Banality of Evil: Israel and Palestine

When people think of the Holocaust, one man comes to mind: Adolf Hitler. But, as Hannah Arendt argues in her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, the Final Solution was not just orchestrated by Hitler or the Nazi Party. It relied on the compliancy and lack of resistance by citizens in the Riech, Western Europe, the Balkans, and Central Europe. Where the Nazis were resisted, either overtly, as in Denmark, or covertly, as in Bulgaria, the Nazis were unable to deport Jews. The Danes, Arendt reports, helped their Jews as well as stateless Jews residing in Denmark hide. About half Denmark’s Jews remained hiding throughout the war, and Danes helped the other half flee to unoccupied Sweden. Elsewhere in Europe (especially in the Netherlands and Slovakia), Jews were paying exorbitant prices for their own deportation as a last-ditch effort at survival. But in Denmark, wealthy Danes helped poor Jews flee. Arendt writes:

“Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of order from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds,” (175).

            She is of the opinion that even the Nazi leadership in Denmark, when the murder of the Jews was no longer easy, “no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course,” (175) So? “They had met resistance based on principle, and their ‘toughness’ had melted like butter in the sun,” (175). When evil met resistance, it could not carry out its ends. Resistance – not just from those who are being oppressed, but from the huge swaths of “ordinary” people was the difference between life and genocide for the Jews of Europe. The vast majority of people, ordinary people, decided not to resist. And that, according to Arendt, is the difference between the 477 Jews who died from Denmark (out of a population of 7,800), and the decimation of European Jewry elsewhere.

            It is the resistance of “ordinary” people that is essential to preventing ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Arendt, whose book is based on her reports for the New Yorker on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, was deeply affected by the experience of seeing Adolf Eichmann – the architect of transporting Jews to concentration camps in the East. He was responsible for the logistics of the Final Solution. Arendt, like many of us, expected Eichmann to be extraordinarily evil but was haunted to find a man who seemed completely normal. The message, from her research into the logistics of the Holocaust and her own observations about the Eichmann trial left her haunted with the sense that this extraordinary, unspeakable evil was carried out by ordinary people. As she writes in her postscript: “For when I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth,” (287) Instead, “it was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period,” (287-288). In her opinion, this “thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together,” (288).

In the Holocaust, extraordinary evil was carried out by ordinary people who did not think and did not resist. Yes, these people were furnished with easy propaganda and centuries of antisemitism to lull them into identifying Jews as enemies of the Reich. These people, the propaganda machine said, deserve to die, to not be treated as people. They are dangerous. The whole group needed to go.  

But even if the Jews had been dangerous, would they have deserved to die? Arendt says no: “It seems to me that a Christian is guilty before the God of Mercy if he repays evil with evil, hence that the church would have sinned against mercy if millions of Jews had been killed as a punishment for some evil they committed,” (296). They were innocent. But it is not just that they were innocent, that they did not deserve to die. Even if they had been guilty of some crime, even some heinous crime as murdering God, it still would not justify the murder of millions of people. There is nothing that can justify large-scale murder and ethnic cleansing.

Arendt’s work is chilling. She – and her work – are controversial. It would be easier if she was wrong. Certainly, Arendt scared me – she made me wonder, if I saw evil in my own day, what would I do? Would I resist? Would I find it in me to think? Or would I find a way to say – like most of Europe did to the Jews – that those people with deserve to be annihilated. Or would I watch death happen and simply not care? Would I plead ignorance and wait until afterwards to pay attention, despite the signs screaming in my face?

Because make no mistake: there were concentration camps all over Europe, next to people’s towns and villages.

There are now digital resources to visualize how the camp system functioned and where camps were.

People knew. They just decided that it was okay, or not worth the trouble to try to stop it.

We are seeing large-scale slaughter, in response to violence, in our own day.

25,000 Palestinians in Gaza are dead, as reported by Gaza’s ministry of Health. The UN suspects these numbers are actually an under-report rather than the an over-report (as Israel claims). However, even if Israel’s estimate of 15,000 dead in Gaza are correct, it would be horrific. “The plumes of smoke from tanks, artillery and the planes of the air force will continue to cover the sky over the Gaza Strip until we will achieve our goals,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said. The minister of Defense has also said “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.”

Does this rhetoric of human animals sound familiar?

Israel’s minister of national security, Itamar ben Gvir said that the war presents an “opportunity to concentrate on encouraging the migration of the residents of Gaza,” and that this is “a correct, just, moral and humane solution.” He continued: “We cannot withdraw from any territory we are in in the Gaza Strip. Not only do I not rule out Jewish settlement there, I believe it is also an important thing.”

