By Mandy Turner

Abstract: For Jewish-Israelis and Jewish communities worldwide, reference to Hitler, Nazis, or the Holocaust taps into a painful and devastating collective historical memory. Yet this is being repeatedly invoked by Israel and its allies to describe Hamas and its attack on October 7. This article argues that three political purposes are served by doing this. First, it embeds the idea that Israel is the only thing protecting Jews from another genocide. Second, it constantly reinforces the notion that Israelis are being targeted by Palestinians because they are Jews and not because they are occupiers and colonisers dispossessing and oppressing Palestinians. And third, it helps to silence critics by demanding unequivocal support for Israel in its current form as an apartheid state, no matter what it does. But opinion polls are showing that Israel is losing support in Western societies, particularly amongst young people; this means that smearing critics and Palestinians will soon lose credence and impact.

Citation: Turner, Mandy, 2024. “The Nazi analogy and the trauma of October 7. Smearing Palestinians by invoking the most painful memory for Jewish people creates the conditions for endless conflict,” Security in Context Policy Paper 24-08. July 2024, Security in Context.

On 10 May 2024, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, stood at the speaker’s podium in the General Assembly and pushed a copy of the UN Charter through a miniature paper shredder.1 As the machine noisily chewed the document’s pages to ribbons, Erdan ended his speech with “shame on you.” This denunciation came just minutes before the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting full UN membership of Palestine – with 143 out of 194 member states in favour. In his typical bombastic oratory style, Erdan accused the UN of being “Jew haters” by admitting “modern-day Nazis,” in reference to Hamas. 

This came just one day after Israel’s heritage minister Amichay Eliyahu compared United States president Joe Biden’s threat to withhold weapons if Israel attacked Rafah, to former UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany. Most people with a smidgeon of historical knowledge are likely shaking their heads at this comparison because the Munich Agreement allowed Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia without opposition from the signatories, which included France and Italy as well as the UK. But accuracy is irrelevant here because the Munich Agreement is widely understood as an analogy for an act of appeasement, particularly towards authoritarian states occupying and annexing neighbouring territories. 

Even trying to explain this makes the comparison seem even more ludicrous because it not only inverts the current situation in Israel and Palestine but is so far removed from reality it is laughable. Applying such a devastating smear against your staunchest ally also looks like the diplomatic equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. The problem is Israeli politicians are deadly serious and that is what is so disturbing. 

In February, Israel’s finance minister Bezalel Smotrich accused the Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA of being “a central part of the Nazi Hamas war machine” after Israel alleged, but has yet to provide evidence, that UNRWA staff members participated in the attacks of October 7. In mid-April, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock “we are not like the Nazis” in response to Germany’s concern that Israel was driving Gaza towards famine. On 24 April, Netanyahu condemned pro-Palestinian students demonstrating on US university campuses as antisemites and compared what they were doing to rallies held in Nazi Germany. The following month, on 20 May, Netanyahu, furious that he might face a warrant for his arrest for war crimes, compared Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, to a judge in Nazi Germany.  

These might seem outlandish, but there are so many bizarre examples to choose from because the list is endless. Barely a day goes by where there is not a reference to Nazis, Hitler, or the Holocaust by Israeli politicians and other opinion-formers such as journalists. It is mostly used against Palestinians and those deemed critical of the Israeli state, although it is a slur also occasionally invoked by Israeli politicians against each other.2

For Jewish-Israelis and Jewish communities worldwide, reference to Hitler, Nazis, or the Holocaust taps into a painful and devastating collective historical memory. This is a very real trauma that cannot be disregarded and must be addressed. But when invoked by Israel and its allies in reference to Palestinians, the Nazi analogy serves a three-fold political purpose. First, it embeds the idea that Israel is the only thing protecting Jews from another genocide. Second, it constantly reinforces the notion that Israelis are being targeted by Palestinians because they are Jews and not because they are occupiers and colonisers dispossessing and oppressing Palestinians. And third, it helps to silence critics by demanding unequivocal support for Israel in its current form as an apartheid state, no matter what it does. 

