Is Jewish suffering morally equivalent to Palestinian?

Gaza Hunger 3
Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on March 12, 2024. [AP Photo/Fatima Shbair]

When more than 1200 Jews in the show business come up with a signed letter in response to Jonathan Glazer’s speech at the Oscars, I am stunned to see statements such as: “We refute our Jewishness being hijacked for the purpose of drawing a moral equivalence between a Nazi regime that sought to exterminate a race of people, and an Israeli nation that seeks to avert its own extermination.” Are they living in the same world and watching the same news as I do on a daily basis? Do they understand what it means for people to live their entire lives under occupation? If they really cared for the Jewish victims of Nazism I presume that they would naturally be against the brutal Israeli occupation. If not, I have every reason to believe that they are lying to themselves about caring for the Jewish victims of Nazism. Jonathan Glazer is “Jewish” enough to see the connection between the state-orchestrated mass murder of innocent Jews during the holocaust and Israeli violence against Palestinians.

I find it strange, bizarre in fact, that every time someone talks of Palestinian suffering they are either guilty of anti-semitism or somehow belittling the memory of Jewish suffering during the holocaust. This label of anti-semitism applies to well-meaning and honest Jews as well. Why is it that every person who has an opinion on the subject of Israel in relation to Palestine is guilty of anti-semitism until they prove themselves innocent by endorsing Israel’s unethical actions in unequivocal terms? How can a person be sensitive to the sufferings of European Jews who are victims of Nazism and be indifferent to the sufferings of women and children of Gaza?

How can someone, especially if they happen to be Jews, grudge the comparison between the Nazis and the Israeli occupiers of Palestine? How can one grudge Palestinians if they compare their suffering to European Jews under Hitler? They are only expressing the depth of their anguish and isolation. If I were a Jew, I would understand it. It wouldn’t upset me at all. Statements comparing the Nazis to Israeli army and government might be literally speaking a slight exaggeration. But as a metaphor they serve a purpose: they are meant to shame the Israelis into seeing how wrong the occupation is. They are also meant to make the Israelis understand that they cannot escape victimization in Europe only to create a home for themselves in West Asia by victimizing Arab Palestinians.

I am neither Jew nor Arab Muslim. Their histories are not my history. I have no reason on earth to think one is better than the other. I certainly would go to my grave believing that Nazism is evil. Similarly, I would go to the same grave believing that colonialism and slavery are evils. I have not even the slightest doubt in my mind that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is nothing short of evil. The point is not whether two sufferings are the same. The point is whether two evils are the same. Are Nazism, colonialism and slavery evils to be similarly condemned? Yes. Is Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories unjust, and by extension, evil? The answer is yes, again.

Of course Jewish suffering is unique in world history because the Nazis intended to wipe out an entire race which is perhaps unprecedented. Every Jew has a right to be resentful when the suffering of their people is reduced to some other suffering. But suffering is a personal thing. People suffer as individuals. Each one experiences the degree of suffering differently. A person in a prison suffers differently from a person in a hospital. The black slaves of the United States were individual men and women. So were victims of colonialism. When people collectively suffer they are connected through empathy.

Around the period of the Holocaust, 3 million or more people died in the Bengal famine (1943-44), thanks to British apathy. Are their lives any less precious than those of the victims of Nazism? I want the Israeli Jews or anyone who supports Israel and happens to be a Jew to seriously think about it. Innocent people are dying in Ukraine and Russia for no fault of theirs. Is the suffering of the civilians and the soldiers in those parts of the world less than the suffering of the victims of Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories? What about the sufferings of the victims of the Armenian genocide, one of the earliest in the 20th century? Again, the point here is not the suffering. As long as this is a man-made suffering we have to find out who are the people causing it and how best they can be prevented from doing it, both now and in future.

