Jewish Studies and Holocaust Inversion: Making Gaza Into Auschwitz

Numerous critics have focused on the fact that the "art" of the “Gaza Ghetto” tattoos trivializes the Holocaust.
February 16, 2023

Over the past few weeks a controversy has broken out within the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), the flagship academic organization for educators and researchers in the United States and beyond who work in all disciplines associated with the study and teaching of the history, religion and culture of the Jewish people. Founded over fifty years ago and boasting thousands of members, the AJS’s professed mission is “to advance research and teaching in Jewish Studies at colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning, and to foster greater understanding of Jewish Studies scholarship among the wider public.” Doctoral students rely on the AJS’s resources for making connections and building their careers, and established scholars regard the AJS as a necessity for ensuring that Jewish Studies is a respected field in the academy. The AJS’s widely disseminated publications, including the AJS Review and AJS Perspectives, showcase the best that Jewish studies has to offer.

But many AJS members have been alarmed by the Fall 2022 edition of AJS Perspectives, titled “The Justice Issue,” which includes “Gaza Ghetto,” an artistic installation from Ruth Sergel. Sergel offered up a series of photographs (see image above) in which the names of Gazans who have perished during the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflicts are etched in ink on the artist’s arm. Her objective was clearly to evoke images of Jews tattooed as they were registered into the Auschwitz camp, thereby comparing Israel’s complex war with Hamas to the Final Solution.

Numerous critics have focused on the fact that the “art” of the “Gaza Ghetto” tattoos trivializes the Holocaust. As Professor James Diamond of the University of Waterloo recently wrote in an open letter to the AJS, “those images have graphically violated every principle AJS espouses and should stand for as a professional academic organization for crossing the line from provocative art to perverse exploitive misappropriation of one people’s suffering to capture another’s. … What is fashionably referred to in the issue as ‘embodied’ art, insidiously dispossesses the unimaginable suffering of millions of actual bodies, both of those systematically murdered and tortured in the Shoah, and those who survived the horrors.”

But Holocaust trivialization is a very complex topic replete with ambiguities and gray areas. What may seem to be trivialization is not always such, and more importantly may not necessarily be antisemitic. But universalizing the Holocaust through crude analogies is considered by some to be trivialization because it erases Jewish particularism. Perhaps it is, and it certainly is with “Gaza Ghetto.” But is it always? This is a legitimate debate and one that should be welcomed by scholars. Unfortunately, the editors of AJS Perspectives offered no opportunity for discussion over the possible offensiveness of these images.

But the gravest aspersion of “The Justice Issue” is not the trivialization of the Holocaust. Sergel’s art installation promotes what has been called Holocaust inversion: the practice of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, of likening Gaza to Auschwitz, a mass extermination camp that at its peak gassed to death 12,000 Jews per day. According to Sergel’s artistic statement, Israel’s blockade and periodic bombing of Gaza—which are a response to an antisemitic Islamic fundamentalist regime’s launching of rockets at Israel—is no different from the extermination of one million Jews through the most systematic industrialized mass murder operation in history. Through a series of photographs, Holocaust inversion is accorded the status of provocative art.

Through a series of photographs, Holocaust inversion is accorded the status of provocative art.

If the perniciousness of Holocaust inversion is unclear, I invite you to consider the following two images. First we have the infamous “Warsaw Ghetto boy,” one of the most well-known photos from the Holocaust, taken in 1943 by a Nazi photographer during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and published in The New York Times in 1945. This disturbing image has become symbolic of the 1.5 million children who perished at the hands of the Nazis’ campaign to wipe Jews off the map. It has been indelibly etched into our collective memory of the Final Solution.

The second image is the “Warsaw Ghetto boy” refashioned into an exploitative depiction of “Palestinian suffering”. The armed Nazi is recast as a Jewish IDF soldier, further dehumanized (as if branding him a Nazi is not sufficient dehumanization) through a skeletal rendering of his face. The persecuted Jews, including the boy, are transformed into Palestinians.

Few would argue that this image does not trivialize the Holocaust, and I would like to think most people would consider this image antisemitic. Indeed, the widely adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA WDA) contends that “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” can be construed as a form of antisemitism. If nothing else, the image is intended to demonize the Jewish state in the worst manner possible, and in a manner utterly devoid of scholarly foundation.

What should be clear is the transformation of the “Warsaw Ghetto Boy” into an artifact of Israel’s impugned oppression of the Palestinians is no different from Ruth Sergel’s antisemitic “Gaza Ghetto” art, which was met with approval by the two editors of AJS Perspectives, Mira Sucharov and Chaya Halberstam. In an exchange with me on social media, Sucharov disingenuously claimed that “it is not clear that Gazans were compared to victims of the Final Solution. That is an association you are drawing from the art.”

Yet a perusal of Sergel’s website makes it abundantly clear that this is about Holocaust inversion. On the page exhibiting “Gaza Ghetto,” she invites her audience to “Please stay informed. Resources include: Jewish Voice for Peace, Electronic Intifada, B’Tselem.” Jewish Voice for Peace is a notoriously anti-Zionist organization that has not shied away from using antisemitic tropes to engender the liquidation of Israel. And The Electronic Intifada is an inflammatory media outlet that likewise seeks Palestinian liberation through crude antisemitic stereotype. The latter has on occasion compared Israel to Nazi Germany, in one piece even misusing the “Warsaw Ghetto Boy” photo (and all that it implies) as an emblem of Palestinian suffering. If Sergel’s art contains any ambiguity, it is all but eliminated by the inclusion of her recommended anti-Zionist resources on her website.

Perhaps we should thank Sergel for making obvious what should have been obvious to the editors of AJSPerspectives. Unfortunately, their decision to publish “Gaza Ghetto” means they have either overlooked its Holocaust inversion or have decided to endorse it.

Either way, these images will now become part of the progressive antisemite’s toolbox. They can now cite the most prominent Jewish studies academic organization anytime they need a seal of kashrut from our public intellectuals. Whether deliberate or not, the AJS has sanctioned Holocaust inversion.

Jarrod Tanny is an associate professor and Charles and Hannah Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He is the author of “City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa” (Indiana University Press) and the founder of the Jewish Studies Zionist Network.

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