Confront the principle, not episode

It is no surprise that even today, Europe only feels guilt about the episode of the Holocaust and not the principle of genocide which made it possible.

A Black American soldier of the 12th Armored Division stands guard over a group of Nazi prisoners. Public domain image via the US National Archives and Records Administration.

I’m sitting there, casually watching British right-wing television. TalkTV’s Julia Hartley-Brewer asks her guest, matter-of-factly, if ethnic cleansing and forced removal are potential solutions to the Gaza question. A moral line has been crossed, but they can’t even recognize it. They can’t. There will be no repercussions and no apologies. On another occasion, Belle Donati, a presenter with Sky News takes to task an Israeli official who wrote an op-ed suggesting the “voluntary” relocation of Gazans into the Sinai. He wrote such an op-ed, of course, because he can. The suggestion is reprehensible, and it seems for one moment the presenter understands that it is. This is a rare occasion. She can’t help but draw a reasonable analogy between forced removal and the Holocaust for the simple fact that forced removal was an element of it. She expresses this, and within hours, Sky News apologizes “unreservedly” in a live statement to its guests.

To treat this as a double standard is, to my mind, a grave error. A double standard requires intent. What we are dealing with is an incapacity to learn from the past. An incapacity to be moral. And, an incapacity that has as its consequence complicity with genocide. There’s something hard for us, children of the colonized, to articulate because the world is upside down. Europe and its descendants can’t differentiate between principle and episode.

The Holocaust was the culmination of a kind of European violence that took root in its colonies, preceded it, and succeeded it. It was an episode in a broader story where Europe—despite its claims of being the bearer of the Enlightenment—made its peace with genocide. Theodor Adorno once said that it was the fully enlightened world that made such a disaster triumphant. He was right, but he didn’t mention colonial violence. Owing to silences in Germany’s memory culture, every schoolchild there certainly doesn’t know that the utopia upon which German lebensraum would help build an Aryan nation—an idea that became central to Nazi ideology—had its origins, not in the fantasies that Friedrich Ratzel had about Europe, but in his Volkish desires to impose settlers on the people of present-day Namibia. And of course, not enough schoolchildren in Germany know about the Nama and Herero Genocide, more generally, which almost exterminated them. The experiences and ideas of the Germans in Southwest Africa were essential to the repertoire that gave the world fascism.

But we are also not just talking about Germany here. The act of corralling people into cages, typifying them, consigning them to concentration camps, inflicting chemical weapons on their bodies, and the obsession with ensuring that this is all done in an orderly fashion, through scientific prowess, industrial might, and the construction of vast databases—all of this was the experience of the colonies both before and after it was the experience of Europe. The Italians built concentration camps in Libya and used mustard gas in Ethiopia, the British built concentration camps in South Africa and Kenya, and the French engaged in genocidal violence in Algeria. And of course, this was all easy for the conscience because the victims were never considered human. In 1935, when the Italian fascists invaded Ethiopia, Amy Ashwood Garvey declared on a stage in Trafalgar Square that the only thing separating fascism from Europe were anticolonialists like her. A decade later, Aime Cesaire declared that Europe found its newfound conscience against genocide only when it learned that its victims looked like them.

It is no surprise that even today, Europe only feels guilt about the episode of the Holocaust and not the principle of genocide which made it possible. Let me clarify what I mean by Europe here. By Europe, I am speaking of a political ideology, of the kind championed not only by white men but also by our brown and Black home office and foreign officer ministers here in the UK. It is a culture that one must assume as default until one unlearns it. It believes that the crime that Europe has to answer most for is not the principle of genocide as such, but the crime against Jews. It seeks penance for the episode of the Holocaust but reconciles itself with the principle of genocide which has been ongoing for centuries, and which was perfected in colonial occupations.

This is my best explanation for the active complicity that Europe, its politicians, its journalists, its commentariat and its cultural workers have in the genocide currently happening in Gaza. And it certainly is an antidote to the antisemitic conspiracy theory that we are only seeing the work of a nefarious lobby. In many ways, the cultural defect of Europe is profoundly worse.

There is a line that the fervently zionist anti-Deutsch holds which might help us describe another reason why Europe is doomed to repeat its mistakes. They say that one can be Jewish and antisemitic, and even more importantly at the same time, one can be a victim of antisemitism without being Jewish.

When one says that Palestinians are victims of antisemitism, one need not resort to the banal and silly fact that Palestinians are Semites. We know that antisemitism is a useful term to describe the unique form of discursive and physical violence that is directed at Jews. To say that Palestinians are victims of antisemitism is to say something much more straightforward. In many ways, the Palestinian—regardless of religious or ethnic heritage—is a virtual Jew. Jewish people, still victims of antisemitism across the world, face their own particular violence. But Europe and its offshoots today find themselves confronting a Muslim question, an Arab question, and to address it, make use of a template that it has marked out for the Jew for two millennia. “When you hear someone insulting the Jews pay attention,” Fanon once wrote, “he is talking about you.” Such is the versatility of antisemitism. And this is why, even in the name of anti-antisemitism, Europe is doomed to repeat its past.

Today we watch in horror, as cultural workers, curators, journalists, academics, and politicians treat an ongoing genocide like it is a matter of debate. But this lack of empathy has to come from somewhere. By now we know the tropes by heart. The Muslim is undermining our institutions, has dual loyalties, outbreeds us, and wants to kill us. They are part of an Islamo-gauche conspiracy in France, and in the US they should be banned from entry until they figure out what is going on. These are the more extreme tropes, but in Britain, where I live, a Gazan mourning for his murdered family can publically express his horror and protest a Labour Party politician and be compared to the fascist who killed Jo Cox by liberals too. A home office minister—reputed to be a culture warrior and free speech absolutist—can resign, because she couldn’t successfully ban what she calls “hate marches.” In a country that treats the IHRA definition of antisemitism as holy writ, the denial of the very existence of Palestinian peoplehood is not tolerated but encouraged—the Palestinian flag, attesting to the existence of a Palestinian people, is seen as a provocation against Jewish people by politicians and the press.

Over in the US, The Washington Post can run a cartoon with Palestinians having exaggerated and animalistic faces, in a tradition of caricature that can only be antisemitic. The Arab beheads children, throws them in ovens, and is a rapist. The New York Times writes op-eds comparing the entire Middle East to the “animal kingdom.” And of course, in Germany, one can’t even have a candlelight vigil for the slain journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, without stormtroopers going on the attack. Every stereotype—that Palestinian men are brutes, human animals, rapists, that they are misogynists, their children terrorists in waiting, and that Palestinian women are their accomplices—are not considered wrong unless directed at Jews, because the episode of the holocaust and not the principle is condemned. And this conflation of the episode with the principle means that what the “Jew” was to their grandparents is what the Arab is to them. But they cannot see it, can they?

We all ought to be horrified that despite all of these gestures, and overtures to Israel, this focus on the episode is a narcissistic form of self-consolation, and its purpose is to relieve the guilt of non-Jews. It helped Germany be re-invited into the international community, it helps Israel with unconditional support. But Europe is still not safe for Jewish people and antisemitism still runs rampant regardless.

I imagine that if Cesaire were around, he would tell “enlightened opinion” that when they hear reports of Gazan women having C-sections without anesthesia and feel nothing, that is the Hitler inside of them. They must confront the principle, not the episode.

Further Reading

Decolonizing the Lens

Because of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda occupies a complicated place in the world’s imagination. A new film, about the preceding 1973 pogrom, wants to demystify that view. Does it succeed?