Almost immediately after the events of October 7th, Israeli leaders compared the day’s atrocities to those of the Holocaust. Speaking to other heads of state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likened the Nova Festival to the 1941 massacre at Babi Yar and described Kibbutz children hiding in attics like Anne Frank. “We’re fighting Nazis,” declared former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in the wake of the attack which left 1,200 dead and 240 kidnapped.
President Biden, for his part, echoed these themes. While in Tel Aviv the following week, he observed that, “[October 7th] became the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.” “The world watched then,” he added, “it knew, and the world did nothing. We will not stand by and do nothing again.”
As the conflict has raged on, other world leaders have flipped this comparison: Colombian President Gustavo Petro claimed that Gaza resembles the Warsaw Ghetto, and Russian President Vladimir Putin likened the IDF’s ground invasion to Hitler’s siege of Leningrad.
Our discourse on social media hinges on similar—if heightened—appeals to Holocaust memory. Scores of posts compare the Palestinian territory to internment camps. This month, an NPR Instagram reel showed detained Gazans wearing numbered armbands administered by Israeli police. Immediately, a flood of commentators compared these to the arm tattoos of camp inmates. (“I wonder where I’ve seen that before…” reads the top comment.) At the same time, Jewish users on TikTok and Instagram challenge non-Jewish friends with the viral #WouldYouHideMe campaign, warning of another genocide.
We seem to be mired in a world with only one analogy. Godwin’s Law tells us that, on a long enough timeline, all internet debates end up with someone comparing their opponent to Hitler or the Nazis. Surely, we now need a corollary: every argument about injustice will eventually lead to someone comparing their side to the Holocaust.
There are reasons to resist this. The Holocaust is not the sole rubric for human suffering; Jewish history in particular has other, perhaps closer analogies to October 7th, including pogroms, with their wild, insurgent terror, as scholar Michael Berenbaum observed.
But this inflated Holocaust rhetoric is also not surprising. Trauma has a protected status in our debates, particularly among young adults. In the warped machinery of social media, where provocation begets fear, and where personalizing terrible news can have a cathartic valence, nothing hits harder than the worst thing ever. To put yourself in the Shoah is to claim an unchallengeable place in online argument.
We should be skeptical of this, and even more skeptical when political leaders make these claims. Almost always, they’re used only to incite hatred and touch already raw nerves.
On the Palestinian side, we saw this in October from Turkish President Erdoğan. He rallied a crowd in Istanbul, declaring, “In the past they were massacring the Jewish people in the gas chambers… A similar mentality is being shown [by the IDF] in Gaza today.” This kind of talk does not humanize Palestinians – it instrumentalizes them as tokens. Their unique challenges disappear. There’s no reason why, if you were so inclined, you’d compare what’s happening in Gaza to the Holocaust instead of to the Rwandan, Armenian, or other genocide. Except for one important fact. This rhetoric grants the speaker an embedded defense: I can call the Jews the new Nazis, because I admit what the old Nazis did to the Jews. (That Erdoğan has previously downplayed the Holocaust should not be lost on us.)
Israeli leadership has not been careful with Holocaust comparisons, either. Take Israel’s envoy to the U.N., which, on October 30th, chose to don yellow Stars of David while speaking to the Security Council. This display may generate headlines, and perhaps sympathy, but it is not a proportionate historical comparison. The entire point of those yellow stars is that they were worn by people who couldn’t choose to take them on or off. Nor could they speak in their national assemblies, much less at the main forum for global relations.
To point this out is not antisemitic or anti-Israel. The opposite, in fact. Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said as much last year, when he told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “I hate comparing, in any way, anything to the Holocaust… nothing today could be the Holocaust, because there is such a thing as the State of Israel, which is capable of defending itself.” If we believe in the protective promise of Israel, we must, to some degree, doubt the threat of another Shoah.
Yet some Israeli and Western policymakers want to have it both ways. Since Menachem Begin in particular, Israel’s leaders have engaged in what Thomas Friedman called the “Holocausting” of the Israeli psyche, using historical trauma to advance their agendas. The country, Friedman cautioned, was at risk of becoming “Yad Vashem with an air force”—a garrison state claiming “Never Again” as its battle cry. The two concepts are hardly unrelated. Holocaust memory—or mis-memory—can justify militarism at any scale.
This is the real danger of overusing such analogies. Holocaust comparisons are not just thought-terminating clichés: They are ideological weapons of mass distraction. By conjuring the rail tracks and smokestacks and their attendant horrors too often or in politicized moments, we don’t just disgrace the victims of the Shoah—their unique experience and heroism—we also chart a poor course for the future.
In war, we talk a lot about proportionality: What is a reasonable, equitable military response to an event? If that event is the same as the worst thing that ever happened, what won’t we allow ourselves to do in return?
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