Critical Attitudes to Israeli Colonialism and the Diversity of Nazi Victims in Popular Culture

Part 2: Post-Second World War film and the rejection of Western imperialism


The first of these articles cited the critiques and the rejection of Western imperialism that appeared in film and TV popular culture in the era of the postwar consensus. During this period, immigrants from the colonies brought with them their oral histories of Western conquest and colonial oppression; conscripts who had not particularly wished to serve provided their horrified recollections; and there were still career military veterans abroad in society willing to give unashamed accounts of violently dominating Indigenous peoples. This would help shape public consciousness, and popular cultural production.

However, since the New Imperialism was thrown into high gear with the wars started by Tony Blair and George Bush—Iraq and Afghanistan opening the doors for attacks on Syria and the destruction of Libya—Western propagandist news media has done its best to erase this previous public critical awareness of empire.

A similar beneficiary of the media pass given to the homicidal Western imperialist aggression of Blair and Bush has been the colonialist violence of apartheid Israel. Historically contrary to this, in the postwar decades, Western powers were forced by Indigenous uprisings, economic logic and popular will to concede that Western empire colonialism had been something of an ongoing territorial, racist-hierarchical and socio-economic evil, and start processes of decolonisation. As nation after nation was returned to its Indigenous populations, three countries were allowed to seize statehood against this consensus: Rhodesia, South Africa and Israel. All three countries were closely allied, with Israel providing arms technology to apartheid South Africa. All three also practiced variants of the same oppressive, racist social system and were formed out of either eighteenth – or nineteenth – century white colonial ideologies. For European progressives, all three were regarded as regressive throwbacks.

Israel is the last of the three still standing. Since, in particular, the bombing of Gaza in 2014 which according to the UN’s OCHA resulted in 2,251 dead of which 551 were children, the same Western news media outlets that have positively marketed the global violence of Blair and Bush have unashamedly and equivalently spun for Israel and its supporters. White middle-class Israel-supporting British Jews in particular have been misrepresented as more oppressed than victims of BLM deaths at the hands of the police, or those who have had their mosques fire-bombed. The media have downplayed Israel’s domestic record of violence and its position in colonialist history, and, to the detriment of broader victims, recast Nazi crimes. In support of Israeli exceptionalism, the reality of the eugenicist Nazi regime and the diversity of its victims have been re-spun as purely anti-Semitic. In media narratives, Western Jews have gone from being the preponderant victims of the Nazis to the only victims invoked, to the exclusion of all others.

About this and attitudes to Israeli colonialism, cultural history tells us something quite different.

Film and TV clips

The True Glory

British director Carol Reed and American writer Garson Kanin were the authors of The True Glory (1945)—a documentary co-production of the US Office of War Information and the British Ministry of Information which follows the Western Front campaign from Normandy to the relief of the death camps in Germany. The film features testimonies from speakers ranging from commanding generals to the ordinary soldiers and civilians on the ground. There is horrifying footage of the camps’ mass corpses and the extremely poor state of survivors. As the production date indicates, this is the closest thing possible to testimony from those that actually relieved the camps. The extent of Jewish victimisation is clearly evident, but here a US congressman points out there is more than one type of victim present.

Significantly, here there is early recognition that there were Black victims of the Nazis, something the UK media in particular attempts to downplay. Holocaust historians such as Benjamin Madley, Clarence Lusane, Tina Campt and writer/activist Tony Greenstein would later demonstrate that the policy model for Nazi practices were Black colonial holocausts, and particularly the eugenic experimentation and extermination attempts upon the colonised Namibian population. Despite national and language differences the US congressman speaking in the film gives an account largely confirming the sentiments of Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Judgement at Nuremberg

Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) is Hollywood’s fictionalised version of the trials of the German judicial caste that rubberstamped Nazi crimes. A BBC announcer introducing a September 2023 broadcast said it was a film about the Holocaust—not a holocaust or the European holocaust. Here the BBC is following the lead of the Israel-supporting UK Holocaust Memorial Day website, which strategically does not list any colonial genocides of Indigenous peoples at Western hands.

