comparisons

by tobybee

Why are historical comparisons, at times, useful? As a historian who writes comparative history, it’s a question I am forced to address in my work. I find—as do many other historians—that by placing two different scenarios, or events, or examples, alongside each other, something is illuminated in both. We have the potential to learn something new by considering matters in comparison.

This is a vital difference between comparison and competition. As I learnt when I studied Comparative Genocide Studies at high school, it is useful to think about different genocides in comparison because then we can grasp more fully the complexity of genocide, and the many different ways in which it can be practiced. It is never useful, however, to play competitive genocide studies: to allege that one genocide is worse than another—or that one event is not a genocide—because of the number of people who were murdered, or the ways in which they were murdered. Every murder, we learnt through CGS, is tragic; every genocide looks different, and yet remains tragic. Every genocide, at times, does not look like genocide and at other times appears to be genocide par excellence.

In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen an explosion of writing regarding a Michael Leunig cartoon that was printed in the Age and which received in response allegations of antisemitism from many in the Melbourne Jewish community. The cartoon repeats Pastor Niemoller’s famous statement:
“First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.”

but turns it instead into:

And a series of men have written their responses in various newspapers: Harold Zwier, Leunig himself, Dvir Abramovich, and finally today Nick Dyrenfurth. (aside pro-tip: if you want to access an article that’s behind a paywall, you just need to google the title of the article. The whole thing then turns up)

The argument, somewhere along the line, has turned into the utility of comparisons between Nazi Germany and Israel: such comparisons have been called intellectually lazy or offensive, amongst other things. But what is missing in such criticisms is, seemingly, an awareness of what constituted the Holocaust. The Holocaust, surely, is not just Auschwitz. It is not just industrial murder. It is also a denial of citizenship, the killing of random people on the street, the gathering of people into particular areas of town, the creation of refugees, the hate speech, the ignorance, the discriminatory legislation, the countless number of other small (and not so small) acts of brutality that together constitute what we now gather together under the name of the Holocaust. And this is, I would suggest, a problem for Holocaust historiography: what do we forget, what do we leave out, when we gather it all together under this one rubric? For if people suggest that the Holocaust stands always and only for the death camps, then whose experiences are they denying, whose stories are they silencing?

Leunig’s cartoon, it seems to me, is not about—or not just about—the Holocaust. It is a call to action, a reminder that the Holocaust is one moment when action was lacking. What are others? When do we silence ourselves because of disinterest, or fear of personal repercussions? How can we rethink our responsibilities to others?

For a comparison between the Holocaust and what Israel is doing to Palestinians is, yes, imperfect. As all comparisons are. But what it reminds us is that comparisons are useful. Is Israel undertaking industrial murder? No, not that I know of. Is Israel using the tools of modern industrial capitalism to persecute Palestinians? Absolutely: in the use of prisons, checkpoints, and drones. Is Israel stripping some Palestinians of their citizenship, making them stateless? Absolutely. That one’s a no-brainer. Are Palestinians forced to live in particular areas? Again, absolutely. Is genocide not happening because not all Palestinians are dead yet? Absolutely not. If one looks at the UN definition of genocide (and there are good reasons to turn to it, and good reasons not to, but regardless,) then we see that the measure of what constitutes genocide is not whether a group completely destroys another, but whether there is intent to destroy a particular form of group, in whole or in part, as such. There are numerous ways in which this can be carried out: cultural genocide is one, physical murder another. The physical destruction of the group need not happen for genocide to be occurring.

For after all, this is what has been missing in this discussion about the Leunig cartoon: an account of the various diverse experiences of Palestinians. Instead of taking the opportunity to look at the various different ways in which genocide can occur, taking a moment to consider genocides in historical perspective and in comparison with one another, to illuminate something about the nature of genocide and what people in the world will tolerate, support, or condemn, this ‘controversy’ has proved to have provided a way to make the discussion about Israelis, Zionism, and Jews, and their various neuroses.

By placing different historical moments in comparison—and I’m not even sure that this is what Leunig’s cartoon actually did, it seems to me to be more of a critique of a sense in the world that there are certain types of speech which are not socially permissible, and a critique of those of us who silence ourselves out of fear of the social repercussions—we have the capacity to learn something about each of them. We can be reminded of complexity and nuance, and remember that the Holocaust didn’t begin with Auschwitz.

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