The Gaza Ghetto At 2010
By Avigail Abarbanel
24 February, 2010
Growing up in Israel, one of the most striking things I learned about the Holocaust was that the Nazis were not just content to kill Jews. They wanted to rob them of their human dignity, to dehumanise them. This policy was particularly evident in the way the Nazis created and ran their infamous ghettos. One of the most well-known of those was the Warsaw ghetto.
The Warsaw ghetto was created by sealing off a section of the city and trapping the Jewish population within its walls. The wall that surrounded the ghetto was 3.5 metres high and had barbed wire and broken glass at the top. It took a long time and cost a lot of money to build. The Gates were heavily guarded and the guards would shoot anyone who tried to enter or leave without permission. The policy was 'shoot to kill’ because the lives of those inside the ghetto had no value. They were walking dead, abandoned by the social rules and laws that safeguarded human rights.
The Nazis had complete control over the amount of food, water and other essentials that were allowed into the ghetto. They dictated how much and what was allowed in. Everything was rationed to create a deliberate shortage, to make sure that there wasn’t enough for everyone and that nutrition was inadequate. As a child growing up in Israel I read stories about people’s struggle to feed their children in the ghetto. I remember how horrified and guilty I felt reading a story about a mother trying to convince her reluctant daughter to eat potato peels because that’s all that was available. Although I was so young, the mother’s powerlessness in the story was very clear to me.
Naturally life within the ghetto deteriorated rapidly. With inadequate living conditions, poor sanitation, no healthcare or medicine, overcrowding, shortage of water, food and clothing, the signs began to show on the people. Disease and death were rampant. Smuggling of food and essentials into the ghetto became a vital function, at a great cost to those volunteering to do the job. The black market flourished. Competition over food turned some people ruthless as they were trying to help themselves and loved-ones survive one more day. Mental health deteriorated rapidly. The Nazis controlled the social and political organisation of the ghetto and made sure that Jews turned against one another. They created policies deliberately designed to elicit and encourage the worst traits in human nature. Some Jews stole from other Jews and some people betrayed others just to survive another day. Worst of all, they had no idea what was going to happen next, why it was done to them and when it was all going to end.
Why did the Nazis do this? Why go to all this trouble and cost, when what you really plan to do is kill them all anyway? I think the answer lies in the massive effort of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda and in the policy of allowing outsiders to get a peek into ghetto life. Ordinary buses passed by the ghetto and people could catch a glimpse of the people living in it. They were not allowed to get too close, but they were close enough to see the filth and the deprivation. They could see how dirty and pathetic people in the ghetto appeared, how unhealthy and lost they looked.
Put any group of people under impossible conditions and very soon what we think of as human dignity begins to drop off. Dirty, poorly fed and dressed people always look like they have less dignity than those who are well groomed and well fed. In reality they do not have any less dignity but humanity has always relied a bit too much on outward appearances to make judgments about people’s character. In any case the message to outside spectators of the Warsaw ghetto was, 'You see? That’s what Jews are like. This is how they live.’
It’s well known that dehumanising people makes it easier to kill them. It also makes it easier for the killer to escape criticism. Dehumanisation can even provide an excuse for killing. It makes the job of murder seem almost desirable. The killer can be seen as helping the world rid itself of problem people that no one really wants. Of course the real reasons for killing have nothing to do with the dignity of the other. But making your victims look less human is certainly good for propaganda. It also helps to convince your own soldiers and bureaucrats that those they are killing are not as human as you, that they are therefore dangerous and don’t deserve to live.
Reading Sara Roy’s report, 'Gaza: Treading on Shards’ (17th February), I noticed that what Israel has been doing in Gaza is chillingly similar to what the Nazis did in Warsaw and in its other ghettos. I don’t think that the citizens of Gaza have any less dignity than anyone else. Perhaps they even have more. I don’t know how they survive and how they get up every morning and keep going. As a mental health professional I can only guess at what these people actually feel from moment to moment and what long term damage is being done to them. We already know that all the children in Gaza suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Everyone in Gaza would have lost someone close to Israeli bombings. There is bound to be unimaginable grief there.
How do you hold on to your sense of hope and meaning when your life is reduced to living on scraps, when you can’t feed your children or keep them safe, and when you have absolutely no control over what is happening to you; and worst of all, how do you keep going when you are incarcerated indefinitely with no chance of escape, and when so few in the outside world care about what is happening to you?
Most people would agree that what the Nazis did was monstrous and wrong, that ghettos were inhumane and should never have been allowed to exist in the first place. So why is the Gaza ghetto allowed to exist in 2010? Why is Israel allowed to dehumanise, control, humiliate and murder 1.5 million people and get away with it? Israel is breaking every human rights law conceivable in the way it treats the citizens of Gaza, and no one stops it.
Israel and Jewish institutions around the world work so hard to make sure that the Holocaust isn’t forgotten. Holocaust Memorial Day is a big deal even here in Britain. Research into the Holocaust goes on. New perspectives and facts are revealed all the time and are taught to the world, so that 'we never forget’. We may not have forgotten the Holocaust but we have learned nothing at all from it. There is absolutely no difference between the citizens of Gaza and the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto. These are all human beings like you and me. Of course the majority of Israeli Jews don’t think so. They consider the Palestinian people on the whole and Gaza’s citizens in particular, to be a lower form of life, a 'less than’. But those of us less brainwashed can and should recognise the humanity and dignity of Gaza’s citizens, and their innocence.
Europe and the US were all complicit in the Holocaust by not reading the signs in advance. They allowed the gradual escalation of the Nazi regime’s institutionalised and legalised human rights violations against Jews; an escalation that was building up to mass extermination. By the time the ghettos were created, things had already gone too far but still, no one who had the power to make a difference did anything. The Jews were nobodies then, and now the Palestinians are suffering the same fate. Just like European Jews, the Palestinians are ordinary people caught in the grip of a murderous regime bent on destroying them for its own reasons. The Palestinians are today’s nobodies, and no one who has the power to change anything cares about them.
World leaders not only choose to say and do nothing. They openly embrace Israel’s anti-Palestinian propaganda. Looking at the suffering people of Gaza they see people who appear to the outside to have no dignity. Gazans are portrayed as less than human, ruthless, devious, blood-thirsty Jew and American-hating extremists, undesirables. It’s much easier to kill undesirables and get away with it, or just turn a blind eye to their endless suffering and subsequent death. Back in the 30s and 40s, Europe and the US could have excused their inaction by saying they were busy fighting a war. What is the excuse now?
Israel is intent on destroying Gaza eventually, however long it takes. Its policies there are not random. They are calculated and systematic and they are leading somewhere. In the meantime Israel is busy desensitising an already largely uncaring world by slowly escalating its policies and the violations and injustice they cause (not just in Gaza but against the whole Palestinian population). Why it’s doing it is the subject of psychological analysis and another article. Israel’s agenda may not be based on Nazi-style 'race science’ but Israel’s actions are very similar and their outcomes are leading in the same direction as the outcomes of Nazi anti-Jewish policies.
Let’s just not say we didn’t know or didn’t read the signs. Good, honest people like Sara Roy must continue to write and report so that in the future if people wake up and begin to ask questions, our leaders wouldn’t be able to say that they didn’t know what was going on.
Avigail Abarbanel is a psychotherapist and counsellor. She is a former Israeli citizen and a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. She recently moved from Canberra Australia to the Scottish Highlands. Her website is at: www.avigailabarbanel.me.uk