Interestingly, the term ‘holocaust’ is not actually used once in the entire 2 hours and 51 minutes of the 1961 film. Instead, the standard, inclusive decades-old term ‘Nazi crimes against humanity’ is repeated. In The Holocaust Industry (2000), political scientist Norman Finkelstein argues that it was around time of the 1967 Six-Day War that an ideological construct took shape around Israel and the Holocaust—decades before the post-2014 Gaza bombing moral panic. One of the key planks of this ideology is the notion of ‘uniqueness’, both of the European holocaust and of Western Jews as victims. This is used to cloak Israel in the status of ‘victim-state’, offsetting its horrendous UN record of violating human rights.

Finkelstein does not deal much with visual culture directly, but it is worth noting that as late as 1973–74, in Scottish Jewish producer Jeremy Isaacs’s BAFTA Award-winning TV series The World at War, the twentieth episode, which dealt with the death camps, was still simply called ‘Genocide’. It was Holocaust, the widely exported 1978 US TV mini-series based on a Hollywood blockbuster model, that largely put the term into global usage. And few people were probably using the Hebrew term Shoah prior to Claude Lannzman’s 1985 9.5-hour form-breaking documentary with that title.

Judgement at Nuremberg includes a prominent scene in which the prosecution presents film evidence of the death camps, the corpses and the appalling condition of survivors, and in which the 6 million figure for Jewish victims is foregrounded. Other than that, this representation rests on two individual victim case studies, both of which open up the issue of oppression rather than compartmentalise it around a particular identity and strategic, political vested self-interest. The first involves an under-educated working-class man, Rudolph Peterson (played by Montgomery Clift), who has been sterilised under the Nazis. He and his family had fought in the streets against the Sturmabteilung, or SA, prior to the Nazi rise to power. His sterilisation was part of a payback for this.

In this clip the defence lawyer is allowed to attempt to justify this act by questioning Peterson’s mental competency as defined by Nazi legislation, because equivalent eugenics were also practiced in other Western countries. The issues of political persecution, the victimization of the less abled and the wider global societal relevancy are thus opened up here.

The next clip is one of the more ‘Hollywood-ised’ parts of the film; students of genre consistency may find some similarity between the dialogue rhythms of cross-examination here and those in A Few Good Men (1992). It features a character called Irene Hoffman, played by Judy Garland, who was orphaned as a teenager. An older, Jewish friend of her parents used to check in on her wellbeing. She was imprisoned and he executed under Nazi ‘race-mixing’ prohibitions after they were wrongly accused of having a sexual relationship (depicting the allegations as false suited contemporary morality, though the modern viewer will find the penalties brutally discriminatory even if consensual relations had taken place). Here she is forced to recall her ordeal under cross-examination.

Again there is a broadening of the representation of victimhood. There is the issue of sexual persecution, and the point that the mass targeting of groups like Jews means that others, as in the Niemöller quotation, inevitably fall with them. And the defence is again is permitted to make the case for guilt under Nazi German law because anti-miscegenation laws existed globally. Up until 1967, around seventeen US states had anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting sexual relations between whites and African-Americans. So the issue of global societal relevancy is raised once more.

It is doubtful this broadening of the relevancy of Nazi crimes was due to any reluctance to represent Jewish issues. Many Hollywood studios had been founded by Jewish entrepreneurs. The Diary of Anne Frank had been made in 1959. Gentleman’s Agreement had tackled anti-Semitism in 1947. And Judgement at Nuremberg′s director Stanley Kramer was from a Jewish family, though to his credit he would also spend much of his career also addressing the issue of racism.

The dual loyalty debate

European Jews and socialists would spend much of the 1930s fighting in the streets against fascists claiming that Western Jews were not real Westerners. Ironically, followers of the nineteenth-century white colonial cult of Zionism would claim that religion meant they could call themselves Middle Easterners and seize Palestine. Zionists would assert that any scrutiny of this issue was anti-Semitic and attempt to create a taboo around public debate, which currently manifests as the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

However, other Western Jews—particularly anti-racists and leftists—are often, like their 1930s peers, deeply resentful of any suggestion that they are other than fully committed members of communities in their own nation-states, and reject colonial and dual loyalty orientations. This issue has been raised by the British organisation Jewish Voice for Labour, which celebrated when Rabbi Brant Rosen and his Chicago synagogue designated themselves anti-Zionist.

‘Roubles for a Promised Land’ is an episode from When the Boat Comes In, a 1976-81 BBC drama series set in the emerging trade-union and Labour-supporting communities of North-Eastern England’s mining and shipyard industries just after the First World War. While the regular characters reminisce about their national service duties as foreign occupiers, the subplot represents the contested Jewish duality debate largely absent from modern pro-Israel news media coverage in dialogue between a Russian Zionist heading for Palestine and an English Jewish businessman, edited together into a 4-minute sequence here.

Significantly, the drama’s discussion is historically situated before the rise of fascism and the argued-for move to Palestine is only logistically possible because the land fell into British hands during the First World War. Prior to that, Zionist colonialist proposals had, like Rhodesia and South Africa, included the Ugandan Scheme.

British attitudes to Israeli colonialism

US popular culture has often provided sympathetic portrayals of the formation of Israel, with Exodus (1960) and Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) being examples. However, even the latter film, which depicts a US colonel moving to the Middle East to become a general in Israel’s army, unintentionally illustrates that eventually, of the some people becoming Israeli would be on their second or even third white settler society. British attitudes could be significantly more critical than Hollywood’s.

Funeral in Berlin (1966), featuring Michael Caine in the lead role, was the second of the Harry Palmer spy films. In this clip, the woman who has been seducing him reveals herself to be an Israeli spy. In response he is flippant and unflattering about the colonial ideology she follows. ‘The Good Ones Are All Dead’ (1967) is the first episode in the Black Ops drama series Callan (1967–72), which would become popular internationally. Callan, portrayed by Edward Woodward, is given the job of establishing if a Cypriot businessman is a former German officer, and if he is so, handing him over to Mossad. Callan becomes increasingly uncomfortable with handing a suspect over to the extremists of Mossad. Finally in a wordy, theatrical climax indicative of the production values of the time, he allows the suspect access to poison for the purpose of suicide.

In this era, the celebration of the genocide of Native Americans known as ‘manifest destiny’ was ending in Hollywood cinema. Apartheid-supporting white South Africans were failing in their ‘This was the land promised in the Book of Joshua’ attempts to use religion to justify their offences. Zionist claims like apartheid South Africa’s and the general ideology of ‘promised land’ narratives also used to justify Protestant, Mormon and other colonialisms were treated as fanaticism in most quarters. In 1975, UN Resolution 3379 determined that ‘Zionism is form of racism and racial discrimination’: this lasted until 1991, when the United States, still presiding over a Native American Reservation System and ongoing Black human rights crisis, used its leverage to have the definition dismantled. In the postwar era there was great sensitivity about Westerners matching the yardstick measurement of Nazi-type brutalities. The feedback coming back from colonial projects was that this not only had been happening but was continuing.

In our era Israel has attempted to create a revisionist IHRA taboo against reporting examples of when it repeats Nazi practices. In the UK, protesters suggesting that members of the professional political class are fascist now face public order charges. The yardstick of comparison with fascism has been taken away from the general public. As Israel bombs Gaza once more, the UK’s 5Action TV channel delayed an October screening of Guns at Batasi (1964), which features an anti-colonial African coup, until the following month. Perhaps some are now starting to fear the example of past popular culture.

Post-WWII Film and the Rejection of Western Imperialism

Gavin Lewis, 5 Apr 2023

Here the strict, demarcations, brutalities and abuses of a military prison, represent the structures of western class and race oppression – three years after Lawrence of Arabia the racism depicted, is even more overt.

About the author

Gavin Lewis

Gavin Lewis is a freelance Black British mixed-race writer and academic. He has published in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States on film, media, politics, cultural theory, race, and representation. He has taught critical theory and film and cultural studies at a number of British universities.

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