“Never Again” Is Right Now in Palestine

When Zionists use the trauma of the Holocaust to defend Israeli apartheid, they are betraying the spirit of “never again” that was supposed to ensure the world would never stand by as human rights atrocities were committed.

Palestinian youths burn tires during a protest near the Israel-Gaza border on February 23, 2023. (Mahmud Hams / AFP via Getty Images)

On November 9, 1938, my great-grandfather Hugo was beaten by Nazi paramilitaries and sent to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp forty minutes outside of Berlin. Nearly two years earlier, at the age of sixteen, my grandfather Uli had left Germany by himself to live with family in America. Hugo had been shot in the butt while serving in World War I. He survived, the bullet ripping through his diary and denting the canteen in his back pocket, and his status as an injured World War I veteran protected our family from some of the earliest anti-Jewish laws following Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. But as conditions progressively worsened and Uli could no longer attend school, his family thought it best to get him out of the country.

Hugo was one of thirty thousand Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps between November 9 and 11, 1938. Days earlier, Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen-year-old Polish-Jewish refugee living in Paris, assassinated a German diplomat. Germans responded by imposing collective punishment on Germany’s Jewish population, staging a state-backed pogrom infamously known as “Kristallnacht,” or the “Night of Broken Glass.” German mobs set ablaze and broke the windows of Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues, blanketing the streets with shattered glass while assaulting and arresting Jews en masse.

A Christian colleague successfully secured Hugo’s release two weeks later, and Hugo was immediately rushed to a hospital due to internal bleeding from multiple beatings. In 1939, Hugo, my great-grandmother Lotte, and my grandfather’s twin sister, Isa, escaped to England. Lotte died from cancer in England before the war was over, and Uli never saw her again.

They were some of the lucky ones. Millions of other European Jews would be arrested and sent to concentration camps, used for slave labor, and ultimately exterminated in the Nazi government’s “Final Solution.”

Interior view of the destroyed Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, Berlin, burned on Kristallnacht. (Wikimedia Commons)

Following the Nazi Holocaust, the phrase “never again” has been deployed to insist that the world learned its lesson during World War II and would never again let such a horrific crime happen. For the Zionist movement, this collective trauma and moral imperative provided a powerful ideological bulwark in achieving its goal of building a Jewish nation-state in historic Palestine.

In practice, this has meant a staunch defense of Israel and its apartheid state, erasing the violent settler-colonialism at the heart of its founding and continued oppression of Palestinians. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), for instance, lists among its examples of antisemitism, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Growing up as the descendent of a Holocaust survivor and in a Jewish community committed to social justice, I also regularly heard the refrain “never again.” But instead of being used as an ideological cover to shield from criticism of Israeli apartheid and the ongoing military occupation of Palestine, it instilled in me a duty to fight racism and oppression wherever it sprouts its head.

My father became a rabbi, leading our New York City congregation with a social justice ethos. Following my graduation from our Bar Mitzvah program, I became a teaching assistant in our synagogue’s Sunday school for five years, spending most of that time educating sixth graders on the history of antisemitism and the Jewish response to poverty. When Donald Trump initiated his Muslim ban, our congregation mobilized in protest, my father carrying a homemade cardboard sign that read, “My father was a refugee too.”

This form of “never again” has also pointed me to look at Israel, but not in its defense. As I grew older, it became clear that the country that claimed to represent me in the name of the horrors my family went through was founded upon — and remains propped up by — an ongoing ethnic cleansing. In a painful twist of historical irony, large sections of a historically displaced and oppressed group have interpreted that group’s traumatic past as an imperative to repeat the same crimes it once faced. And just as “never again” has acted as an ideological underpinning of Israel’s settler-colonial project, it has been used to dismiss critics of Israel as no better than the Nazis.

But if there is any comparison to be made with the Nazis, it is not with the critics of Israel but the Israeli state itself. Not only was Israel founded upon decades of militia and state violence, and the expulsion and ghettoization of its Palestinian population, but over the past few years, the Israeli government has careened even further to the right, resembling more and more the Nazi regime from which my family fled.

Nazi comparisons should never be made lightly. But the idea that many of my people have become the same monsters from whom my grandfather fled has become harder and harder for me to stomach. If “never again” is to mean anything, it must require action right now in Palestine.

“Blood and Soil” Zionism

The colonization of Palestine began in earnest in 1897, with the founding of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). Political Zionism was rooted in two reactionary ideologies. First, an ethnonationalist pretext similar to the Nazi’s “Blood and Soil,” identifying an innate connection between a diasporic Jewish people and our biblical home. Second, it was built on, and in turn inspired, other European settler-colonial projects and collaborated with European imperial powers. From the start, Political Zionism advanced demographic and territorial maximization, seeking to establish a Jewish majority and control all the land in historic Palestine.

The delegates at the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, 1897. (Wikimedia Commons)

The world-historic tragedy of the Holocaust renewed international support for a Jewish nation-state. Following the 1947 UN partition plan, Zionist militias began campaigns of ethnic cleansing, expelling three hundred thousand Palestinians from the land designated for Israel. This mass ethnic cleansing provoked the intervention of neighboring Arab countries, and by the end of the war, seven hundred fifty thousand Palestinians had been removed from their land, hundreds of towns were destroyed, and thousands were massacred. Through this mass expulsion — a historic event Palestinians term Al Nakba, “the Catastrophe” — the modern state of Israel was born.

Following the Six-Day War, Israel came to occupy the rest of Palestine, taking military control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a military occupation that continues to this day. Despite multiple decades of military rule, expanding settlements, and a Jim Crow–like apartheid regime for Palestinians, Israel has been heralded by the United States as a democratic beacon in the Middle East, and any criticism of Israel, no matter how tame, has been decried as antisemitic, citing the Shoah as proof of the Jewish state’s historical necessity and infallibility.

But over the past few years, the country’s liberal-democratic facade has come undone as it has lurched even further to the right. In 2018, Israel further cemented Jewish supremacy in its Nation-State Law, officially demoting Palestinians to second-class citizens. In the ensuing years, the Israeli military has escalated its bombing campaigns on the Gaza Strip, increased its assaults on Muslim worshipers in the Al Aqsa mosque, and last year even assassinated the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Somehow, the Israeli government inaugurated this past December is even worse, embracing an explicitly fascist politics and orienting toward the total ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Kristallnacht in the West Bank

The parallels between Israel’s race-based occupation and the Nazi government are far too abundant to ignore, especially for those of us who grew up with a deep and painful connection with the Holocaust. Just as Germans acted in collective revenge against German Jews on Kristallnacht, in late February, Israeli settlers laid siege to the town Huwara and surrounding villages in the West Bank, punishing the Palestinian residents for the murder of two settlers earlier in the day. Jewish mobs burned down Palestinian homes, businesses, and even a school, and assaulted Palestinians, injuring hundreds and killing at least one.

The violence on display was so disturbing, even Israeli commentators compared the night to Kristallnacht. In response to the bloody events, Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, called on Huwara to be “wiped out,” while insisting that the military should take on the job, not vigilantes.

Damaged property as result of the rampage in Huwara in February, 2023. (Wikimedia Commons)

Alongside the rise of the Israeli far right has been an immense increase in settler and state violence. In 2015, settlers set fire to two Palestinian homes, murdering an eighteen-month-old Palestinian baby, burning him alive. In many towns, Israel Defense Force soldiers have stood by as settlers have attacked Palestinians, while in other cases they’ve protected settlers or joined in on the assaults. In 2022 alone, one hundred fifty Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the deadliest year for Palestinians under the occupation since 2004, which is already being quickly outpaced by 2023’s death toll.

