David Ward and the impact of the holocaust


January 27, 2013 by happyhenry

David Ward, Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford West, does not apparently understand why he has caused widespread offence with his statement that (in his amended version):

“The Holocaust was one of the worst examples in history of man’s inhumanity to man. When faced with examples of atrocious behaviour, we must learn from them. It appears that the suffering by the Jews has not transformed their views on how others should be treated.”

Ward has been widely condemned for this statement and has been accused of racism by other MPs. He has been criticised for comparing the industrial slaughter of millions in the holocaust to the very different scale of oppression of Palestinians. But the second part reflects the often expressed view that “of all people, you would expect the Jews to have learnt from the holocaust and treat the Palestinians differently.”

It always makes me angry to hear that. First, it shows a remarkable misunderstanding of psychology, suggesting that terrible hurts should somehow make people behave better. If we hear of a child who has suffered terrible abuse, we are not surprised when they go on to inflict abuse upon others. People do not say “after all they suffered, you would expect them to treat others better.”

It also seems to be an expectation that is only applied to Jews. There are many critiques of the Rwandan government, including the allegation that they are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Congo, but I have never seen questions as to why, after all their suffering, they could do such things.

There are some remarkable individuals whose people have endured terrible suffering and yet they have dedicated their lives to peace and reconciliation. Nelson Mandela is the most famous example. But they are seen as remarkable because of this ability to put aside their past distress. Nobody says “Oh yes, of course Nelson Mandela seeks peace with his neighbours. You would understand it after how badly apartheid treated black South Africa.”

There are, of course, many Jews who do take on reconciliation. I was deeply inspired last year to meet Israeli and Palestinian mothers, who have lost children in the conflict and have responded by seeking to build bridges and understand the other side – in the Parents Circle Family Forum. As Robi Damelin said on hearing of the death of her son: “You may not kill anybody in the name of my child.”

When the CIA briefed Ronald Reagan to meet foreign leaders, they would prepare a short film to help him understand the issues. The film about Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Began started with graphic footage of the holocaust. They saw that it was only in the context of that terrible past, and the fact that his parents were murdered by the Nazis, that you could understand modern Israel and its actions.

If you are in Tel Aviv and visit the Diaspora Museum you will see history as Israelis see it. Alongside a story of great learning and culture, you will also learn of a repeated pattern of attacks – from the Romans and before, through the expulsions of the middle ages, the genocide of the Spanish reconquest, the pogroms of Eastern Europe to, of course, the holocaust. Indeed the Jewish festivals that we are brought up with have, as one wit put it, been summarised as “They tried to kill us all. We survived. Let’s eat”.

It is not surprising that, with this history, Israelis find it hard to trust others. It is not surprising that a hurt and traumatised people inflicts hurt on others. And it is not surprising that, having occupied another people’s land, that it leads – as it has in all occupations – to terrible human rights violations. It is not because they are Jews but because they are occupiers.

Along with the other founders of Independent Jewish Voices I oppose the Israeli occupation, the blockade of Gaza and the invasions of Lebanon and Gaza, but I have no trouble in understanding the Israeli mindset and what has led to these actions.

I am deeply saddened by what the Israeli government continues to do, but I am also saddened by people who expect the Jews, and normally its only the Jews, to have become better people as a result of our terrible past. It feels like we are being told “Even after all that was done to you, still you haven’t learnt to be good”. And that view, I fear, may have very deep roots in Western anti-semitism.

