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
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.
“I gave back my medal because I didn’t agree with what the state of Israel is doing to my family and to the Palestinians on the whole,” Zanoli said in an interview Friday in his apartment, adding that his decision was a statement “only against the state of Israel, not the Israeli people”.
“Jews were our friends,” said Zanoli, a retired lawyer who uses a motorized scooter but remains erect and regal, much as he appears in a yellowing 1940s photograph archived at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. In Gaza, Zanoli’s in-laws say his gesture is a fitting response to the losses of their family and others who have lost multiple relatives in strikes on homes. Those in-laws include Dr. Hassan al-Zeyada, a psychological trauma counselor who is an older brother of Ismail Ziadah. Zeyada’s mother, Muftiyah, 70, was the oldest family member to die in the bombing.
Like Zanoli, Zeyada, 50, who works to treat the many Palestinians in Gaza traumatized by war and displacement, has given much thought to the fact that Israel was founded in the wake of the Holocaust, one of history’s greatest collective traumas.
Zeyada, who transliterates his family name differently from his brother, said Friday that he admired Zanoli and his family for their struggle during World War II against “discrimination and oppression in general and against the Jews in particular”.
“For them,” he added, “it’s something painful that the people you defended and struggled for turn into aggressors.” Zeyada said last month that none of his family members were militants. Israel says it takes precautions to avoid killing civilians, and that Hamas purposely increases civilian casualties by operating in residential neighborhoods. It has offered no information on whether the Zeyada family home was hit purposely, and if so, what the target was and whether it justified a strike that killed six civilians. The military told the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which first reported Zanoli’s decision, only that it was investigating “all irregular incidents”.
At Yad Vashem, where a leafy garden commemorates the 25,000 people named Righteous Among the Nations, a spokeswoman said Friday that Zanoli’s renunciation of the prize was “his decision,” but “we regret it.” More than 5,000 Dutch have received the honor; only Poles have been honored more. In 1943, Zanoli’s father was detained by the Nazis for his work in the Dutch underground resistance movement. Soon after, according to Yad Vashem’s citation, also awarded posthumously to Zanoli’s mother, Jans, Zanoli traveled to Amsterdam to get 11-year-old Elchanan Pinto, an Orthodox Jewish boy whose parents and siblings would all die in the death camps.
“Jans Zanoli knew very well the risks involved by then in hiding a Jewish youngster in her home, but felt the moral obligation to do so,” the citation reads. “Elchanan found a warm and loving home with them.” After the Allied victory in 1945, an uncle of Elchanan took him to a Jewish orphanage. In 1951, the citation says, Elchanan immigrated to Israel, where he changed his last name to Hameiri. An Elchanan Hameiri is listed in phone directories as living in Israel, but that individual could not be reached Friday.
In his letter to the Israeli ambassador, Zanoli noted that among the bereaved were “the great-great grandchildren of my mother.” He relinquished the honor “with great sorrow,” he wrote, because keeping it would be “an insult to the memory of my courageous mother” and to “kin in Gaza”. He added that his family had “strongly supported the Jewish people” in their quest for “a national home,” but that he had gradually come to believe that “the Zionist project” had “a racist element in it in aspiring to build a state exclusively for Jews.”
He referred to the displacement of Palestinians - including members of the Ziadah family - during the war over Israel’s founding as “ethnic cleansing” and said Israel “continues to suppress” and occupy Palestinians. Israel still occupies the West Bank; it pulled troops out of Gaza in 2005 but retains control over its seafront, airspace and most of its borders.
Israel says it maintains control to curb Palestinian militants like those with Hamas, which in the past has killed several hundred Israelis in suicide bombings. Palestinians see the ongoing conflict as a struggle for self-determination - they use Zanoli’s word for his anti-Nazi work, resistance - and say Israeli is obstructing the establishment of a Palestinian state with policies like settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Zanoli said he could envision a situation in which he would take the medal back. “The only way out of the quagmire the Jewish people of Israel have gotten themselves into is by granting all living under the control of the State of Israel the same political rights and social and economic rights and opportunities,” he wrote. “Although this will result in a state no longer exclusively Jewish it will be a state with a level of righteousness on the basis of which I could accept the title of ‘Righteous among the Nations’ you awarded to my mother and me.”
In that event, he concluded, “be sure to contact me or my descendants.”
New York Times