From Vileyka to Palestine

Between Minsk and Vilnius, on the western bank of the Neris (Viliya) River, lies the town of Vileyka, today part of Belarus. In 1939, it was seized from Poland and annexed to the Soviet Union as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The town was occupied by the Nazi army on 26 June 1941, a day and twenty one years before I was born in Buenos Aires, far away from my father’s ancestors’ land of Vileyka.

By the turn of century, Vileyka had grown rapidly to become the central city of its county. Just before the war it was populated by close to fifteen thousand citizens, almost half of them Jews. The Jewish community in Vileyka was very active, culturally, educationally, of course split along religious arguments, and many also engaged in diverse Zionist groups and initiatives including emigration to Palestine.

As a young Zionist leader, Menachem Begin visited Vileyka in 1936, and a year later, a group of Jewish activists organised a boycott against the cinema house and successfully prevented the screening of German movies. Their political model was clear-cut: they boycotted German art because of its complicity with German policy.

Not all of my great-grandparents’ children left the place in time. My grandfather Yochanan left for Argentina, where he changed his name to Juan. One of his brothers, Boris, fought the Nazis as a soldier in the Red Army. Sonia, Nadia, Haya, and Mitka also fled. Their father, Moshe Swirsky, was a forest merchant and well-respected community leader; as my cousin Irene Shaland narrates:

Though agnostic and non-observant, he donated money to build the new synagogue and was one of the synagogue’s last presidents. Knowing that the war was imminent, Moshe Swirsky refused to leave his hometown…he thought he knew the Germans well from their frequent visits to Baden-Baden and his business dealings, and considered them to be a highly cultural nation.

Yet, Moshe and my great-grandmother Miriam nee Rudensky, who devoted her time to ‘tzedakah’ (charity work), and two of their children – Fania and Berta and their families – were all slaughtered by the Nazis together with the vast majority of the Vileyka Jewry. It is thought that Moshe was murdered in the wood of Malouni on 17 July 1941, together with another hundred and fifty men. Probably the rest of the family perished the year after on Purim – 3 March 1942 – when more than two thousand men, women and children were savagely killed by Nazi soldiers, and their bodies burnt in a pit in the prison yard of Vileyka, their home town.

Vileyka market, 1920s

No mistakes, I presume, were made by the Vileyka Jews moments before their death in regards to their executioners; the language used to shout and execute the orders planned in Berlin, the uniforms, the loyal and fearful dogs, and the dehumanising attitude – all converging in genocidal German routines. No testimony evidences that these Jews ever heard of the alleged machinations against them by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini. No story of this kind has been passed in the family, not even from Berta – one of my grandfather’s sisters – who immigrated to Palestine but found her death at the hands of the Nazis soon after she came back to Vileyka with her daughter, leaving her husband Betsalel to find a way to earn a living. I would not rule out that Berta, amongst her many stories about Palestine, would mention how in urban centres, native Palestinians and some Jewish immigrants found themselves cohabiting, before Zionist machines destroyed that form of civil life. Yet, this unequivocal history proves to be irrelevant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who, in a speech at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem recently, absolved the Nazi regime from being held responsible for conceiving the Holocaust. For Netanyahu, asserting Palestinian inborn and ahistorical hatred of Jews justified the means.

Amusingly, Netanyahu’s speech contradicts the Zionist narrative in which Palestinians figure as the latest incarnation of Amalek, after and not before the Nazis. Namely, the idea of the Palestinians as an existential threat to Jewish existence emerged in response to the growing Palestinian resistance amounting from late 1960s onwards; before that, and since late nineteenth century, Zionism conceived the ‘Palestinian problem’ in less dramatic ways, as a soluble problem of settler-colonisation. Corresponding to the resilience of Palestinians and their stubborn love for life, in Israeli public discourse as much as an educational goal, the hatred of the near-at-hand Palestinian became the perfect replacement of the long forgone unreachable Nazi.

This is how Israeli attitudes towards the Palestinian people were conditioned, partially by means of the Holocaust. How exactly? For post-war Israeli politicians and educators, the Holocaust was pregnant with the most cherished treasure a voracious national movement can hope for: an immediate and fresh justification to use violence as an axiom of self-defence against the enduring existential threat posed by the Palestinians, who, so the story goes, followed on from the Nazis, who in turn followed on from others.

Against this narrative, as well as the facts of history, Netanyahu’s speech seems peculiar because it dislocates the chronological place Zionism assigned to Palestinians in the chain of the hatred of the Jew. But if contextualised, Netanyahu’s speech makes quite a lot of sense, and in fact, I cannot but characterise as hypocritical the Zionist critiques who quickly ridiculed him. Beyond the political oddity and repulsive temperament of the Israeli Prime Minister, his words strongly resonate with the ways by which Israel opted to educate its citizens and to found their political culture – as based on the belief that living together with the Palestinians is unrealistic because of their innate hatred of Jews.

