Oct 2006 Journal

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An odious comparison: an open letter to Anthony Howard

Dear Anthony Howard
I was dismayed to hear you draw an explicit comparison, on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions of 21 July 2006, between Israel's military operations in Lebanon and the systematic murder of hostages by the armed forces of the Third Reich, in retaliation for the killing of German soldiers in occupied countries. I feel bound to respond because of the respect in which you are held, not least by me.

The Association of Jewish Refugees represents the Jews from Central Europe who fled to this country as victims of Nazi persecution, almost all of them having lost family members in the Holocaust and having seen the Jewish communities in which they lived wiped from the face of the earth. As the largest concentration of Holocaust victims in this country, they are now surely old enough to be spared ill-founded comparisons between the Jewish state and those who murdered their loved ones simply and solely because they were Jews.

When considering Israeli attacks on Lebanese targets, you said, your mind goes back to the reprisals taken by the wartime German army when its troops were killed by members of the resistance. In that case, I have to tell you that your mind was playing you tricks. The most obvious difference is that the Nazis had a clear tariff, whereby a set quota of civilian hostages was executed for each German casualty, whereas it is plain beyond dispute that the Israelis have no such tariff - the casualties they inflict are random in number and unplanned, indeed unintended. Many non-Jews (and Jews) found the level of the Israeli response to the initial Hezbollah provocation unacceptable, but recoiled from resorting to the easy inference that 'the Jews are just as bad as the Nazis'.

To criticise the Israeli reaction to the initial provocation as disproportionate is one thing, but to leap from that straight to a comparison of the Jewish state with the Third Reich displays a deplorable lack of proportion itself, as well as gross insensitivity to the feelings of Jews like the AJR's members. How do you think I feel when I hear the Jewish state equated to the murderers of my grandparents, deported among millions to a nameless death in the East for no other reason than that they were Jews? Or were you so keen to impress your radio audience with your facility for historical parallels that you didn't bother to think properly about moral equivalence at all?

You started from the mistaken premise that the ratio of Lebanese to Israeli civilian casualties - about ten to one - equalled the ratio of hostages executed by the Nazis in reprisal for attacks on their soldiers. To begin with, the notion that the ratio of one to ten is intrinsically significant is false. Nazi Germany's casualties in the war, at around 10 per cent of the population, were very close to ten times those suffered by Britain. What does that prove? More pertinently, the number of German civilians killed by the British, mostly by bombing, was close to ten times the number of British civilians killed by the Luftwaffe. Does that make the RAF the moral equivalent of the SS?

In reality, the usual ratio exacted by the Germans was savagely higher - in the case of senior figures, like the 'German general' whom you cite, tens or even hundreds of times higher. When Reinhard Heydrich, Reich governor of Bohemia and Moravia, was assassinated in Prague in 1942, the ratio was over one thousand to one; it included the entire village of Lidice, whose male population was shot and its women and children deported to concentration camps, whence some children were shipped to German 'homes'. Hitler himself repeatedly demanded the execution of 50 or 100 hostages for each German soldier killed; 50 Frenchmen were duly shot on 21 October 1941 in retaliation for the assassination by the French Resistance of the Feldkommandant of Nantes, and a similar ratio applied when 100 hostages were executed on 15 December 1941 at Fort Mont Valérien, Paris.

In the East, the Germans massacred hostages with such ferocity that one can hardly speak of anything as rational as quotas at all. But in the West, the German Army and the SS did use quotas, sometimes setting a ratio as low as ten hostages for one German soldier, though that was the exception. One such case was the notorious massacre carried out in the Ardeatine Caves near Rome in March 1944, where 335 people were executed in retaliation for the killing of 33 soldiers by the Italian Resistance. The SS had the victims transported to the Ardeatine Caves in groups of five. They were led into the caves with their hands tied behind their back and shot in the neck. Many were forced to kneel down over the bodies of those who had been killed before them. During the killings, it emerged that five extra hostages had been taken, but they were killed too.

The manner of the killing, cold-blooded and sadistically systematic, clearly differentiates it from anything that the Israelis have done in Lebanon, which is perhaps closer to the bombing of German cities by the RAF - but who, apart from apologists of Hitler à la David Irving, leaps to a comparison between Bomber Command's pilots and the Nazis? The first to use air power in the Middle East as a deterrent against guerrilla activity were the British, during their earlier, interwar occupation of Iraq, when the RAF strafed villages in retaliation for attacks on the occupying forces. Distasteful, yes - but hardly comparable to Nazi practices. The American bombing of Vietnam and the Italian bombing, under Mussolini, of Abyssinia were much worse, but nobody sensible now seriously compares them with the Nazis. Why must that ultimate insult be reserved for Israel, the Jewish state?

As for occupations of Muslim territories, the Russian occupation of Chechnya has been immeasurably more brutal and costly in lives than anything the Israelis have done in Lebanon (or elsewhere), but I doubt that it would ever occur to you to compare Presidents Yeltsin or Putin with the Nazis, even though the First Chechen War (1994-96) cost tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Much the same applies to the Indian occupation of Kashmir, though you would no doubt dismiss as absurd any comparison of Nazi Germany with India.

That is because only a regime like Hitler's can take the kind of measures that it did. After all, the killing of hostages was - if one may put it like that - at the mild end of the scale of Nazi atrocities. At the other end were such measures as the killing of over three million Soviet prisoners of war, the mass liquidation of the mentally and physically handicapped in Germany, and the racially inspired extermination of millions of Jews and gypsies - men, women and children - in the Holocaust. These measures have no parallel in anything ever done by the Israelis, hard though they have sometimes struck at their Arab foes.

Israel is a democracy - almost the only one in the Middle East - where Israeli Arabs, some 20 per cent of the population, enjoy rights unknown in Arab countries. Israel is a country under the rule of law, where the extreme repressive and murderous measures of the great totalitarian dictatorships are impossible, even in the occupied Palestinian territories. Hitler was able to treat his victim groups outside Germany with such savagery only because he had first destroyed all vestiges of democracy and democratic values inside Germany. That was the necessary precondition for the Nazi reign of terror in occupied Europe, and it does not apply in Israel.

So why is it that people who ought to know better leap so readily to the comparison between Nazi Germany and Israel? It is, of course, the most profoundly wounding insult that one can hurl at the Jewish state - and by extension at all Jews, including British Jews. If someone called me a 'bloody Jewboy', I'd merely think him/her mildly deranged; but the Nazi-Jewish comparison infuriates me, because it dishonours the memory of my grandparents and those countless others who were shot, starved, gassed and burnt by the million in the camps and ghettos of the East. Anyone who cannot see that is afflicted by grave moral and emotional insensitivity.

When people like you, the moral arbiters of the political press, open the door, those less fastidious flock through. On the right, Tory MP Sir Peter Tapsell, a throwback to the 1930s, compares Israeli actions against Hezbollah guerrillas with the annihilation of Warsaw Ghetto fighters by the SS. On the left, my local rag, the historically illiterate Camden New Journal, prints a letter using the Blitz to show that Israel takes 'Nazi' retaliatory measures, while Britain forbore from retributive bombing (tell that to the inhabitants of Dresden). God help us!

I appeal to you to reconsider your remarks, in the light of the hurt they cause to the community of Holocaust survivors in Britain.
Anthony Grenville

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