Posted by: sean | March 1, 2008

Israel threatens Gazans with a "shoah"

I spend a lot of time getting annoyed when people throw around the word “genocide” or “holocaust” when it’s not warranted. This often means rebuking Lebanese and Palestinian friends who want to call the Israeli occupation a genocide. The occupation is a lot of things, none of them savory, but a genocide it is not, and calling it one cheapens the word.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw last night that Israel’s deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, had threatened Palestinians in Gaza with a “shoah”:

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A senior Israeli defense official said on Friday that Palestinians firing rockets from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip would bring upon themselves what he termed a “shoah,” the Hebrew word for holocaust or disaster.

The word is rarely used in Israel outside discussions of the Nazi Holocaust of Jews. Many Israelis are loath to countenance its use to describe other contemporary events. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the Palestinians faced “new Nazis.”

Israeli air strikes have killed at least 33 Gazans, including five children, in the past two days. The army, which carried out additional air strikes on Friday, said most of those killed were militants.

I’m no Hebraist, but according to Reuters and common sense, “shoah,” like “holocaust” isn’t a word that’s tossed around lightly in Israel. And whenever there’s a comment by someone like Ahmadinejad, quoting Khomeini, saying that “the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time,” we get Israel supporters clamoring for the world to denounce the genocidal intent of the Iranian regime. So will these same people condemn Israel’s even more explicit language?

Just the other day on the Olin Institute’s Middle Eastern Strategy at Harvard blog, Stephen Peter Rosen was making a fuss about a comment that Ahmadinejad made calling Israel a “black and dirty microbe,” informing us that this change in discourse could be “associated with biological attacks or other unconventional mass killings.” 

So since Rosen says that he’s interested in tracking the discourse between Israel and Iran, I can imagine that the Harvard blog will soon have a post up warning of the impending “shoah” to be visited upon the Gazans. After all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right?

Of course not. If we look a the comments to Rosen’s post, we’re given the simple answer by Harvard’s specialist on Armenia, James Russell, that “Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah are obviously murderous and crazy.” I knew there was a simple answer!

UPDATE: Melanie Phillips at the Spectator is now claiming that “In Hebrew, the word ‘shoah’ is never used to mean ‘holocaust’ or ‘genocide’ because of the acute historical resonance.” (Italics hers.) Someone should get Claude Lanzmann on the phone to let him know he’s made a terrible mistake.

And for the record, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz has this to say about the remark:

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai went as far as threatening a “shoah,” the Hebrew word for holocaust or disaster. The word is generally used to refer to the Nazi Holocaust, but a spokesman for Vilnai said the deputy defense minister used the word in the sense of “disaster,” saying “he did not mean to make any allusion to the genocide.”

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