If until recently – in the minds of Jewish-Israelis – Palestinians found themselves inheriting the Nazi legacy and perhaps just competing with it, the last twenty years or so have changed their positioning on the hate ladder. In their ambition to have it all – land and domination from the Sea to the River – Israeli institutions, law, and policies went too far with their disciplinary and violent logic against Palestinians, to the point that it makes sense today, for a well-trained Jewish-Israeli, to conceive the ‘Palestinian threat’ as not any less ominous than the Nazi regime was. Many in my own family in Israel have internalised this obscene attitude towards Palestinians; they inherited nothing from the family legacy of fighting fascism, but the opposite. From this perverse point of view, Palestinians cease to be just another link in the chain of the historical hatred of the Jew to become an essential reason in itself: an indelible source of anti-Semitic evil. Surely this belief could not thrive in the Jewish-Israeli society without the Zionist reversal of cause and effect that places dispossession and oppression always as a result of Palestinian resistance, rather than its original reason.

What, then, do the words of Israel’s utmost official voice tell us? They expose the blatant betrayal of the victims of the Holocaust, a pillar of Zionist politics. My ancestors, Vileyka’s Jews – were not slaughtered in vain, Zionists plotted. Their Holocaust was made an instrument, a resource to place the Palestinian people on the historical plane of the hatred of the Jew and hence, to justify their dispossession and the barbaric violence that enabled it. The unequivocal premise of this justification was and remains the Zionist rejection of the universal commitment to fight fascism – to prevent the horror happening again and not just to the Jews. But the horror of the Holocaust communicates no universal message for Zionists. No common shield of love was made of the slaughter. As my Vileyka family were in that prison, we all have remained forsaken.

Here lies the betrayal. Netanyahu’s speech – ‘the Nazis did not really mean to do it’ – epitomises the danger of making the Holocaust a national instrument. If the Holocaust has no intrinsic value for humanity – if it fails to affect beyond tribal pledges – neither do its truths, or its stories and horrors, have intrinsic value, and these can be used arbitrarily at will. This is how Zionist reasoning finally finds itself where it belongs, within the camp of the Holocaust deniers. Not only did the Holocaust not make me and others Zionists, but becoming a Zionist and taking part in the manufacturing of dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people – becoming an active part in the Israeli melting pot of hatred – would inevitably putrefy our humanity.

Flirting with holocaustic themes to justify the continuing oppression of the Palestinians is also actively practised these days by Israel and many Zionist Jewish organisations in their attempt to counter the Palestinian call for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS). Basically, their main argument is that BDS is anti-Semitic. A few days ago, France’s highest court of appeals confirmed such a view in ruling that promoters of boycotts against Israel are guilty of inciting hate and discrimination. Strikingly, the UK-based group Jewish Human Rights Watch compares boycott of Israel to the Nazi boycott of Jews.

To start with, I would suggest that the more accurate and appropriate comparison is rather between the oppressive conditions that 1930s Nazi Germany’s Jews and Palestinians historically share. Furthermore, there is no common criterion in the comparison of BDS with the Nazi boycott, but only a plea to summon the bad historical smell that accusing Jews has. Other than that, the counter-BDS argument has nothing. Yet, in order to persuade the world that BDS does accuse Jews just because of their communal belonging, the Zionist argument needs to dissociate between the racial affiliation of the doers and their deeds, and disengage from any discussion of the latter.

In short, the position advanced in the anti-BDS argument is that one should not judge – and indeed is prohibited from judging – the acts and practices perpetrated by Israelis against Palestinians, for the deeds are committed by Jews, the direct descendants of the Nazi horror, and thus beyond reproach and incapable of being described as a crime. That the Nazi horror has been vulgarised and used in this way, and that the memory of our families has been viciously appropriated by a nationalistic urge – for the sake of further violent use – is to the sadness and shame of all Jews.

As the Nazis and other anti-Semitics did before, the Zionist argument against BDS de-contextualises Jewishness, making it a mystical category not to be judged or reflected upon. The fact that today this approach asks to absolve Jewish-Israelis from their complicity with crimes against humanity to let them continue about their business, while in the past it made Jews into victims, only reflects the vicissitudes of political power. This model stands in sharp contrast with the boycott of those brave Vileyka Jews who, aware of the Nazi boots approaching their village, dared to challenge the beast. It is in this sort of circumstances that BDS finds historical inspiration and ethical and political justification.

Marcelo Svirsky

Marcelo Svirsky is a Senior Lecturer at the School for Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong. He researches on questions of social transformation and subjectivity, decolonisation, settler-colonial societies and political activism. He focuses on the Middle East, particularly Israel-Palestine, and addresses these topics by drawing on continental European philosophy, particularly the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Giorgio Agamben and Michel Foucault. He has published several articles in the journals Cultural Politics, Subjectivity, Intercultural Education, Deleuze Studies, and Holy Land and Palestine Studies among others, and various books and edited collections: Deleuze and Political Activism (Edinburgh University Press, 2010); Arab-Jewish Activism in Israel-Palestine (Ashgate, 2012); Agamben and Colonialism with Simone Bignall (Edinburgh University Press, 2012); After Israel: Towards Cultural Transformation (Zed Books, 2014), and he recently edited a special issue of the Australian journal Settler Colonial Studies under the title Collaborative Struggles in Australia and Israel-Palestine.

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  1. Estimado Marcelo: emocionante leer De Vileyka a Palestina, me hizo llorar!!!! Muy profundo todo tu pensamiento y desarrollo de comparaciones. Admirable. Te felicito!!!!

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