The role of the Holocaust in Israel’s identity and politics, and United States’ support 

The Holocaust was the state-sponsored persecution and murder of around six million Jews (as well as other groups such as the Roma, communists, gay, and disabled people) by the German Nazi regime and its collaborators in Europe from 1933 to 1945. It devastated and nearly wiped out European Jewry through mass extermination in gas chambers, after forced displacement into ghettoes, transit camps, and labour camps. It is the most horrific episode in Jewish history, a culmination of centuries of persecution in Europe.  

The Holocaust has had a decisive impact on the identity and politics of Israel.3 A clear illustration of this is provided by a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center at Mount Herzl on the outskirts of Jerusalem. “From Holocaust to Rebirth” is the powerful historical narrative woven while visitors pass through 10 exhibition halls, ending with the miniature reconstruction of a Nazi gas chamber and photos of the emaciated bodies of people liberated from the camps, next to pictures of David Ben Gurion (first prime minister of Israel) making Israel’s declaration of independence speech on 14 May 1948. The center curates a devastating display of the evil that humanity can do. Most visitors exit, sombre and heads down, some visibly crying.  

Upon leaving the center, the “Connecting Path” leads you from Yad Vashem to Har Herzl, which hosts the Mount of Remembrance with the graves of soldiers killed in combat, victims of terrorist attacks, and Zionist leaders. As you progress along the route, there are information displays on the history of Jewish persecution (most prominently the Holocaust), the emergence and history of Zionism, the Zionist campaign against the British authorities in the final years of the British Mandate, and the creation of the state of Israel. The logic is clear: to link all these events in one continuous historical narrative. Yet Zionism had not initially enjoyed majority support amongst Jews worldwide, although this changed in the aftermath of the Second World War and gathered pace after 1967.

Yad Vashem receives the usual mix of tourists and locals. It is the second most visited tourist site in Israel (after the Western Wall) and welcomes around 700,000 visitors each year. Every time I have visited, there are always groups of Israeli schoolchildren and groups of Israeli soldiers in full uniform mixed in with the tourists. School visits to important national museums are commonplace in any country, but state-organised soldier visits are not. In 2023, Yad Vashem welcomed more Israeli soldiers (98,000) than it did Israeli students (72,500); they are given tours by soldier-guides who pass on a strong message that the Israeli army plays a central role in protecting Jewish lives. Given that all Israelis must undertake service in the army (except for Palestinian citizens of Israel and ultra-Orthodox Jews in full-time Torah study, although the Supreme Court ruled on 25 June 2024 that the latter must now be drafted) this drives home the message taught in schools and other sectors of Israeli public life that the establishment of the state of Israel liberated Jews from millennia of discrimination and genocide.

The Holocaust also plays an important role in American politics, particularly as it relates to foreign policy decisions on Israel and Palestine. On 12 October, US secretary of state Antony Blinken compared Hamas’s October 7 attacks to the Holocaust and pledged that the United States would “stand forever” alongside Israel. On 6 May, during a speech made at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony, Biden said the same. Five months earlier, at a Hannukah holiday reception at the White House, Biden stated, “were there no Israel, there wouldn’t be a Jew in the world who was safe.” This is an alarming comment from the leader of the United States – the country with the second largest number of Jewish citizens in the world. But such comments are not new. All US presidents since 1948 – Democrat and Republican alike – have regarded support for Israel to be the “proper response” to the Holocaust as well as being in America’s foreign policy interests.4

Every war that Israel has fought since 1948 has been perceived and defined in terms of the Nazis and the Holocaust – this includes those fought against neighbouring Arab states as well as Israel’s counterinsurgency operations against Palestinians. The collective trauma this taps into galvanises Israelis to fight and Western states to support them. 

