Dutchman returns Holocaust medal in protest over Gaza

‘It’s painful that the people you defended and struggled for turn into aggressors’

The family of Henk Zanoli, with his mother, Jans, seated in center, in 1942. Zanoli, 91, who saved a Jewish boy in 1943 and whose father died in a Nazi camp. Zanoli went to the Israeli Embassy in The Hague and returned a medal he received honoring him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Photograph: NYT

The family of Henk Zanoli, with his mother, Jans, seated in center, in 1942. Zanoli, 91, who saved a Jewish boy in 1943 and whose father died in a Nazi camp. Zanoli went to the Israeli Embassy in The Hague and returned a medal he received honoring him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Photograph: NYT

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 13:27

In 1943, Henk Zanoli took a dangerous train trip, slipping past Nazi guards and checkpoints to smuggle a Jewish boy from Amsterdam to the Dutch village of Eemnes. There, the Zanoli family, already under suspicion for resisting Nazi occupation, hid the boy in their home for two years. The boy would be the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust.

Seventy-one years later, on July 20th, an Israeli airstrike flattened a house in the Gaza Strip, killing six of Zanoli’s relatives by marriage. His grandniece, a Dutch diplomat, is married to a Palestinian economist, Ismail Ziadah, who lost three brothers, a sister-in-law, a nephew and his father’s first wife in the attack.

On Thursday, Mr Zanoli, 91, whose father died in a Nazi camp, went to the Israeli Embassy in The Hague and returned a medal he received honoring him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations - non-Jews honored by Israel for saving Jews during the Holocaust. In an anguished letter to the Israeli ambassador to the Netherlands, he described the terrible price his family had paid for opposing Nazi tyranny.

“My sister lost her husband, who was executed in the dunes of The Hague for his involvement in the resistance,” he wrote. “My brother lost his Jewish fiance who was deported, never to return.” Mr Zanoli continued, “Against this background, it is particularly shocking and tragic that today, four generations on, our family is faced with the murder of our kin in Gaza. Murder carried out by the State of Israel.”

His act crystallizes the moral debate over Israel’s military air and ground assault in the Gaza Strip, in which about 2,000 people, a majority of them civilians, have been killed. Israel says the strikes are aimed at Hamas militants who fire rockets at Israeli cities and have dug a secret network of tunnels into Israel.

Zanoli transformed over the decades from a champion to a critic of the Israeli state, mirroring a larger shift in Europe, where anguish over the slaughter of six million European Jews led many to support the founding of Israel in 1948 as a haven for Jews worldwide.

But in the years since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza during the 1967 war, Europeans have become more critical. Israel blames anti-Semitism, which has grown in Europe with the rise of right-wing politicians. Some European protests against Israeli military action have been marred in recent weeks by open anti-Semitism, blurring the line between critics of Israeli policy and hate speech against Jews. But many other critics, like Zanoli, say their objection to Israeli policy is not anti-Jewish but consistent with the humanitarian principles that led them to condemn the Holocaust and support the founding of a Jewish state.