Fighting continues to rage in Gaza: rocket barrages on Israeli civilians in the North and the South persist; 136 hostages remain in captivity of Hamas; and some 200,000 Israelis remain internally displaced due to security threats against towns and cities in both regions. Yet many Jews, both in Israel and around the world, have started to grapple with the need to make some preliminary sense of the traumatic events of Oct. 7. The passage of over 100 days has not numbed the fact that October 7 and its aftermath has been the deadliest period for Jews since the Holocaust.
One of the nagging questions for many is how to define the brutal rampage of murder, rape and assault by thousands of seasoned terrorists and average Gazans who streamed into Israel on that fateful day. One term frequently used by victims, observers and the general public is that this was a “Holocaust”—or at least a Holocaust-like event. Indeed, many of the victims I have met describe reliving the Holocaust-era experiences of their parents and grandparents as they were hunted down by the terrorists, hid from them in closets, played dead in ravines, were brutalized and suffered feelings of helplessness and abandonment. Holocaust comparisons have been rife. The issuance of emergency foreign passports to some hostages, aiming to enhance their chances of release, evokes memories of the foreign documents—both genuine and forged—used to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
Other parallels are striking. Like the Nazis, Hamas seeks the annihilation of the Jews, as clearly stated in its founding charter. Like the Nazis who targeted B’nai B’rith first among all the Jewish organizations in Germany, the charter accuses B’nai B’rith of being among the organizations established by the Jews to gain world influence. Like the Nazis, Hamas terrorists murdered Jews indiscriminately on Oct. 7 and before; even dedicated peace activists, including my associate Vivian Silver, were not spared. The destruction visited upon Gaza and its residents by the IDF’s response to the massacre of Oct. 7 is of no consequence to the Hamas leadership who vows to repeat Oct. 7 again and again—just as the encroaching defeat and collapse of Nazi Germany did not end their persecution of the Jews until the Reich breathed its last breath.
Like the Nazis, Hamas and its affiliated terrorist organizations indoctrinate their entire society from infancy in murderous hatred toward Jews. This can be found in television programming, school books, summer camps and glorification of murderers in the naming of schools, squares and public buildings. As pointed out by Holocaust historian Professor Gideon Greif, a central feature of the Nazi treatment of the Jews was gratuitous humiliation before execution, something that was a feature of many of the over 1,200 murders by Hamas marauders on Oct. 7. Gruesome testimonies of Oct. 7 survivors and first responders disclose incidents of slow torture, rape and sexual violence in front of children and spouses as well as mocking and using hostages as decoys. Unlike the Nazis who tried to cover up their crimes, Hamas terrorists were proud to brag live on social media as they relished the atrocities. Parallels have even been drawn between residents of the Warsaw Ghetto, who after nearly a month of resistance against the Nazis were finally crushed by the use of flamethrowers. Similarly, many residents of the 20 communities attacked on Oct. 7 burned or suffocated to death. Once again, whole communities are erased.
The trial against Israel that began two weeks ago at the International Count of Justice in The Hague also strings a historical cord between the two events separated by 80 years. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, under which Israel is being tried, was developed in the immediate aftermath of World War II, with the Holocaust as the yardstick against which all subsequent genocides would be judged. Still in the legal realm, the imminent trials of captured Hamas commandos (Nukhba) and other captured terrorists promise to be watershed moments, unparalleled since the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann who, singularly in Israeli history, was sentenced to death. Indeed, many are calling on the prosecution to try the Oct. 7 perpetrators for the crimes outlined in the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law that would be amended ex post facto to cover crimes against humanity perpetrated on Oct. 7 and carry the death penalty.
Obviously, the Holocaust, spanning years and resulting in millions of deaths, does not easily allow drawing parallels with an event that took place over a period of 24 to 48 hours in which 1,200 people—some 400 of them soldiers—were killed, more than in any other day since the Holocaust. Sill, like the Holocaust, the effects of Oct.7 will present challenges to the Jewish psyche unlike anything experienced since those events that were purportedly never to happen again—definitely not since the establishment of the State of Israel.