Displacing revenge from Europe to the Middle East

Equating Palestinian resistance – both violent and non-violent – with Jewish annihilation is a powerful mobilizing narrative, for both Jewish-Israelis and Jews worldwide. During the Second Intifada (2000-2005), an Israeli army officer told foreign journalists he was happy to invade Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank because he was making sure that what happened to his mother, who had been an inmate at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, would never happen again. In the 2017 Al Jazeera documentary film Israel’s Volunteer Soldiers, a Belgian volunteer explains he was motivated to serve in the Israeli military as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors because “this was my revenge.” This geographical displacement of vengeance from Europe, specifically Germany, to the Middle East and specifically onto Palestinians, is an astonishing display of cognitive dissonance. By portraying Palestinians as Nazis and antisemites, invoking the most painful historical memory for Jewish people, Israel has created the conditions for extreme levels of violence.  

Hamas’s attacks on October 7 caused deep trauma for Israeli citizens. But the way in which Israeli politicians have reacted – repeatedly referring to Hamas as the “new Nazis,” invoking the biblical massacre of the Amalek, dehumanising Palestinians by calling them “human animals” – established the basis and intent for genocide in Gaza. Similar comments against Palestinians in the West Bank have provoked the highest levels of Israeli violence – from both soldiers and settlers (more accurately called colonizers) – since the Second Intifada. In November, Israel’s finance minister Bezalel Smotrich said: “There are two million Nazis in Judea and Samaria [Israel’s term for the occupied West Bank], who hate us exactly as do the Nazis of Hamas-ISIS in Gaza.” This was in reference to opinion polls that two-thirds of the three million Palestinians in the West Bank supported the October 7 attacks. 

Given the established notion that you cannot co-exist with Nazis so they must be eradicated – “the only good Nazi is a dead Nazi” – it is hardly surprising that sections of Israeli society have responded in despicable and shocking ways, because it has been provoked and sanctioned by government ministers and Israeli opinion-formers. Public appetite for extreme levels of violence against Palestinians is widespread in Israel. There are multiple social media platforms where Israeli soldiers have shared videos showing the war crimes they are committing against Palestinians. Palestinian writer and activist Yara Hawari has aptly described them as “snuff videos.” Soldiers have uploaded video clips showing themselves wearing the clothes of Palestinian women and playing with the abandoned toys of Palestinian children, most likely killed or at the very least violently driven from their homes in Gaza. In other videos, Israeli soldiers have dedicated to loved ones explosions destroying Palestinian homes, schools, and places of worship. Yet more have proudly recorded how they have humiliated Palestinian detainees, and how they ransacked homes and businesses in Gaza taking the personal belongings of Palestinians as gifts for relatives. 

But do not be mistaken; these videos are not the product of “a few bad apples.” An investigation by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz has shown that these gleeful displays of revenge were actively promoted by the Israeli army. The previously accepted chutzpah, which sought to exonerate Israel from its violence against Palestinians by claiming its soldiers were “shooting and crying,”5 has now been replaced by the practice of shooting and laughing

Accusing Palestinians of antisemitism is older than Israel itself

Calling Palestinians “Nazis” is not a new accusation and slur; it is older than Israel itself. In August 1947, even before the state of Israel existed, Zionist leader David Ben Gurion, who became the first Israeli prime minister, equated Arabs (including Palestinians) with Nazis. Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister from 1977 to 1983, warned about the “return of Auschwitz” in reference to threats from Palestinians and Arab nations. In the run up to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel warned it was facing a “Holocaust-like” disaster. This helped to promote worldwide support for Israel which, in this circumstance, was regarded to be battling for its existence against the combined strength of its Arab neighbours. Yet even after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza (as well as Egyptian and Syrian land), it continued to invoke the Holocaust, particularly in response to demands that it withdraw. In 1969, Israel’s foreign minister Abba Eban said that a return to the pre-1967 borders (the “green line”) invoked a “memory of Auschwitz.”6

