Bassem Yousef and Rethinking Holocaust Exceptionalism

Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

One of the more frustrating debates I’ve seen on Gaza in the last few months – and I’ve seen a lot of them – was between Bassem Youssef and Konstantin Kisin of the YouTube channel Triggernometry. At the beginning of the interview, Kisin asks a question which he pretends (or perhaps actually believes) to be perfectly reasonable: “If you were in charge of the Israeli government, what would you have done on October 8, 2023?”

Bassem Youssef has been absolutely amazing in responding to these kinds of questions. He’s been doing it for months, starting with his brilliant interview with Piers Morgan and he didn’t do a bad job in this interview in general. But on this question he feels cornered and unable to answer.

In order to understand the problem with Kisin’s question I think it’s important that we break a taboo. Pro-Zionist forces have over the years been able to codify a kind of sacredness around the Holocaust. It was done only to Jews (which is untrue), it was done on a massive and systematic scale (which is true), and therefore nothing can be compared to that (which is a matter of opinion). I suggest we break this taboo.

If we consider what seems to have taken place on October 7, 2023 – an organised prison break that took out the leadership of those doing the imprisoning that unfortunately seems to have lead to mass killing of civilians (some of which was undoubtedly done by the prison wardens themselves) – what does it look like? Are there historical parallels we can find to explain to someone in language that Konstantin Kisin would understand?

Imagine if Bassem had asked Kisin this question in reply: “Imagine you were Adolf Hitler on 20 April, 1943, the day after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began. What would you do?” Given that Gaza has been declared an “open air prison” even by mainstream human rights organisations, the analogy to the Warsaw ghetto is at least viable. Like any historical analogy it won’t hold up 100% – nothing does, that’s what it means to use a comparator. Suppose Bassem had posed this question. How would his interviewers have responded?

Of course there is no right answer to this question. If there is a right answer, it is precisely what Bassem seems to say at several points, namely that if I were in charge there wouldn’t be a ghetto therefore the ghetto uprising would have never happened. And with that analogy, Kisin would have immediately understood what he seemed to be too thick to understand during the interview. This is not a battle of equals; this is a settler colonial state engaged in an illegal occupation and a blockade. To the extent that there are armed Palestinians resisting, that should actually be something to be celebrated just as we celebrate the heroes of the ghetto uprisings in Nazi Germany. Posing the question as if it were France invading England is to concede that one has no understanding either of history or of the daily lives of people in the Occupied Territories.

The reason I like the Nazi analogy is that people immediately get it. I don’t think Piers Morgan or Konstantin Kisin are stupid. I just think they’re stuck in some fictitious world where Palestinians have as much power as Israelis and the two groups have been fighting each other since the time of King Herod. Jews fleeing Europe to live with Muslims during the Inquisition, the Balfour Declaration, the Nakba, the 1967 war, the 1971 war, even the details of the 1994 Oslo agreement (which Israel started violating immediately) – these are all either unknown or irrelevant for colonial apologists. The fact – that Bassem brings up – that Israel was killing Palestinians both in the West Bank and in Gaza in the weeks and months before October 7 is also deemed irrelevant. But of course it’s not irrelevant. If I punch you, that’s a crime. But it might not be a crime if I punched you because you had your boot on my neck. Context is everything.

By comparing these actions with those of a regime everyone agrees is terrible – the Nazis – people may begin to understand.

Many years ago, someone I consider a good friend tried to corner me on this issue. Referring to the far-right in Israel I had used the term “Nazi”. He violently disagreed with the use of the term, even though he conceded that these particular people were genocidal – they were calling for the extermination of Palestinians. “The term “Nazi” should be a synonym for “Jew killer”” was what his argument boiled down to (in fact I think that’s a direct quote from that discussion).

