This article was first published with the Times of Israel on 26 April, 2016
The pro-Israel NGO StandWithUs is an important voice in the anti-BDS camp. They are doing Israel advocacy and criticize anti-Zionist anti-Semitism. On 24 April, 2015, StandWithUs published a pictogram on Facebook that equates the horrible events of 1915 during the First World War, the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire (the Young Turks), to Nazi Germany. They equate the Young Turks to Hitler and 1915 to 1939, as if the Nazi Party (NSDAP) and Hitler came to power in 1939.
Hitler was put in power by German President Hindenburg on January 30, 1933, after some 37% of Germans had voted for him and the Nazis in free elections in June 1932, during the Weimar Republic. January 30, 1933, is a crucial date, when the infamous torchlight procession by the murderous anti-Semitic and anti-leftist Storm Troopers (“Sturmabteilung” or SA) took place in the heart of Berlin through the Brandenburg Gate.
September 1, 1939, the Second World War begun, but the picture by StandWithUs deliberately uses a pictogram of Hitler and his rise to power has nothing to do with 1939, but with 1933.
But there is much more behind this campaign by StandWithUs. To acknowledge the Armenian tragedy as genocide has been an international topic for decades now. Many equate genocide to the Shoah. The Holocaust is portrayed as just a genocide among others. That is a very common but dangerous trope.
In particular, post-colonial studies are eager to deny the unprecedented character of the Shoah. Take British-Nigerian broadcast of the BBC, David Olusoga’s and his Danish colleague Casper Erichsen’s 2010 book “Kaiser’s Holocaust” as an example. They make an analogy of the German massacre in South-West Africa in the early 20th century to the Holocaust. They claim the Shoah was a form of “social Darwinism.” No, the Holocaust was not a form of social Darwinism, nor were the Jews seen as the “weak.” Contrary to that, Germans saw Jews as superior, dangerous, and as preparing a world conspiracy. That is the very essence of anti-Semitism.
Post-colonial scholarship as well as post-Orientalist and genocide studies fail to understand the specificity of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism imagined the Jews behind all evil, as being behind capitalism in the United States and communism and the Soviet Union. There is no connection between the “People without Space,” as one chapter in Kaiser’s Holocaust reads, and the Shoah, because anti-Semitism and the Shoah had nothing to do with land gain, imperialism or any other form of political, territorial, economic, cultural, social etc. purpose. The authors simply ignore the entire scholarship on the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
German historian Jürgen Zimmerer is a leading voice in comparing and equating German colonialism to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. In 2003, he published an article wherein he stated that “genocides in the colonies” are in the same “category” as “National Socialist murder policies.” In 2011, Zimmerer published a collection of his essays on colonialism and the Holocaust, entitled From Windhuk to Auschwitz? He insists that as early as 1947 American civil rights activist and historian W.E.B. Dubois (1868–1963) said:
There was no Nazi atrocity — concentration camps, wholesale maiming and murder, defilement of women or ghastly blasphemy of childhood — which Christian civilization or Europe had not long been practicing against colored folk in all parts of the world in the name of and for the defense of a Superior Race born to rule the world.
Zimmerer emphasizes that another author posited comparable arguments. This is the old superstar of post-colonialism-studies, Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), who wrote in 1950 that the crime of the Holocaust is (supposedly) seen as horrible not because of
the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he [Hitler] applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs, of Algeria, the colonies of India, and the blacks of Africa.
The city of Paris dedicated a big street at the Seine, close to the Louvre, to the memory of Césaire, “Quai Aimé Césaire.”
Then, StandWithUs should look at Yale University. The most recent example of equating the fate of the Armenians to the Holocaust and to distort anti-Semitism and the Shoah comes from Yale University’s political scientist professor Seyla Benhabib.
In a recent article in the mainstream Journal of Genocide Research (Vol. 17, No. 3, 2015), she compares the mass-murder of Armenians by the Turkish in the First World War to the Jews and the Shoah. She urges US Congress and others to call the Armenian tragedy a “genocide.” She takes aim at American and Israeli politicians who reject to frame the mass-murder a genocide. She is not a historian of the Shoah, to be sure. But her approach is very much representing vast parts of the humanities and social sciences when it comes to reject the uniqueness of the Shoah. The case of the mass-murder of the Armenians is just used by Benhabib to bolster her anti-Zionist agenda. She writes:
At a deeper level, both Zionism and Kemalism are state-building and nation-crafting ideologies and the old elites of these movements understood one another very well. David Ben-Gurion had studied law in the Ottoman Empire, and to this day Israeli law contains many elements of Ottoman law. Just as Armenian people refer to the events of 1915 as their Holocaust, with the founding of the State of Israel, it is now Palestinians who refer to that event as their ‘naqbah’. In other words, the Israelis are no longer like the Armenians, a diasporic people, spread among the nations, but a people with a modern mighty nation-state, just as modern Turkey itself is.
