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Despite backlash, Masha Gessen says comparing Gaza to a Nazi-era ghetto is necessary

Journalist Masha Gessen received a prize named after political theorist Hannah Ahrendt in Bremen, Germany on Saturday. The ceremony almost didn't happen after sponsors condemned Gessen's recent remarks on the Middle East.
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Journalist Masha Gessen received a prize named after political theorist Hannah Ahrendt in Bremen, Germany on Saturday. The ceremony almost didn't happen after sponsors condemned Gessen's recent remarks on the Middle East.

Updated December 22, 2023 at 1:38 PM ET

Prominent Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen received a prestigious award for political thought over the weekend, in a ceremony that almost didn't happen due to backlash over their recent writings on Israel-Gaza.

Israel's air-and-ground assault on Gaza has killed more than 20,000 people in the 10 weeks since the Hamas-led attack on Israel killed some 1,200 people and took more than 240 others hostage.

Gessen, who is Jewish and whose family lost loved ones in the Holocaust, has been criticized for a New Yorker essay published earlier this month in which they likened the Gaza Strip to the WWII-era ghettos that Nazis developed to segregate and control Jewish people in occupied Europe.

Gessen argues in the essay that treating the Holocaust as a "singular event," unlike anything that has occurred before or after in history, not only is incorrect but makes it impossible to learn lessons from the Holocaust that are needed to prevent future genocides.

The term "would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated," they wrote, referring to the process in which Jews were either killed in ghettos or forced out to concentration camps.

Gessen notes there are key differences between the two: The Nazi claim that ghettos were necessary to protect non-Jews from disease "had no basis in reality," while Israel's stance that the isolation of Gaza is necessary to protect against Palestinian terrorist attacks "stems from actual and repeated acts of violence."

"Yet both claims propose that an occupying authority can choose to isolate, immiserate — and now, mortally endanger — an entire population of people in the name of protecting its own," they contend.

The essay was published — and made waves — just as Gessen was preparing to travel to Bremen, Germany to accept the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought. The award, which is funded by the left-leaning Heinrich Böll Foundation and the government of Bremen, honors those who contribute to public thought in the tradition of the influential 20th-century philosopher.

Both the foundation and Bremen's town hall quickly withdrew their support from the awards ceremony, which was originally set for last Friday. A scaled-down ceremony was held in a different venue the following day.

Shortly after, Gessen spoke to Morning Edition's Leila Fadel about the controversy and the essay that started it.


This Q&A with Masha Gessen has excerpts that were not part of the broadcast version. It has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Leila Fadel: I want to lay out the point and the argument of your piece before we get to the backlash that happened. In your recent essay for The New Yorker, you discuss how "the politics of memory of the Holocaust and antisemitism obscure what we see in Israel and Gaza today." ... What is the central argument in your piece?

Masha Gessen: It's an argument for comparing the Holocaust to present-day situations, and I make this argument both explicitly and implicitly.

I believe that to deliver on the promise of "Never Again," we have to constantly be checking to see if we are once again sliding into the darkness, which I believe is something that's happening in Gaza today. The essay looks at how memory culture, particularly in Germany, has sort of ossified and given birth to a vast and rather bizarre bureaucracy that polices what it perceives as antisemitism. But antisemitism is often too often defined as criticism of Israel, rather than actual antisemitic attacks and harassment.

LF: I wondered if you saw any similar policing here in the U.S. of the discourse around Israel's policies.

MG: I think we're increasingly hearing that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. When Jewish activists and especially Israeli-Jewish activists are speaking out against Israeli policies, to have non-Jewish people brand that as antisemitism is downright bizarre, but also dangerous.

I see a very strong current of wielding antisemitism as a cudgel against, among others, Jewish people, in Representative [Elise] Stefanik's campaign against university presidents.

One of the presidents that she grilled — the president of MIT — is Jewish. And I also say that the entire premise of this campaign against universities is profoundly antisemitic, which is that universities receive a lot of Jewish money. So Jews, donors, should be mobilized to withdraw their money, which is just such a clear antisemitic trope, and so clearly weaponized by the right wing, which, again, is something that's very similar to what's happened here in Germany.

LF: The way criticism of Israeli policy became linked or equated with antisemitism. How did that happen?

MG: This has been one of the top priorities of the consecutive Netanyahu governments. Netanyahu has forged alliances, particularly with right-wing governments of European countries, such as Hungary and Poland, in order to prevent an anti occupation consensus in the European Union. It's been a very successful, very concerted yearslong campaign on the part of Israel. And one of the vehicles for this equation is the International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition of antisemitism, which effectively equates anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel with antisemitism. And this definition has been adopted by all European countries, and the U.S. State Department.

LF: This comparison isn't something that's really done. And you also make a comparison that caused backlash, saying Gaza right now is like a Nazi era Jewish ghetto and that right now the ghetto is being liquidated. But you must have known writing it would get this type of backlash. Why did you make that comparison?

MG: Well, the comparison is very much the centerpiece of the article. And I think that we have a moral and one could also argue, legal obligation to compare the Holocaust and the atrocities committed during the Second World War to the present. If we take the promise of never again, seriously, we once again have to constantly be asking ourselves, are we laying the foundations for the mass murder of millions of people? Are we employing or as part of the world employing the same kinds of tactics that were employed by the Nazis? I think there's every reason to say that that is exactly what's happening.

Human Rights Watch issued a report stating unequivocally that Israel is using starvation as a weapon of war, which not only is a war crime, but it is a war crime that was committed by the Nazis. I think we're seeing the exact same thing happening in Gaza. Now with nine out of 10 Gazans internally displaced, with half of Gaza's hospitals destroyed, and the remaining hospitals providing only partial services, with the majority of the population of Gaza, suffering from starvation: we can say that it really resembles the situation not only of ghettos, but of the liquidation of ghettos in Nazi occupied Europe. And this is the moment for the world to say if we're going to make good on the promise of "Never Again," we have to step in now.

LF: Right now there is a very real rise in antisemitism in Europe, in the United States ... Are antisemites capitalizing on the criticisms you raise about the way Israel is conducting its war against Hamas in Gaza?

MG: You know, the honest answer is we don't know. And no one else knows because the way that antisemitism is currently defined in European bureaucracies conflates criticism of Israel with actual antisemitism. If you look, for example, at the statistics on the drastic rise of antisemitism in Germany since the October 7th attacks, you can't tell whether this rise is real or not. Maybe it's real. And that is very dangerous. Maybe it's not real. So this conflation is super dangerous. In fact, I would argue that the conflation of Jews with Israel is antisemitic per se.

LF: I know we're focused on this particular backlash and what happened with this Hannah Arendt Prize. But [what about] the general reception of your piece? I mean, what have you heard from readers ... who are directly impacted or indirectly impacted by what's going on in a way that others are not?

MG: We all live in our bubbles ... Probably the most meaningful thing to me is that I've heard from one survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and one child of a survivor of Dr. [Josef] Mengele's experiments on twins, both of whom wrote with deep engagement about the comparison of Gaza to the ghetto, which they both agree with. Now, that's not a huge sample. On the other hand, there aren't a lot of survivors in 2023. And in any case, these are very meaningful exchanges that certainly make me think that that the comparison is necessary.

And the thing is that if we are so morally willful that the worst can still be stopped in Gaza, and this comparison to the liquidation of the ghetto can be proven wrong, that would be the best possible outcome of comparing Gaza to a Jewish ghetto.

The broadcast interview was edited by Arezou Rezvani and produced by Taylor Haney.


Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.