the holocaust have not been learned and the world at large has no right to call ourselves civilised.

  2. As usual Harris goes out of his way to try and play down Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Palestine - hence no mention of the settlements and other issues such as Israel's apartheid airport system....which bars Palestinians having their own airport.

  3. Israel's policies towards the Palestinians don't become "ethnic cleansing" just because you keep calling them "ethnic cleansing".

    According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, ethnic cleansing is "the organized attempt by a particular race or political group to completely remove from a country or area anyone who belongs to another particular race, using violence and often murder to achieve this."

    According to the Oxford dictionary online, it is: "the mass expulsion or killing of members of one ethnic or religious group in an area by those of another."

    Collins has it as: "(euphemistic) the violent removal by one ethnic group of other ethnic groups from the population of a particular area: used esp of the activities of Serbs against Croats and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia".

    Reading Amnesty International's 2013 report on "Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (, I don't see anything that remotely resembles any of these definitions of "ethnic cleansing". It is grotesque to inaccurately level such an accusation against any country, Israel included.

    If you are interested in "ethnic cleansing" in the modern Middle East, then you may wish to read:, but I bet you won't read it, because it challenges your world-view.