The parallels between the Nazi regime and Israel don’t stop at their similar embrace of state-backed race-based mob violence. Millions of Palestinians under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza live under a system of Jim Crow, barbed wire, checkpoints, and restricted movement. These features, not bugs, of Israeli society have created a military occupation in which the residents of the Gaza Strip live in conditions eerily similar to those imposed on the Jews confined in the Nazi’s Warsaw Ghetto.

Today’s Warsaw: Gaza

The comparison between Gaza and Warsaw is not new but bears repeating. In 1940, the Nazi occupation established the Warsaw Ghetto to sequester and imprison Jews within the Polish city. At its height, the ghetto, which spanned just over 1.3 square miles, was home to nearly half a million Jews confined in subhuman conditions. The Nazis established a barricade to restrict the movement of its inhabitants, and denied the Jews living there sufficient food, water, health care, energy, and supplies.

Captured Jews being escorted by the Waffen-SS, 1943, after suppressing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. (Wikimedia Commons)

The German occupiers killed the ghetto’s Jewish population indiscriminately, leading to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a last-ditch revolt to prevent their people’s extermination. Though the uprising was brutally suppressed, the world honors the Jewish freedom fighters who fought the Nazi regime and whose martyrdom is a reminder of the fight against oppression and tyranny.

While the Israeli government does not have the same orientation toward the systematic mass execution of Palestinians as the Nazi regime established against Europe’s Jews, the parallels between the Warsaw Ghetto and Gaza Strip are uncanny. Just as in the German occupation of Warsaw, the Israeli occupation of Gaza restricts its Palestinian population’s movement, confines them to dense living quarters, and denies them access to basic needs. These severe conditions are exacerbated by regular bombing campaigns and military assaults on the population-dense Gaza Strip, which destroy civilian infrastructure like homes, offices, pipelines, and sewage treatment and have killed thousands of civilians.

The open-air prison environment in Gaza and pogroms in the West Bank are part of an overarching system of apartheid with de jure and de facto segregation, a state commitment to Jewish supremacy, and the domination of Palestinians. Jews like myself who have no roots in Israel have the right to “return” and become Israeli citizens, while millions of Palestinian refugees round the world cannot return to their ancestral home. And in Israel’s deeply undemocratic society, Palestinians under military occupation in Gaza and the West Bank have no say in the government that controls their daily lives.

Israel’s Eliminationist Objectives

In recent years, Israel has further enshrined explicit racial hierarchy and oriented toward eliminating Palestine’s Arab population to ensure a permanent Jewish majority. Palestinians are harassed out of their homes to make way for Jewish settlers. Right-wing politicians like Smotrich call to wipe out Palestinian towns, while other fascists like Itamar Ben-Gvir, a leader in the illegal settler movement, have been given crucial state positions like security minister. Ben-Gvir has called for establishing a ministry to encourage “the emigration [from Israel] of ‘enemies’ and people who are ‘disloyal’ to the state” — not dissimilar from the Jewish emigration encouraged by the Nazis before implementing their Final Solution.

While those of us in the United States hope to see more democratic oversight over our reactionary courts, in Israel, the Right seeks to circumvent the last checks on their genocidal program. In many ways, the Nakba has never ended, and the full goals of Zionism will never be achieved until the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the river to the sea is complete. The new Israeli government is hoping to fulfill that mission.

Ben-Gvir and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government have provoked a series of unprecedented protests from Israel’s secular liberal society in defense of an independent judiciary against the government’s recent attacks. Protesters have limited their dissent to opposing what they view as the erosion of liberal norms within Israeli society. It’s encouraging to see Jewish revolt against the Israeli government. But the protest’s near-silence on Israeli apartheid is glaring, especially given the government’s objectives in attacking the courts, blaming them for blocking the government’s ability to “demolish terrorists’ houses,” “[revoke] the rights of terrorists’ families,” reimplement the “death penalty for terrorists,” and “[give] soldiers immunity.”

