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The Futility of Evil

Comparing the horrors of the Holocaust to Israel’s actions in Gaza or Hamas’s vicious October 7 attack is misguided and anti-Semitic. Despite the profound trauma of the past few weeks, the tendency of both Israelis and Palestinians to portray the conflict as an existential battle against absolute evil will make things worse.

NEW YORK – In 2002, during a visit to Ramallah, Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer José Saramago compared the living conditions of Palestinians in the West Bank to the extermination of Jews in Auschwitz. This extraordinary remark triggered an international uproar, but Saramago asserted that as an intellectual, it was his duty to “make emotional comparisons that would shock people into understanding.”

Saramago was by no means the first (and surely not the last) to invoke Nazi Germany’s attempted annihilation of the Jewish people to condemn the actions of the Jewish state. In the final volume of A Study of History, published in 1961, the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee posited that, through Zionism, “Western Jews have assimilated Gentile Western civilization in the most unfortunate possible form. They have assimilated the West’s nationalism and colonization.” In his view, “the seizure of houses and lands and property of the 900,000 Palestinian Arabs who are now refugees” was “on a moral level with the worst crimes and injustices committed, during the last four or five centuries, by gentile Western European conquerors and colonists overseas.”

Every one of these assertions is absurd: the equation of Gentile Western crimes with “Gentile Western civilization”; the suggestion that most European Jews who migrated to Israel were nationalists, conquerors, and colonizers, rather than displaced refugees from pogroms and genocide; and the attempt to draw a moral equivalence between the seizure of Palestinian lands and property – however reprehensible – and the extreme violence against non-Western peoples by Western colonizers. One can only hope Toynbee was not including the crimes of Nazi Germany.