When asked to express his views on the “very difficult” “Arab-Jew question in Palestine and the persecution of the Jews in Germany” Gandhi said:

“My sympathies are all with the Jews. I have known them intimately in South Africa. Some of them became life-long companions. Through these friends I came to learn much of their age-long persecution. They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close. Religious sanction has been invoked in both cases for the justification of the inhuman treatment meted out to them. Apart from the friendships, therefore, there is the more common universal reason for my sympathy for the Jews.” (my emphasis)

Hindu lower caste men and women could perhaps be offended that their experience of living in subjugation as part of the caste system in an open-air prison for thousands of years can be compared to any other suffering. Maybe it can be compared. Maybe not. Who can say that they are wrong therefore?

While making a distinction between democide (“routine killing as a form of political threat”) and genocide, Donald G. Dutton, in his book The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres, and Extreme Violence: Why ‘‘normal’’ People come to Commit Atrocities (2007), speaks of the democide in Congo:

“The traumas of Leopold’s excesses persisted in the Congo via oral history for at least 50 years and were recorded by a Catholic priest sent to the area. In one oral report to the police, a man named Tswambe described one Belgian state official, named Leon Fievez, as follows:

All the blacks saw this man as the Devil of the Equator…From all the bodies killed in the field, you had to cut off the hands. He wanted to see the number of hands cut off by each soldier, who had to bring them in baskets…A village which refused to provide rubber would be completely swept clean. As a young man, I saw Fievez’s soldier Molili…take a big net, put the arrested natives in it, attach big stones to the net, and make it tumble into the river…Rubber caused these torments; that’s why we no longer want to hear its name spoken. Soldiers made young men kill or rape their own mothers or sisters.” (my emphasis)

A soldier is a human being. We accept that as a given. How could the soldiers make other men kill or rape their own mothers or sisters, and still qualify as human beings? Rightly so, Donald Dutton dedicated this book on the psychology of genocide to his dog: “Would that all humans Shared your beastliness.” No animal would think of doing something like that to another creature in the animal kingdom? But a human being will do it. Whether the suffering of the Congolese is lesser or greater than Jewish suffering is irrelevant. Is Leopold of Belgium as evil as Hitler? The answer is yes, of course. Are the American President Joe Biden and the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu evil? As long as they are responsible for the unspeakable sufferings of people who don’t deserve to be victims, yes, they are evil. In my view, something is seriously wrong with the person who is mentally disputing these things.

The question, “Is Jewish suffering morally equivalent to Palestinian,” is a rhetorical one. That’s suffering. Period. Are the individual persons evil that are responsible for the avoidable sufferings of others? This is not a rhetorical question because there is an answer to it. Jonathan Glazer’s movie, The Zone of Interest (2023) is an attempt to understand the evil in the minds of the men behind the holocaust. People don’t care about what happens to other human beings. They lie, cheat and deceive others and themselves on a daily basis. That’s how the majority of people have been through most of history. The people who care for what happens to others have always been in a staggering minority.

There is a ‘zone of interest’ where I live. In fact, unknowingly, I must be living in a ‘zone of interest’ while terrible things are happening to others on the other side of the wall. “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position: how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;” (WH Auden: “Musee des Beaux Arts.”). Auden voices brilliantly how life is casually going on while someone is suffering for no fault of theirs. “That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/ Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot/ Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” This is the reason for my boundless admiration and respect for men and women of all ages, races, ethnicities – white, black, Jew and Arab – taking to the streets mainly in Europe and the US to defend the human rights of Palestinians. They are sowing the seeds for the beginning of the ending of western imperialism. It takes moral courage to come out of one’s zone of interest and start living like human beings.

Prakash Kona is a writer and independent scholar. He completed his doctorate at the University of Mississippi, MS in 1997. His thesis is a comparative analysis of Derrida, Chomsky and Wittgenstein. His areas of interest include Shakespeare, Postcolonialism, World Literature and Afro-American Literature.


Donald G. Dutton. The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres, and Extreme Violence: Why ‘‘normal’’ People come to Commit Atrocities (2007)

Gandhi & Zionism: ‘The Jews’ (November 26, 1938)

Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Zone Of Interest’ Oscar Speech Draws Condemnation Letter Signed By More Than 1,200 Jewish Entertainment Industry Pros – Update

WH Auden: “Musee des Beaux Arts

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