For me the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has served as the epitome of moral righteousness, courage and dignity; it has served as a moral compass of sorts. It has held an important place in how I understand justice and resistance. On Passover in 1943, when the Nazis entered the Warsaw Ghetto they met a fierce under-armed, very organized Jewish resistance. The resistance suffered much heavier losses than did the Nazis, but despite limited arms and numbers, the resistance lasted for over a month.
The Gaza Ghetto
I can no longer think about the Warsaw Ghetto without thinking about Gaza. The parallels between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto are frightening. For an excellent description of the conditions in Gaza before last winter’s massacre, see Sara Roy’s piece, "If Gaza Falls…"
A few of the more poignant parallels to me are the walled in closed border, the economic strangulation, and the heavy restrictions on food and other goods. The official unemployment rate in Gaza was at roughly 50% in December of 2008 (compared to 10 in the current recession here). Palestinians have had to destroy goods ready for export, imports are heavily restricted. Roy explains that in November 2008, United Nations Relief and Works Administration was limited to 6% of its needed food and the World Food Programme only received 18% of its needs. Before the Israeli attacks, 78% of Palestinians relied on food aid and UNRWA and WFP are the largest providers.
In the Warsaw Ghetto, inmates smuggled in food and other goods (including weapons) to supplement the starvation rations provided by the Nazis. Tunnels also played a key function in the uprising. Y.E. Bell writes:
The Jews went underground. They feverishly constructed bunkers and hideouts in anticipation of the final liquidation. The configuration was ingenious. Camouflaged entrances led to bunkers, secret rooms, attics, and basements that were inter-connected by newly constructed passageways. Through a maze of underground tunnels and sewers, the ZZW connected the Ghetto with "Aryan" Warsaw. Electricity was adroitly diverted from the Warsaw power grids. The resisters set up illegal radios to communicate with the various underground units. Food and supplies acquired from warehouses were cleverly stored. An extraordinary subterranean defense was erected in days.
During the Israeli massacre in December and January, there was tons of discussion of the tunnels running from Gaza to Egypt and how they were used to smuggle in weapons. Much of the bombing was targeted at destroying tunnels. And according to Palestinians working in the tunnel industry they destroyed 90% of the tunnels. Many of these tunnels were probably used to smuggle weapons (as they were in the Warsaw Ghetto), but it is completely apparent if you look at human needs versus Israeli restrictions that these tunnels also necessarily filled in as much of the gaps as they could. Al Jazeera Wrote in October of 2008:
Hundreds of tunnels under the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt are keeping many of the Palestinian territory’s 1.5 million impoverished residents supplied with food and fuel. Strict rules are imposed on what can be brought in – weapons, drugs and people-trafficking are prohibited – and tunnel operators are taxed.
Cast as security necessity, in reality Israeli bombings of tunnels are just another collective punishment designed to punish suffering Palestinians.
Never Forgive, Never Forget
There is a lot of discursive resistance to comparisons of the situations of Palestinians to other historical atrocities. Comparing the plight of Palestinians to apartheid South Africa or plight of Gaza to the holocaust is met with intense hostility. However, if we cannot take these historical atrocities and apply their lessons today, commemorating them holds little value. The situation in Palestine/Israel has its own historical specificity distinguishing it from the holocaust and from apartheid South Africa, but if we understand apartheid as exactly what happened in South Africa, there is no sense in defining it as a crime because it will never be repeated.
We need to look at what made the Warsaw Ghetto criminal: was it the exact density, the specific destruction of that economy, the exact limited food rations, the specific mechanism of isolation? Or was it that the borders were closed, that the economy was destroyed, that food and other necessities were heavily restricted, that people were isolated and powerless?
The Nazi resistance is afforded moral impunity. Nobody questions their moral right to defend themselves however they saw fit. They were completely disempowered and faced imminent death. My question is, where do we draw the line? At what point are people afforded that infinite righteousness? Should Palestinians be afforded that? Are we judging them by the same criteria? Do you need to face imminent death in a gas chamber or is it enough to face indiscriminate bombing and be denied any kind of economy, sufficient food or freedom?
Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians is not the moral equivalent of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. But it does not have to be. No, this is not genocide, but it is repression, and it is brutal. And it has become frighteningly natural. Occupation is about the domination and dispossession of one people by another. It is about the destruction of their property and the destruction of their soul. Occupation aims, at its core, to deny Palestinians their humanity by denying them the right to determine their existence, to live normal lives in their own homes. Occupation is humiliation. It is despair and desperation. And just as there is no moral equivalence or symmetry between the Holocaust and the occupation, so there is no moral equivalence or symmetry between the occupier and the occupied, no matter how much we as Jews regard ourselves as victims.