The powerful emotions provoked by using the Nazi analogy – the epitome of an evil, murderous regime known for its hatred and violence against Jews – helps to transform the colonizer and oppressor into the persecuted victim fighting a just war. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu all smeared Yasser Arafat, former chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, as being the “new Hitler.”7 Now Israel has handed this title down to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar

One of the more extraordinary instances of the Nazi analogy was on 20 October 2015, when Netanyahu blamed the Holocaust on the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian leader during the Second World War. Netanyahu claimed that during a meeting in November 1941, al-Husseini persuaded Hitler to burn Jews rather than expel them from Germany.8 These comments provoked widespread criticism, and motivated then German chancellor Angela Merkel to state: “We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.” Commenting on the incident, Saeb Erekat, former Palestinian chief negotiator in the peace talks, said: “Netanyahu hates Palestinians so much that he is willing to absolve Hitler for the murder of 6 million Jews.”9

This incident is very revealing. Netanyahu’s attack on the Mufti follows a long-established Zionist strategy of portraying Palestinian leaders as being just as guilty as the Nazis of the genocide committed against Jews in Europe.10 Netanyahu knew exactly what he was doing. Smearing Palestinians as Nazis offers a powerful counterpoint to the argument made by Palestinians that they should not be paying the price for European racism and war crimes. This smear also allows Israel to argue that Palestinians resisting their displacement and oppression are doing so because they are antisemites. Hidden from view thereafter is what Palestinians are really struggling against – Israel in its current form as a settler colonial state which has instituted an ethnonationalist apartheid regime to ensure Jewish supremacy. 

By their very existence, Palestinians are antizionist because they stand in the way of Israel controlling the whole of the geographical area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Equating antizionism with antisemitism has a long historical pedigree – just ask any Palestinian or Arab – but now this has expanded beyond the Middle East to include any critic of Israel.    

The “new antisemitism”

In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance published its working definition of antisemitism (hereafter IHRA WDA).11 It provided 11 examples, seven of which refer to Israel, thus expanding the definition of antisemitism beyond its conventional understanding as constituting hatred of Jews to include antizionism and criticism of Israel. Despite warnings and criticism that the definition is being weaponized, including from the original drafter Kenneth Stern and a coalition of 104 human rights organisations, it has been widely adopted. By the end of 2023, more than 1,000 global organisations had endorsed it, including 43 governments – most of them in the West. The UK was the first state to adopt it in 2016, over 30 states in the United States have adopted it, and on 1 May 2024 the House of Representatives passed a Bill that if approved by the Senate will turn it into US federal law. The IHRA WDA is the backbone to the criminalisation of pro-Palestinian speech and activism, and provided the ideological justification for the police attacks on student encampments in the United States and European states in the spring and summer months of 2024. 

The IHRA WDA codified decades – in fact, over 50 years – of work by Israel and its supporters to popularise a new definition of antisemitism.12 Israeli scholar Neve Gordon offers a useful way to understand how it works. The “new antisemitism” is, he argues, the product of a syllogism – a three-part leap of logic: first, that all Jews are part of a collective; second, that Israel is the collective Jew; and third, therefore criticism of Israel is antisemitic. Jews, Israel, and Zionism are thereafter intricately bound together, according to this redefinition. But, as critics have pointed out, many Jews are not Zionists, many Zionists are not Jews, and some Zionists are also antisemites. Yet such nuances do not matter when antizionism is redefined as antisemitism because its goal is to instantly criminalise Palestinians describing their own oppression at the hands of Israel. 