Israel’s minister of finance, Bezalel Smotrich, said, according to the Times of Israel, “that the ‘correct solution’ to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ‘to encourage the voluntary migration of Gaza’s residents to countries that will agree to take in the refugees,’ Smotrich told members of his Religious Zionism party, predicting that ‘Israel will permanently control the territory of the Gaza Strip,’ including through the establishment of settlements. He also repeated his previous statement that Jerusalem could not allow Gaza to remain a ‘hothouse of 2 million people who want destroy the State of Israel’ and asserted that ‘as long as I am the finance minister, not one shekel will go to the Nazi terrorists in Gaza.’”

Other Israeli politicians, such as Deputy Knesset speaker Nissim Vaturi from the ruling Likud party wrote on X/Twitter, that Israelis have one goal, “erasing the Gaza Strip from the face of the earth.” He has also called for the immediate burning of Gaza.

Photograph: Mohammed Hajjar/AP from this Guardian Article

According to NPR, in addition to the deaths, “The war has displaced some 85% of Gaza’s residents, with hundreds of thousands packing U.N.-run shelters and camps in the south. U.N. officials say a quarter of the population of 2.3 million is starving as a trickle of humanitarian aid reaches them because of the fighting and Israeli restrictions.”

The Israeli government has been cracking down on dissent against its offensive in Gaza, both from Israelis and Palestinians living in Israel – the latest in a string of attempts to consolidate the current governments power and silence protest against its agenda (which includes settlements in the West Bank).  

Israel suffered a devasting terrorist attack after years of terrorist attacks by Hamas in Gaza. 1,200 Israelis died. It is impossible to know how many Palestinians support Hamas – some surveys suggest that many do, other sources give a completely different view. What is clear is that many Palestinians have lost hope in a peaceful resolution to the conflict. As one source found:

  • “Among both Israelis and Palestinians, just about half on each side believed that a political resolution can actually bring peace. And by a clear majority, each side believed that violence is the only or best way to achieve concessions from the other side.”
  • “Majorities of both cohorts rejected the other side’s claims of historic, national connection to the land. In the most recent poll of the societies as a whole, 93 percent of Palestinians and 68 percent of Israeli Jews reject the other side’s claims.”

The Onion, of all places, painfully and aptly describes the situation:

But Palestinians who have given up on peace do not deserve to die, any more than their Israeli counterparts do for the same lack of hope.

People in Israel are certainly afraid. And the rhetoric of Israel’s leaders has been clear. Israel’s president Isaac Herzog said “it’s an entire nation out there that is responsible. This rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved, it’s absolutely not true. They could’ve risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime.” He is claiming the Palestinians should die because they did not or could not stop Hamas.

There is an assumption of guilt and responsibility on behalf of all Palestinians. And because of this assumption they are all paying the price, just as Prime Minister Netanyahu promised when the war began. Israel, he said, will “take mighty vengeance” and “the enemy will pay an unprecedented price”, with a “return fire of a magnitude that the enemy has not known”.

Once this vengeance becomes an excuse to commit ethnic cleansing –

Once this vengeance becomes an opportunity to resettle a “troublesome” people –

Once this vengeance makes us comfortable justifying the death of thousands of people –

Once vengeance makes it easy for us to watch hundreds of thousands starve –

Then we have forgotten Hannah Arendt and the lessons learned the hard way in World War II. Then we allow enemies of the Reich to become faceless animals. If the Jews of Europe had been dangerous, as they were perceived to be, would they have deserved to die? Would they have deserved a genocide?

Europe in World War II as a whole said yes.

But Denmark and Bulgaria both said no.

            Who will we be?

            When will we decide it’s time to think?


As Oren Schweitzer writes,

And just as “never again” has acted as an ideological underpinning of Israel’s settler-colonial project, it has been used to dismiss critics of Israel as no better than the Nazis. But if there is any comparison to be made with the Nazis, it is not with the critics of Israel but the Israeli state itself. Not only was Israel founded upon decades of militia and state violence, and the expulsion and ghettoization of its Palestinian population, but over the past few years, the Israeli government has careened even further to the right, resembling more and more the Nazi regime from which my family fled. Nazi comparisons should never be made lightly. But the idea that many of my people have become the same monsters from whom my grandfather fled has become harder and harder for me to stomach. If “never again” is to mean anything, it must require action right now in Palestine.






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