With International Holocaust Remembrance Day coming up on Jan. 27, public officials, Jewish educators and directors of Holocaust commemoration institutions will have to consider how the specter of the Holocaust will be repositioned in the collective Jewish conscience. Significant Jewish suffering and heroism unfold today, as a tsunami of anti-Semitism set off by the events of Oct. 7 washes over countries around the world. Opinions are split about using Holocaust rhetoric and symbols to describe the events of Oct. 7.
Israel’s U.N. ambassador Gilad Erdan set off a maelstrom of both support and opprobrium when he demonstratively donned a yellow star inscribed with the quote “Never Again” as he addressed the U.N. Security Council on Oct. 30, pledging to wear the badge until members of the body condemned Hamas. “From this day on, each time you look at me you will remember what staying silent in the face of evil means,” Erdan told members of the Security Council, accusing them of forgetting that the U.N. was created as the response of the international community to the devastation of World War II and the genocide of the Holocaust. But Dani Dayan, Chairman of Yad Vashem (which is charged by law with maintaining the uniqueness of the Holocaust in world history) was quick to criticize Erdan’s gesture for “dishonor[ing] both the victims of the Holocaust and the State of Israel”, arguing that “The yellow patch symbolizes the helplessness of the Jewish people and being at the mercy of others. Today we have an independent country and a strong army. We are masters of our destiny. Today we place a blue-white flag on the lapel, not a yellow patch.” Professor Dina Porat, Yad Vashem chief historian, expressed a similar grasp of events, writing in Haaretz that “Saying now that ‘we are experiencing another Holocaust’ is an expression of anxiety and rage at the events of October 7 without actually asserting that the Holocaust as such is reoccurring. Thankfully, we now live in a sovereign Jewish state that can defend itself. The spirit of volunteerism and sharing appears to have reunited our citizenry. That too is the decisive distinction between then and now, between there and here.”
Two other Holocaust scholars, Avinoam Patt, director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Connecticut and a member of the “Jews Rescuing Jews” forum at Bar- Ilan University’s Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research (A forum in which I coordinate) and Liat Steir-Livny, associate professor of Holocaust, Film & Cultural Studies at Sapir Academic College near Sderot in southern Israel ( a frequent target of Hamas rocket fire), wrote in December that after spending decades arguing that the Holocaust should remain unique and not be compared with other atrocities, “the October 7 massacres perpetrated by Hamas changed our thinking… The frequent comparisons between the Oct. 7 massacres and the Shoah are more, we believe, than just the default associations of a people submerged in Holocaust post memory, which refers to inherited and imagined memories of subsequent generations who did not personally experience the trauma. In seeking to describe the depths of evil they witnessed on Oct. 7, Israelis were making more than just an emotional connection between the Holocaust and the Oct. 7 massacres… Oct. 7 is not the same as the Holocaust. Even so, we can use the study of the Holocaust to understand the traumatic and devastating encounters between Hamas terrorists and their victims on Oct. 7.”
Drawing very real policy conclusions from the Holocaust-Hamas analogies, Patt and Steir-Livny conclude that while “[i]t might be a trivialization of the Holocaust to simply label Hamas as the “new Nazis,” …our analysis reveals that recognizing their eliminationist antisemitism means there can be no return to the pre-Oct. 7 status quo, when Israel’s policy was to accommodate Hamas’ control of the Gaza strip.”
Whereas Oct. 7 was not—and could not be—a repeat of the Holocaust, many of its features set off the trauma built deep into our Jewish tissue and psyche. It will be a challenge of the State of Israel now as the winds of a regional war grow, to prove that despite this most terrible of traumas, the promise of Zionism to create a safe haven for Jews—and the tens of thousands who have paid the ultimate price for the survival of the State of Israel—was not in vain.
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B’nai B’rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B’nai B’rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, click here.