One of the examples of antisemitism provided by the IHRA WDA is “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavour.” What this ignores is that one could support the idea of “a state” of Israel, just not the one that currently exists. But this sleight of hand is cleverly disguising what Israel and its supporters are demanding: support for an ethnonationalist apartheid state imposed on the lands and bodies of Palestinians. Anyone who rejects this demand is smeared as an antisemite to be silenced or removed. First and foremost are Palestinians. The next in line are those that support Palestinians; unsurprisingly, this smear has been used more often against other people of colour (particularly Muslims) and Jewish activists (who are also subjected to the additional insult of being “self-hating Jews”). The next in line are those that propose negotiating with Palestinians, even ones who offer unequivocal support such as the president of the United States as outlined earlier. For Israel, there is an endless supply of people to smear with wrongful accusations of antisemitism because this extends to anyone who dares to oppose its actions. 

Wrongful and egregious accusations of antisemitism have long been part of Israel’s arsenal, but now it has become a central part of the politics of many Western states too. The popular chant at demonstrations that “we are all Palestinian” – originally intended as a version of the solidarity slogan “the people united will never be defeated” – now seems to also mean that everyone who speaks out will be smeared and silenced, just like Palestinians. 

Conclusion: Israel’s Nazi smear is reaching the end of its shelf life

In March 2024, the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra reminded us of all the writers and activists – Jewish, Palestinian, and international – who have warned against invoking the Holocaust to legitimise a militant and expansionist Zionism. He also drew our attention to the ways in which the Holocaust is seen in different parts of the world. Western politicians and media regard it as constituting the single most evil act of the modern period. But, for countries in the Global South, the Holocaust was an example of Western genocidal colonial violence inflicted on a population in Europe. 

Israel and its Western supporters regard the Holocaust as a catastrophe that justifies Zionism, but Palestinians bear absolutely no responsibility for it. Nothing can change the basic historical fact that this was a European crime against humanity on the Jewish community in Europe. And yet this is not the same for the Nakba.13 Zionism, the state of Israel, and its army are directly responsible for the catastrophe which Palestinians experienced in 1948 and every day since. But Israel refuses to acknowledge this and since 2011 has banned the commemoration of the Nakba.14

I know it shouldn’t need to be said, but Palestinians were not responsible for the Holocaust, Palestinian leaders are not Hitler, and being critical of Israel does not make you a Nazi sympathiser. But it suits Israeli politicians to use the Nazi analogy to discredit Palestinians and slur critics. The inappropriate use of the Nazi analogy has deadly consequences for Palestinians. It is designed to turn our attention away from how Palestinians have had to endure – at the hands of Israel – over 75 years of violence, displacement, and ethnic cleansing. It also suits Western states for Palestinians to be Israel’s punchbag because it allows them to sidestep their own histories of endemic antisemitism and gives them a “quick fix” by supporting Israel.  

Yet for Jewish people, the Holocaust is not just a memory and legacy. It is a constant anxiety and fear, and is not something that can be easily waved away by saying Palestinians are obviously not Nazis. Jewish people have a complex relationship with Israel – many have family ties, many have visited, and many hold a favourable view of Israel. But in recent years, as indicated by opinion polls in the United States, the UK, and Europe, younger Jews (under the age of 40) have a less favourable attitude and far less ties towards Israel than older generations. In a June 2021 opinion poll, 38 percent of American Jews under the age of 40 agreed with the statement “Israel is an apartheid state” – this is a seismic change in attitude. 

Such generational shifts of opinion towards Israel in Western societies amongst young Jews and young people in general are persisting despite the October 7 attacks and accelerating because of Israel’s response. This is one of the central reasons why Israel and its supporters have become more censorial and violent. By tying the idea of an ever-present existential threat to Jewish-Israelis specifically, and Jews worldwide more generally, Israeli politicians and Israel’s partisan supporters have created a powerful rationale to promote and justify Israel’s violence against Palestinians – the problem for them is that increasing amounts of people are no longer buying this narrative.

I am grateful to Elian Weizman, Sai Englert, Omar Dahi, and an anonymous reviewer for comments made on an earlier version of this article and for very useful discussions, but any errors or opinions expressed in it are mine alone. 