Benhabib and her allies, like editor Dirk A. Moses — she thanks him “for encouraging me to publish it in this form” — equate the Holocaust to completely distinct events in history like the mass-murder of the Armenian people in 1915, which was not at all the same as the industrial eradication of European Jewry by the Germans.
Benhabib’s editor and ally, historian Dirk A. Moses from Australia, professor of history at the University of Sydney, sets American slavery, colonialism and the Holocaust, the fate of blacks and Jews in one historical line. In 2002, he published an article about the “racial century (1850–1950).” He accuses the Western world and Europe for “Eurocentrism” when the Holocaust is seen as unique. Moses is applying the language, for example, of German right-wing extremists who make fun of Jewish survivors and he accuses Jewish survivors of taking the Holocaust as something “sacred.”
Moses is a contributor to the Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies. He claims that “colonialism and the Holocaust are linked,” and that there is a close connection between “colonial rule and anti-Semitism.” For him, the “Holocaust” was the result “of a frustrated imperial nation.” Moses promotes the controversial approaches of scholars like Césaire or Zimmerer. Hamburg University’s historian Jürgen Zimmerer is Chair Person of the International Advisory Board of the Journal of Genocide Research and its former editor from 2005–2011.
Post-colonial or pre-colonial violence, though, are not topics of scholars like Moses as it looks like. Western scholarship does not deny the huge crimes of colonialism, and imperialism, including slavery, massacres, forced land dispossession, mass rape of women, sexual abuse and so on. As long post-colonial scholars, however, are not focusing on Arab and Muslim slavery in the Middle Ages and the modern times, as well as the ongoing Islamic jihad and anti-Western propaganda, one cannot take them too seriously as scholars who really care about violence in history and our contemporary world. Is it possible that violence just counts for them when the perpetrator is white and European, Australian, Canadian or American, Christian or Zionist, but never Muslim or “native,” for example?
Mose’s ally Benhabib misses the point, that Jews and Israel are threatened today by world-wide anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, while there is no international movement to “wipe Armenians of the map,”, for example. Benhabib’s use of the term Holocaust for the history of the Armenians as well as her analogy of Arab-Palestinian history is very troubling, too. She wants to equate Jews to Armenians and the Palestinians to Jews with the pure intention to portray both Armenians and Palestinians as still victims of history, while the Jews succeeded to get their own state (Armenians, too).
She does not even discuss that many in Europa and the US want Turkey to recognize the Armenian “genocide” — that is the topic of her article — because they are anti-Islam. There is of course also a serious awareness of Turkish crimes against the Armenians by scholars and the public who are not driven by anti-Muslim feelings. But many of that kind of people seem to be driven by Holocaust distortion. Benhabib accuses Israel and the US of “ugly geopolitical games.” Perhaps one could take her approach more seriously, if she wouldn’t compare and even equate the Holocaust to the Armenian tragedy. But the downplaying or rejection of the uniqueness of the Shoah is the condition sine qua non of many parts of genocide research.
It is important to remember the Armenian tragedy, of course. But it is a distortion of history and a denial (!) of the unprecedented character of the Shoah to claim that without 1915 Hitler and the Nazis wouldn’t have come to power. This is a distortion of history and a denial of anti-Semitism, which has nothing to do with Ottoman or Armenian history. German anti-Semitism goes way back and was not inspired by the horrible events during the First World War in the Ottoman Empire.
It is shocking, though, to see an American NGO — StandWithUs — promoting these historical distortions, including the obfuscation of the long history of German anti-Semitism up until eliminationist anti-Semitism during Nazi Germany.
You can and should remember what happened to the Armenians. But never ever as analogy to anti-Semitism, the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party and the Shoah. Instead, this campaign by StandWithUs speaks volumes about the knowledge of some of the smartest pro-Israel advocates in the US when it comes to the specificity of anti-Semitism, German history, and the rise of the Nazi Party (NSDAP) and Hitler to power in 1933, not in 1939.
I’d suggest to read Bernard-Henri Lévy’s 2008 study “Left in Dark Times. A Stand against the New Barbarism,” and his take on the uniqueness of the Shoah and the Armenian tragedy:
And you could take the time, with those who wonder, sometimes in good faith, about the uniqueness of the Holocaust, you could take the time to explain that this uniqueness has nothing to do with body count but with a whole range of characteristics that, strange as it may seem, coincide nowhere else in all the crimes human memory recalls.
