Opinion: The moral fog of averting our gaze in Gaza

Image by Samir Basante Valencia from Pixabay
Sunday 10 December 2023

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

I have walked among the plinths of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and I’ve seen the piles of shoes and school books in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. Nothing compares.

The sombre strength of the 2,711 concrete “stelae” in the heart of the German capital is palpable – an immovable defiance of the fanatical hatred and efficient logistics brought together to industrialise a genocide – what philosopher Hannah Arendt termed the “banality of evil”.

It sprawls across 1900 square metres of CBD under which you can read the names of some 3 million murdered Jews – around half the number starved, tortured and then gassed or shot by the German Nazis and their vassal state collaborators.

Most of the names were supplied by Yad Vashem.

Staggering as they are, these numbers still fail to convey the full depravity of categorising a whole people as vermin in order to make their extermination acceptable.

We comfort ourselves that it took a deranged cult-like fervour to normalise such a hideous project.

But we should remember that it relied not only on the complicity of German civil society but on the blind-eye turned by other nations as the Jews were persecuted and dehumanised through the 1930s. To Hitler, that indifference constituted permission.

“Burned deep into the DNA of many Jews is how The West abandoned them in the 1930s & so they no longer trust anyone who isn't 100% behind Israel - their "fortress" against Holocaust,” wrote the independent observer of Australian politics Andrew Catsaras last week.

Catsaras reminds us to understand the psychological effect of such horrors from the victims’ perspective.

The anti-Semitic hatred which touched off the current crisis – Hamas’s murder/rape/kidnap spree of October 7 – brought the highest Jewish death toll since the Holocaust.

This was no accident but rather a deliberate design feature of an assault aimed at reviving and extending the Holocaust trauma. It too, was unspeakable evil.

But does this unconscionable history broaden Israel’s military license to disregard civilians in the name of its own defence?

Must good-faith critics of the years-long blockade of Gaza and the accelerating annexation per force of the occupied West Bank, always have their motives impugned with anti-Semitism, and with giving succour to terrorism?

It is the bitterest of historical ironies that as the death toll in Gaza surpasses 17,000 – 7000 of them children – the world is once again at a moral moment. The choice is to turn the other way or to assess squarely a military objective which explicitly accepts as its “collateral” cost, the lives of tens of thousands of innocents.

Adding to that irony is that among violent ultra-nationalists in Bibi Netanyahu’s coalition, there is an openly expressed claim of racial superiority.

Here’s the renowned Jewish-Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari: “It’s the feeling that we are superior to everybody,” he told the British podcast, The Rest is Politics – Leading, in July.

“And they say so openly, they chant in the streets – it is difficult to translate from Hebrew – but basically [the ultra-nationalists] are saying that Jewish lives and Jewish souls are superior to the lives and souls of Arabs or of non-Jews”.

These are not historical equivalences with the Holocaust, but neither are they nothing.

Ehud Olmert, the conservative prime minister who preceded Netanyahu believes Hamas must now be defeated, but he is equally frank about the culpability of his far-right successor.

“Let it be clear, Netanyahu is a national historical disaster for Israel, he has to go,” Olmert said last week.

“I think that he is a danger to Israel, that he should be immediately fired.”

Olmert had even tougher words for Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir whom he labelled “butchers, killers, murderers and terrorists”.

Another former PM, Ehud Barak actually invited Australia to speak frankly about the war, telling the Nine papers, “I would expect you to tell us honestly what you think about it … it is worth hearing the sober observations of friends.”

Tony Klug, an expert on the 75-year conflict laments that long-running disputes like Apartheid South Africa, Northern Ireland, and even the Cold War were resolved last century, while Israel-Palestine has grown more wicked with every new settlement in the West Bank, every Palestinian village surrounded.

Through it all, the Americans have stayed fast, mouthing stern words on occasions but never going further. This also has become permission for provocations and encroachments prejudicial to peace.

That changed, if only fractionally in recent days, when the US State Department announced visa bans could be placed on settlers found to have participated in violence and intimidation in the occupied West Bank where the Palestinian death toll since October 7 has exceeded 200 according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Klug argues that international players, principally the US, have facilitated this rolling failure by being less critical of Israeli government actions than they should have been.

But in Australia, Peter Dutton eschews such complexities. He makes no criticisms of settlements policy and says little of the nightly vision – excluded from Israeli TV news bulletins – of critically wounded infants being rushed into collapsing Gazan hospitals.

Instead Dutton focuses on the “moral fog” that “makes anti-Semitism permissible” in Australia.

“We stand with Israel, always, because Israel is our long-standing ally” he told the Rabbinical Council of NSW on Monday decrying what he called “instances of moral cowardice, of moral equivalence, of moral ambiguity and of moral qualification”.

But if there is a moral fog in Australia, it is not calls for a ceasefire but the proposition that you can have selective human rights and take a selective stand against bigotry. These are universal values – that’s their point.

Put simply, you are either against racism, or you’re not.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  11 December 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications