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In Hamas’ horrific killings, Israeli trauma over the Holocaust resurfaces

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Women, children and older adults hiding in safe rooms gunned down mercilessly. Homes set ablaze with terrified residents still inside them. Children, some bound, forced into a room and slaughtered. Jews, helpless.

For many Israelis and Jews around the world, the horrors committed by Hamas militants during their stunning onslaught on southern Israeli communities is triggering painful memories of a calamity of a far greater scale: the Holocaust.

Long seen as a catastrophe so horrific nothing else should be compared to it, Israelis are now drawing direct parallels between the murder of 6 million Jews in Europe eight decades ago and their most recent tragedy, underscoring how traumatic the attack has been for a country that rose from the ashes of World War II and was created as a safe haven for Jews.

“I have been strict about not using the word ‘Shoah’ in any context other than the Holocaust,” political commentator Ben Caspit wrote in the daily Maariv, referring to the Holocaust by its Hebrew name. “When Jewish children hide in a protected room and their anguished parents pray that they won’t cry, so that the marauders won’t come in and set the house on fire, it’s a Shoah.”

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Israel’s retaliation against Hamas in Gaza has also drawn comparisons to the Palestinians’ greatest national tragedy, the Nakba, when hundreds of thousands fled or were forced to flee following the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation. Many Palestinians fear a repeat of that mass exodus after Israel ordered the evacuation of northern Gaza.

Just a few years ago, comparisons to the Holocaust would have been promptly denounced as cheapening its memory and diminishing the horror of the Nazi crimes.

That has begun to erode in recent years — with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alluding to the Nazis when talking about Iran and its nuclear program and protesters on rival sides of the political aisle calling each other “Nazis.” Still, such incidents remain rare and often draw criticism.

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A burnt Kiddush Cup in a house damaged by Hamas militants is seen in Kibbutz Be'eri, Israel, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. The kibbutz was overrun by Hamas militants from the nearby Gaza Strip on Cot.7, when they killed and captured many Israelis. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A burnt Kiddush Cup in a house damaged by Hamas militants is seen in Kibbutz Be’eri, Israel, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

But the horrors of the Oct. 7 Hamas assault, which killed at least 1,300 Israelis, have tapped into Israel’s deepest fears and revived memories of the Jews’ greatest trauma.

Hundreds of militants stormed across the border, catching the country and its vaunted military off guard on a major Jewish holiday. They attacked sleepy farming villages, slaughtering terrified residents.

The militants killed at least 260 revelers at a music festival, with survivors telling harrowing stories of methodical massacres.

Dozens were dragged away as hostages on motorcycles and golf carts. Some of the dead and captured were Holocaust survivors.

Israelis take cover from the incoming rocket fire from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Israelis take cover from the incoming rocket fire from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

“This is a massacre. This is a pogrom,” said Maj. Gen. Itai Veruv, leader of forces that cleared one of the besieged villages, referring to historic massacres of European Jews.

In the Holocaust, Nazis led a campaign of genocide, rounding up and murdering many of Europe’s Jews, while sending others on trains to death or labor camps.

Israel made protecting Jews from similar atrocities part of its raison d’etre. Many Israelis see their country as a refuge, a nation with a strong army that could protect Jews despite regional threats. Many Jews in the diaspora share that feeling, seeing Israel as a safe haven should Jews be persecuted again.

While the Hamas attack did not nearly approach the Holocaust’s scale, it marked the deadliest day for Jews since then and its well-planned slaughter reopened a wound that remains fresh for many in Israel.

Netanyahu compared the festival killings to the Babi Yar massacre, one of the most infamous mass slaughters of World War II in which more than 33,000 Jews were killed. He has declared that Israel will “never forget,” a clear reflection of Israel’s vow to never let the Holocaust disappear from the world’s collective memory. Dany Cushmaro, an Israeli newscaster, began referring to the Hamas militants as “those Nazis.”

A house damaged by Hamas militants is seen in Kibbutz Be'eri, Israel, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. The kibbutz was overrun by Hamas militants from the nearby Gaza Strip on Cot.7, when they killed and captured many Israelis. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A house damaged by Hamas militants is seen in Kibbutz Be’eri, Israel, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israel’s allies abroad also have made the connection.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to his late father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, during a visit to Israel and said the attacks had “harrowing echoes” of Nazi massacres. A reel posted to Instagram by the pro-Israel group Stand With Us shows a candle and the number 6 million slowly ticking up to include the 1,300 slain Israelis.

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The memory of the mass murder of Jews looms large over Israel. It holds a memorial day, where Israelis stand still during a one-minute siren to remember the dead. The Holocaust is taught in depth in schools. Youth groups and soldiers visit the death camps in Europe. And visiting dignitaries are taken to the country’s Holocaust memorial.

Israeli historian Tom Segev said it was natural for Israelis to make the connection between the Hamas attack and the nation’s deeply embedded trauma. “This is the ultimate evil that the person in Israel recognizes,” he said.

But he said Israeli leaders across the political spectrum have for decades tried to exploit the memory of the Holocaust for political gain.

Israelis take cover in a shelter as a siren sounds a warning of incoming rockets fired from the Gaza strip, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Gideon Markowicz)

Israelis take cover in a shelter as a siren sounds a warning of incoming rockets fired from the Gaza strip, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Gideon Markowicz)

Israelis have, in some cases, become furious when comparisons are made.

In a 2016 speech marking Israel’s Holocaust memorial day, Yair Golan, then deputy military chief, said he was witnessing “nauseating processes” in Israeli society that reminded him of the fascism of Nazi-era Germany. The speech drew angry reactions from Israeli leaders and is widely believed to be the reason Golan was passed over for the army’s top job.

Prominent activists on rival sides of Israel’s recent judicial overhaul controversy sparked uproars over Holocaust-related comments.

Some critics of Israel, meanwhile, compare Israeli actions against the Palestinians to the Nazis, which Israel condemns as antisemitism.

Mairav Zonszein, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the Holocaust is being used by Israel and its allies to build legitimacy for its strikes against Hamas, which have killed at least 2,200 Palestinians, and to appeal to Jews in the diaspora.

She said the comparisons could also have dangerous consequences for the way the war plays out.

“When you invoke the Holocaust, it’s the worst of the worst,” Zonszein said, adding that Israel’s response could be severe.