Mandy Turner is a senior researcher with Security in Context and a visiting senior researcher at the International State Crime Initiative-Queen Mary University of London.


1: Shredding the UN Charter in the General Assembly was not an original act because Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi did the same in 2009. Thank you to Mira Al Hussein for alerting me to this fact.

2: Only one week before the 1993 peace accords between Israel and the PLO was signed on the lawn of the White House, Netanyahu compared it to the Munich Agreement. The Israeli movie, “Incitement”, directed by Yaron Zilberman, charts how accusations like this created the toxic environment that eventually led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. Footage of Netanyahu speaking at a rally in Jerusalem in October 1995 to an Israeli audience waving placards bearing images of Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform is chilling, particularly because we know what happened one month later.

3: See Tom Segev, The Seventh Million: the Israelis and the Holocaust (Henry Holt, 2000). Idith Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

4: Eric Alterman, We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel (Basic Books, 2022).

5: As journalist Marwan Bishara explains: “The mother of all chutzpahs came from the late Israeli premier Golda Meir about half a century ago: ‘We can forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.’ The new version blames the Palestinians for civilian deaths in Gaza, and praises Israel for sparing lives, even after the Israel offensive kills over a thousand Palestinians.” “On Chutzpah and War”, Al Jazeera, 29 July 2014.

6: Idith Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

7: Israeli leaders smeared many Arab leaders as being Hitler, such as Gamal Abdul Nasser and Saddam Hussein.

8: Gilbert Achcar explores this claim in depth in The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (Saqi Books, 2010).

9: This article does not seek to assert there were (or are) no Nazi sympathisers or Holocaust deniers in the Middle East, as there clearly were (e.g. al-Husseini) and are (e.g. former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). It is also clear that Nazi symbols (e.g. the swastika) are occasionally used by Palestinian protestors, although this is individualised and random, i.e. it is not part of any faction’s political platform nor is it a part of the political repertoires of any Palestinian social movements. The reasons for their occasional use are complex: sometimes they are used to identify Israel with the Nazis, sometimes they are used provocatively because it is known that such symbolism is hated by Israelis. Gilbert Achcar explores this fully in The Arabs and the Holocaust. Miriyam Aouragh also has an interesting discussion of this as relates to the charge of antisemitism made against the Documenta Fifteen exhibition of revolutionary posters in 2022 in “From Erasure to Restoration: Antisemitism and the Visual Reverberations of a Revolutionary Pedagogy,” Historical Materialism, March 2024, available at:

10: Aaron Berman, Nazism, the Jews, and American Zionism, 1933-1948 (Wayne State University Press, 1990).

11: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

12: See Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (University of California Press, 2005) and Antony Lerman, Whatever Happened to Antisemitism? Redefinition and the Myth of the Collective Jew (Pluto Press, 2022).

13: In 2018, Palestinian academic Bashir Bashir and Israeli academic Amos Goldberg published The Nakba and the Holocaust: A New Grammar of Trauma and History (Columbia University Press, 2018). It broke a taboo by trying to understand the two most traumatic historical events for Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis together.

14: Palestinian legal scholar Rabea Eghbariah makes the case for creating “Nakba” as a specific legal category to explain the “Palestinian condition.” Just as the Holocaust engendered a new concept to describe it i.e., “genocide” and South Africa's racist regime engendered the term “apartheid”, “Nakba” specifically captures what Palestinians have experience at the hands of Zionism and Israel since 1948. Eghbariah makes the case that Nakba includes episodes of genocide and variants of apartheid but remains rooted in a historically and analytically distinct foundation (displacement to replace with a settler society), structure (fragmentation – legally, politically, and geographically), and purpose (to deny Palestinians self-determination). It is an incredible piece of work. See Rabea Eghbariah, “Towards Nakba as Legal Concept”, Columbia Law Review, Vol.124, No.4 (2024).

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Jul 1, 2024



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