Not a shoah, just a PR calamity

Good job, Matan. Well done. One short interview with Israel army radio and you’ve undone decades of hard work — and created an albatross that will hang around Jewish necks for another 20 years to come.

I’m speaking of Matan Vilnai, Israel’s deputy defence minister, who last week issued the following warning to the Palestinians of Gaza: “The more Kassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they [the Palestinians] will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves.”

In that one sentence, Vilnai handed Israel’s enemies a propaganda gift that comes along once in a generation. They were not slow to seize it. The former Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said: “They want the world to condemn what they call the Holocaust and now they are threatening our people with a holocaust.” Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri chimed in: “We are facing new Nazis who want to kill and burn the Palestinian people.”

Press releases and letters to the press from anti-Zionist activists have, just as predictably, made fruitful use of Vilnai’s remark, citing it as evidence of Israel’s intention to carry out “genocide and ethnic cleansing”, according to one letter signed by Antony Gormley, Michael Rosen and others.

The immediate damage of Vilnai’s blunder was to frame the current Israeli offensive against Gaza in the worst possible light. People around the world could read of the subsequent Israeli assault, and the Palestinian children and teenagers killed, and they would see it as a shoah — because that’s how Vilnai had told them to see it.

But the damage will be much more lasting than that. For decades, Jews have urged the world not to trivialise the Holocaust by making glib comparisons with other catastrophes. We wince if a massacre here or an atrocity there is called a holocaust because it diminishes the event that nearly laid waste to all European Jewry. Yet now a Jew and an Israeli — a deputy minister of defence, no less — says that a military offensive in an ongoing, long-running conflict, is a shoah.

Worse still, Israel’s enemies have for years been likening Zionism to Nazism, insisting that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is similar to the Third Reich’s treatment of the Jews. Most Jews, rightly, condemn such an equation as wholly illegitimate; we have argued, mostly successfully, that even to hint at the comparison should be off limits.

But along comes Minister Vilnai to do the Israel-haters’ work for them, calling Israel’s conduct a shoah and, because of his position, making such an equation kosher. Make no mistake: this sentence will be hurled back at Israel’s defenders, on message boards and internet forums, on phone-in shows and campus debates, for years and years to come.

Oh, I know the defence. That Vilnai was merely using the word shoah in the colloquial, everyday sense it has in Hebrew, to mean a disaster — the way an environmental calamity is known as a shoah ecologi. But this won’t wash.

Jews and Israelis have worked hard to make Shoah the internationally recognised name for the Holocaust, the latter being a Greek-rooted word that implies the death of the six million was some kind of sacrifice to God. I recall the satisfaction when Pope John Paul II, in his reconciliation address, referred to the murder of European Jewry as the Shoah. Thanks in part to Claude Lanzmann’s landmark film, shoah has entered the international language; it is a near-universal term.

Yet Vilnai’s defenders now say that to interpret shoah as holocaust is an “appalling mistranslation”. That’s called having it both ways. We spend 20 years teaching non-Jews what the word means; then, when they’ve learned the lesson, we tell them they’ve got it wrong.

Nor will it do to claim that the only significant use of the word is when it comes with a capital letter or with the definite article, Ha’Shoah. No one thought Lanzmann’s film referred to an oil spillage — or some other mere disaster — because it was called Shoah, rather than Ha’Shoah.

Besides, even if a casual usage of shoah is available in everyday Hebrew, Vilnai should have known much better. This was not a private conversation in an office about sorting out, say, a shoah of a bad meeting. This was a public statement by a senior politician about Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. The context was serious, not casual, and it was enormously sensitive. He should have known how explosive it was to bring the word shoah anywhere near this topic.

Next month, Bicom will host a conference for pro-Israeli activists in Britain, teaching them how to serve better as advocates for Israel. Well, it would be nice if Israel’s leaders made a start — by not making the job of defending them so damn hard.

    Last updated: 9:02am, May 15 2008