3 thoughts on “David Ward and the impact of the holocaust

  1. Jane Jackman says:

    Thank you ‘happyhenry’ for this interesting and for me enlightening observation. I’m not Jewish but I do appreciate what you’re saying. However, I suggest your argument falls too easily into the well-worn defence: ‘it’s only the Jews who get treated like this’, and ‘what about the other human rights abusers?’ In other words, if I’m understand you aright, you’re saying that David Ward’s argument is anti-Semitic on grounds that Israel is singled out for criticism, an argument that rings hollow, relying primarily on the perception of Jews as perpetual victims. Also, just because we notice the abuses going on in Israel-Palestine, it doesn’t automatically follow that (because we’re non-Jewish) we don’t also object to what’s going on elsewhere. To the contrary, you’ll probably find that many of those raising their voices over Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians are similarly engaged with combating other abuses. The difference is that when they do, they don’t tend to be accused of being anti-African/Rwanda/Nigerian…etc. Someone has said (I think it was Michael Neumann) that when people make this argument, they don’t mean they wish people would care as much about the other victims, but that they would care less about the Palestinians.
    Further to this though, it can’t be ignored that in any case, the state Israel singles itself out as an ‘exceptional nation’, which can flout international law with impunity. In one sense, Israel certainly is exceptional, or at least unique, having emerged as a settler-colonial state at a time of global decolonisation (what the late Tony Judt calls ‘the twilight of the continental empires’) when driving out an indigenous population and settling another was beginning to be outlawed. Judt puts it well:
    ‘The problem with Israel, in short, is not – as is sometimes suggested – that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state” – a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded – is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.’
    Actually, contra Judt, I think the fact that it is also an outpost of Europe is relevant. We do expect more from a people whose roots are geographically and culturally similar to our own, and who choose to be identified with Europe in many ways – why else would it enter the European Song Contest?! We do expect a nation that relies on American and European money to adopt certain norms and adhere to human rights law…to end its occupation. Is it really any wonder that in witnessing the increasingly brutal oppression of the Palestinians, we Europeans recognise actions reminiscent of the oppression meted out on the Jews in wartime Germany? Instead of (over)reacting to people like David Ward, who may need to learn a thing or two about Jewish sensibilities, perhaps we’d do better trying to show Jewish Israelis what is being done in their name – because I believe many are kept in the dark about this – and by implication what is being done (whether they like it or not) in the name of Jews worldwide. And that really is dangerous. I thought that’s what IJV was all about…?

    • happyhenry says:

      Jane, Interesting thoughts but I’m not sure its a response to my post. Perhaps I explained myself badly. For me it is certainly acceptable to criticise the actions of the Israeli government, and we do so regularly at IJV. However it is not acceptable, in my view, to suggest that Jews should be better people because of the holocaust. That is the suggestion David Ward made and the focus of my post.

      And, yes, I absolutely think that is what IJV is about: Both standing up and criticising Israeli actions, as we do frequently, but also standing up and making clear when we believe criticisms of Israel or Jews are not acceptable.

  2. Jane Jackman says:

    Thanks for the discussion happyhenry but I’m still not convinced that what David Ward said should be interpreted as you suggest… that ‘Jews should be better people because of the Holocaust’. I don’t think he meant that at all. As I understand it, he meant that ‘because the Jews suffered the horrors of the Holocaust, one would think they would choose to avoid inflicting suffering on others…because they (of all people) know what it’s like.’ That doesn’t mean they should be better people because of the atrocity they suffered; it simply means we would expect them to act more justly than their tormenters did. If you were beaten up by a street gang because say they didn’t like the way you look/talk etc, I’d expect you to be traumatised. But I’d trust you wouldn’t go out and beat someone else up and take their property, then expect the community or magistrates to accept your behaviour (albeit understandable) as reasonable. Of course, we all realise Israel isn’t perpetrating a holocaust in Palestine – nobody is suggesting that – but the expropriation and occupation of Palestinian land bears certain hallmarks that unmistakably resonate with the lead-up to the Shoah eg exclusion and humiliation, walling in, confiscation of land and property, impoverishment, restrictions of movement and destruction of livelihoods. Maybe the problem begins with the way we use the word ‘Holocaust’ as a catch-all for the suppression of Jews in Nazi Germany to pave the way for the Shoah.
    Anyway, since David Ward uttered those words, we have another problem to think about…the Times cartoon…


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