Shoah or Holocaust, It’s Still a Catastrophe

Sheila Musaji

Posted Mar 4, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Shoah or Holocaust, It’s Still a Catastrophe

by Sheila Musaji

In the past week there has been an interesting debate about whether or not the word Shoah in Hebrew translates as holocaust.

Matan Vilnai, Israel’s deputy defence minister used the word Shoah in the following statement ““The more Qassam [rocket] fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves.”

This was translated by The Guardian and Reuters as Holocaust - and articles with titles like Israel threatens to unleash ‘holocaust’ in Gaza began popping up all over. 

The Guardian article pointed out that“Shoah is the Hebrew word normally reserved to refer to the Jewish Holocaust. It is rarely used in Israel outside discussions of the Nazi extermination of Jews during the second world war, and many Israelis are loath to countenance its use to describe other events.” 

Almost immediately there was an uproar.  Vilnai said that that is not what he had meant - he only meant a “catastrophe”.  Many Israeli sites pointed out that they thought this had been a poor translation and that what Vilnai meant had been lost in translation

When Palestinian sites jumped on this and began referring in words and cartoons to the Israeli’s as similar to the Nazi’s, the Israeli’s said that Palestinians had twisted the minister’s words to compare IDF actions with Holocaust.  An Israeli official said that the comment was manipulated.  The translation of holocaust for Shoah has been called the mother of all mistranslations, and Melanie Phillips accused those who used this translation of engaging in a war against the Jews.  The Canadian Islamic Congress was accused of a “blood libel” against the Jews for repeating this story.

Robert Spencer informs us that this was a grotesque mistranslation by Reuters and refers to an article by Melanie Philips that says “Reuters translated the Hebrew word ‘shoah’ as ‘holocaust’. But ‘shoah’ merely means disaster. In Hebrew, the word ‘shoah’ is never used to mean ‘holocaust’ or ‘genocide’ because of the acute historical resonance. The word ‘Hashoah’ alone means ‘the Holocaust’ and ‘retzach am’ means ‘genocide’. The well-known Hebrew construction used by Vilnai used merely means ‘bringing disaster on themselves’.

As Brian Klug has noted:  “But (and here is the terrible irony) only the most emotive critics refer to Israel’s punitive actions against the Palestinians as a “shoah”. When they do, they are accused - rightly in my view - of demonising Israel and devaluing the catastrophe that Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Imagine the outcry if it had been a Palestinian minister, rather than an Israeli one, who had used Vilnai’s turn of phrase to refer to Israel’s actions.”  And, as The U.N. Observer notesRacheli Gai writes that “the word “shoah” is not used in Hebrew exclusively in reference to the Nazi holocaust. However, this is the primary and dominant meaning of the word, so any use of it brings forth connotations of the holocaust/genocide. If we add to it the fact that it was used by a public figure, a military man threatening horrendous action against the people of Gaza, there is no way to ignore the presence of the ominous connotations.” 

Anyone might be confused.  A Jewish holocaust survivor recently gave a speech in Britain sponsored by the Shoah Foundation recently gave a speech in Britain.  There was an article in the St. Louis Jewish Light discusses a student play ‘I NEVER SAW ANOTHER BUTTERFLY’ about the holocaust and the title of the article was Student play looks at lessons from Shoah

In only a few minutes I found numerous books and articles that refer to the Shoah and the holocaust interchangeably.  An article Why is it important to remember the Shoah (Holocaust).  The Jewish Virtual Library has a letter from a Catholic Cardinal entitled We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah.  There is a book SHOAH Journey from the Ashes A Story of Triumph Over the Holocaust The story of Cantor Leo Fettman as told to Paul M. Howey.  There is a holocaust/shoah web page, and another holocaust/shoah educational resources.  The organization Prevent Genocide International has a Shoah/Holocaust resources page.  There is an article on the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs site Israeli Media Attitudes toward the Shoah that seems to think they are the same thing as does the Shoah Foundation.

Looking up definitions doesn’t seem to help clarify the confusion between the words Shoah and Holocaust.  One defines this as Shoah: The Hebrew word meaning “catastrophe,” denoting the catastrophic destruction of European Jewry during World War II. The term is used in Israel, and the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) has designated an official day, called Yom ha-Shoah, as a day of commemorating the Shoah or Holocaust. Another defines this Shoah, a Hebrew word meaning “Desolation.”  Shoah has come to be the preferred term for the Holocaust by Jewish scholars who feel that “Holocaust” has lost much of its significance through overuse

There will certainly continue to be” title=“debates about the meanings”>debates about the meanings of these words, and about what the deputy defense minister meant.  We can only be left to wonder what exactly he did mean to convey and just what sort of a catastrophe Israel plans to inflict beyond what is already being suffered.


The meaning of Gaza’s ‘shoah’ :: Israel plots another Palestinian exodus, by Jonathan Cook