The industrialization of death is one such: the gas chamber. The irrationality, the absolute madness of the project, is the second: the Turks had the feeling, well founded or not, and mostly, of course, unfounded, that they were killing, in the Armenians, a fifth column that was weakening them in their war against the Russians — there was no point in killing the Jews; none of the Nazis took the trouble to claim that there was any point to it at all;
and such was the irrationality, I almost said gratuitousness, of the process that when, by chance, the need to exterminate coincided with another imperative that actually did have a point, when, in the last months of the war, when all the railways had been bombed by the Allies, the Nazis could choose between letting through a train full of fresh troops for the eastern front or a trainload of Jews bound to be trans-formed into Polish smoke in Auschwitz, it was the second train that had priority, since nothing was more absurd or more urgent, crazier or more vital, than killing the greatest number of Jews.
And the third characteristic that, finally, makes the Holocaust unique: the project of killing the Jews down to the last one, to wipe out any trace of them on this earth where they had made the mistake of being born, to proceed to an extermination that left no survivors. A Cambodian could, theoretically at least, flee Cambodia; a Tutsi could flee Rwanda, and outside Rwanda, at least ideally, would be out of range of the machetes; the Armenians who managed to escape the forces of the Young Turk government were only rarely chased all the way to Paris, Budapest, Rome, or Warsaw (…).
It is tremendously important to fight Islamism and the current Erdogan regime in Turkey, including their denial of the Armenian tragedy. But there is a huge gap between denial and equation of that history to the Holocaust! It was not a forerunner of the industrial murder of Jews by Germans during the Second World War and National Socialism.
Israeli historian at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yitzhak Kerem, writes the following about the Armenian tragedy:
In 1915, it’s more of a conflict. Turks will exaggerate and say that more Turks were killed in the fighting from 1915 to 1923 than Armenians. They do have responsibilities towards the Armenians, but to pattern itself as a Jewish holocaust which [some Armenians] have done, they were pushed by British intelligence, is a distortion of history.
“My point is, and this is what the Armenians don’t like, is that more Kurds killed Armenians than Turks. The Turks did terrible things to the Armenians. They butchered people right and left. They raped and pillaged, but it wasn’t an organized act by the regime. It was a byproduct of hate. The Turks did terrible things to the Greek Orthodox, especially in Izmir. To call that a holocaust and a genocide when you are equating that with the Jewish holocaust is a distortion.
This, at least, should be a point of departure for a discussion. Not denial of the Armenian tragedy as Erdogan and his regime prefer. And not exaggeration and equation with the Holocaust either.
This recent campaign of StandWithUs might be considered as a symbol of contemporary activism as well as scholarship in genocide research and post-colonial studies. Holocaust distortion is not seen as a topic from that point of view. The inflation of genocide and the rejection of the unprecedented character of Auschwitz has become mainstream even in some pro-Israel circles.
I just read the other day an old critique by English Studies professor Edward Alexander about Shulamit Aloni (1928–2014), a former Israeli minister of education, leader of the Meretz Party, Israel-Prize winner and human rights activist. Her focus on the Palestinians and how they are treated has for sure some merits, as long as we ignore her blind-eye on Palestinian terrorism, both secular and Islamist, and anti-semitism. Alexander focused on Aloni’s contribution to Holocaust distortion. In my view, his criticism fits very well to the recent StandWithUs campaign and to post-colonial studies and genocide studies. In his article “What the Holocaust Does Not Teach” (1993, republished in his “Jews against Themselves,” 2015) Alexander wrote:
But Mrs. Aloni, the Israeli, the Israeli version of what East European Jews used to call ‘a cossack in a sukkah,’ has deplored the stress upon the Holocaust as regressive and nationalistic. ‘I do not take pictures of the backside of history,’ she declared on Israeli Radio. ‘The Ministry of Education must be concerned with the future.’ Even before her elevation of office, Aloni frequently denounced Holocaust education in Israel because it taught children that ‘the Nazis did this to the Jews instead of the message that people did this to people.’
Aloni’s approach might fit American inclusiveness but fails to understand anti-Semitism, let alone the Shoah.
Holocaust distortion by Seyla Benhabib and the Journal of Genocide Research when it comes to the Armenian tragedy should be a warning to pro-Israel groups like StandWithUs in the future.
Finally, there seems to be a need, even an obsession, to reject the uniqueness of the Shoah. Germans need to obfuscate German crimes and project their guilt onto Jews or the allies. That has been analyzed as early as 1960 by Peter Schönbach, a co-worker of philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt.
Be it the fantasy of a Palestinian “Naqba” being equal to the Holocaust, be it the supposedly “Kaiser’s Holocaust” in German South-West Africa (1904–1907), be it the allegedly intentional “Ukrainian Holocaust” in 1932 or be it the propagated analogy of 1915 and 1933/39, Armenians and Jews, Turks and Nazis or Germany. This is how the Holocaust distortion movement works.
Today, we see this need to “steal the Holocaust,” as it is called, even among pro-Israel groups. StandWithUs is a case in point.
The author, Dr. Clemens Heni, is Director of The Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (BICSA)