The art of symbolism lies at the very heart of demonstration. When students gathered on campus last week in response to the latest chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both students in support of Israel and students standing in solidarity with the people of Gaza wielded symbols to convey beliefs and elicit emotions. Some students waved the blue and white—others held up the Palestinian flag.
Some symbols went deeper—a peace sign with both flags drawn into it waved by supporters of Israel and tape over the mouths of Palestinian activists left indelible marks on many who saw them. Yet at times symbolism does more than impress its message. It can cut into the hearts of its audience, turning the powerful into the painful and the effective into the emotionally overwhelming. When the Columbia Community in Standing with Gaza—the ad hoc activist group that organized the rally—displayed rows of shoes to symbolize the civilians killed in Gaza, the symbol cut into the hearts of individuals with an emotional relationship to the Holocaust.
The symbolic significance of shoes to Holocaust representation and remembrance cannot be overstated. "The Shoes" are a unique symbol, not a universal mark of suffering. At Auschwitz—perhaps the most infamous of all Nazi concentration and death camps—the room filled with cases upon cases of shoes is a jarring image, meant to intimate the sheer scale of the atrocity. This image is reproduced at concentration camps such as Majdanek and in Yad Vashem, the Israeli national Holocaust museum and memorial. "The Shoes" have become iconic as a lens through which to experience an iota of the human life destroyed by Nazism.
Without authoritative information, it is only possible to wonder whether this connection was the very intent of those Gaza demonstrators. Perhaps they wanted to link the awesome power of Holocaust imagery to the plight of the Gazans. Whether or not the connection was intended, the decision was either unwittingly offensive or perversely inflammatory. Symbolism is a tool intrinsically wrapped up in memory, and the use of the shoes to represent the deceased Gazans subverts the Jewish collective memory of the Holocaust—cheapens it in a potentially traumatic manner.
Historically, many critics of Israeli policies have been unable to resist the temptation to use Holocaust imagery in their criticism, finding the parallelism and irony too good to pass up. The critical response to this Gaza operation was no different. Columbia's own Joseph Massad wrote "The Gaza Ghetto Uprising," the title of which insinuates a connection between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto, the site of courageous Jewish resistance to Nazi atrocities. His hyperbolic article comes complete with the iconic photograph of a Nazi guard aiming his rifle at the back of a stone-faced boy, hands up in abject fear of what is to come. Others have not pursued their symbolic connections as creatively, instead casting about the term "genocide" in response to Israel's actions in Gaza.
Whereas Israel's supporters have acclimated grimly to an environment of rhetorical manipulation and assault of Israel, seeing the corruption of Holocaust symbols remains bitterly difficult. Symbols only retain their evocative power in relation to the memories with which they are associated. "The Shoes" have been a powerful symbol to millions of visitors—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—to Holocaust museums and concentration camps. The indelible image is the physical embodiment of the phrase "Never Again."
To expropriate this symbol for a different memory is to equate the two memories. Let us be clear—the terrible human loss in Gaza is not equivalent to the horrific tragedy of the Holocaust. This lack of equivalence damages both the symbol and the memory itself for a group of people forever coping with a historic, catastrophic loss.
Students who stand with Gaza and criticize Israel may be tempted to shirk such criticism. They may have understood well the symbolism, and used it for exactly such a purpose. This response uses the Holocaust as a cheap tool for a political punch. Moreover, this response underestimates the deleterious effect such a comparison has on advocates of both sides and on any potential for constructive engagement between the groups.
For most Jews, the expropriation of such an important symbol has a chilling effect. Engagement may be pushed toward the irrational and the emotional, two very poor bases for constructive interaction. This would be understandable: "The Shoes" at Auschwitz and Yad Vashem are used to evoke raw numbness. In a student culture that should be committed to engagement with those of opposing views, using this symbol has a regressive effect.
The impact is no less profound for Palestinians and their advocates. The use of a Holocaust symbol creates a lens of pure victimhood that serves to absolve its side of the conflict from any responsibility for the perpetual standoff between Israel and Palestine.
For constructive engagement to progress, the sides must come forward with honest self-assessments. Such assessments will acknowledge the wrongs perpetrated and experienced by both sides. The image of "The Shoes"—which can cause Jews to shut down and can cause Palestinians to create the illusion of pure victimhood—is best left alone, as a hallowed symbol of a historic human tragedy.
Dov Friedman is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. He is the immediate past senior editor of The Current. Jordan Hirsch is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. He is editor-in-chief of The Current.