Israeli forces take a demonstrator into custody as they intervene in Palestinian protests against Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip May 18, 2021 in Bethlehem, West Bank. (Wisam Hashlamoun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

While protesters declare they’re out in defense of a democratic and Jewish state, a democratic and Jewish state in Palestine are incompatible. As Peter Beinart writes in the New York Times, “Democracy means government by the people. Jewish statehood means government by Jews. In a country where Jews comprise only half of the people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the second imperative devours the first.”

Israeli democracy is all the more an illusion when you consider the millions of Palestinian refugees who are still waiting on their “right of return” as Israel continues to displace more and more Palestinians. Despite what the protesters might claim, Israel’s latest right-wing government is not anathema to Israeli values; it’s the inevitable outgrowth of Zionism’s “Blood and Soil” ideology.

Observing the protests, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Martin Niemöller’s famous poem “First They Came…” in which Niemöller describes standing on the sidelines as the Nazis attacked one group at a time. By the end of the poem, no one is left to speak out for Niemöller as the Nazis come for him. After decades of complicity in the expansion of Israeli apartheid, no one is left to speak for liberal secular Israelis as Netanyahu consolidates his power and establishes a fascist regime.

If Not Now, When?

Despite the glaring similarities between the Israeli government and the Nazi regime from which my family fled, for decades, my family and people’s experience has been wielded in defense of Israel’s systematic racial oppression. This cynical deployment of identity politics has been used to denounce the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, blacklist pro-Palestinian academics, and smear anti-apartheid politicians like the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar as antisemitic. And to punish and intimidate pro-Palestine organizers, Canary Mission, a right-wing site devoted to documenting anti-Israel activism, routinely publishes the personal information of Palestinian activists, students, professors, and Jewish allies.

These defenses of apartheid and ethnic cleansing under the guise of fighting antisemitism have always deeply disgusted me as a descendent of Holocaust survivors. As a people whose history has been defined by displacement, we should, more than anyone, empathize with and stand in solidarity with those displaced by settler colonialism. Instead, too many Jews see our people’s freedom as contingent on the ongoing oppression of Palestinians.

My family’s history taught me to stand up in defense of the exploited and oppressed. Yet mainstream Jewish institutions tell the world that to be a real Jew is not to be a defender of the oppressed but of apartheid. As a Jew, simply speaking out against Israel’s racism and brutal violence against Palestinians elicits accusations of forsaking my people and the label of “self-hating Jew.” My mom recently told me a story about attending a Humanistic Jewish conference during the Second Intifada where she was attacked as a traitor for simply saying “if we believe in equal rights for all people, we believe in equal rights for all people.”

Ironically, the Anti-Defamation League even recently denounced some of the liberal Zionist protests in Israel as antisemitic. Seeing this, I couldn’t help but laugh — just as in Niemöller’s poem, many supporting the protests had used the same denunciations against me and other Jews and non-Jews for our criticisms of Israel.

Despite the dominant narrative by Israel and its powerful lobbying institutions like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that deploy Jewish identity in support of apartheid, Judaism has a long history of fighting oppression and exploitation. Throughout the nineteenth century, the majority of European Jews rejected Zionism and instead embraced working-class socialist internationalism. These Jews recognized their liberation as wrapped up in the liberation of all of humanity, identified class society and capitalism as the culprit for social ills and antisemitism, and fought to transform the world rather than retreat from it. I embrace their Judaism.

Rabbi Hillel asks us, “If not now, when?,” imploring Jewish people to fight injustice, an imperative I internalized from a young age. Our people’s centuries of oppression and struggle for freedom has only strengthened this resolve. In the face of a fascist Israeli government, we must recognize that Palestinian freedom and Jewish freedom are inextricably linked, and that freedom cannot be achieved until there exists one free and democratic state for Jews and Palestinians. The struggle to make “never again” a reality is far from over.