The problem here is one of history as well as theory. From a historical perspective it’s not clear to me that the killing of as many as 7 million people (mostly, but not exclusively, of the Jewish faith) is more worthy of recognition than the killing of 10 million people in the Congo or the killing of 100 million people in India. The common thread is that all of these atrocities were committed by Europeans – Germans, Belgians and British Europeans to be precise. The Holocaust is one of many terrible atrocities that one could cite by way of analogy when faced with a current example of a militarised population murdering civilians.

Out of all of these examples, only the Holocaust has been universally recognised in our culture as an act of unspeakable evil. If I write a science fiction book about a guy who comes to power and starts killing people, I don’t compare my character to King Leopold or Winston Churchill (though those would be perfectly reasonable analogies). If I want to explain to someone in an instant that my character is a very bad person, I compare him to Hitler.

If you ask anyone – even someone as thick as Konstantin Kisin seems to be in this interview – what was bad about the Nazis, they’ll have the right answer. The Nazi engaged in the systemic oppression and murder of entire categories of people (Jews, Socialists, Romani, queer people, etc). They not only committed those atrocities, they declared their intent to “rid Europe of its Jews” to paraphrase some of the language of the “Final Solution”. So when we have similar language from Israeli officials – “We will eliminate everything”, “Erase them, their families, mothers and children. These animals can no longer live.” – not to mention the killing of tens of thousands of women and children, is it not time to make the obvious analogy without fear?

Ultimately those who argue for the sacrosanct status of the Holocaust are guilty of creating the circumstances by which the Holocaust can be repeated. Is the lesson from the Holocaust a particular lesson or a universal one? Does it only apply to European Jews who were living in Europe in the 1930s and 40s? If so, then there is no lesson of the Holocaust. The exact circumstances of 1930s Europe will never be repeated; therefore there’s nothing to learn from the holocaust if you believe that all of those circumstances must be in place in order to justify an analogy.

The only way in which there is anything to learn from the Holocaust is if we take it as a universal principle – no group should be targeted and killed just because they are members of that group. The universality of the Holocaust underlies the entire human rights framework (which was largely written in response to the Holocaust). The group in question doesn’t matter – those who have devoted their lives to human rights often cite atrocities committed against Armenians and people from East Timor as some of the worst atrocities ever. Both of those groups happen to be Christians who were persecuted by Muslims. So the cries of antisemitism make no sense either – those who are fighting against genocide fight against all of them, especially those that their own government is complicit in.

If we do not universalise the lessons from the Holocaust, if we accept that there’s something that’s sacrosanct about it, what is that thing that is sacrosanct? It’s not the number of people killed – those numbers have been exceeded in Africa and in Asia. Is it the religion of those who were murdered? Given the long history of antisemitism in Europe that seems unlikely. So what is it that gives the Holocaust this unique status?

I don’t have an answer to this question, but I do have a guess. I fear that what makes the Holocaust against European Jews sacrosanct is the fact that they were European. African and Asian genocides don’t have the right sort of victims. Black people dying we can live with, but white people dying? Never Again (repeated over and over, and repeated by the exact same people who are simultaneously justifying the murder of thousands of Palestinian children).

The preoccupation with one particular genocide above all others may or may not be due to racism. But it is a preoccupation that does exist. We make (mediocre) movies about escaping the Nazis, we write (and read) novels about the Nazis, and so on. It’s the one example of genocide that firmly ensconced in the public imagination. Those of us who are actually in favour of universal human rights have an obligation to use this example – the only example that the public really gets – as part of our effort to end the current genocide.

Bassem Youssef was essentially asked what he would do if he was put in the situation of being in charge of an ongoing genocidal occupation. His answer is absolutely the right one – he would end that occupation and the genocide. But in order to get this point through the thick heads of those who seem intent on insisting that this war is like any other, we should not shy away from historical analogies, including the analogy to World War 2 when appropriate.

May 10, 2024

[The author, Sameer Dossani is co-director of Peace Vigil, an organisation dedicated to Peace Education. They are online at]



Related Articles