Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Monday, 7 September 2009 11:49 UK

Jerusalem Diary: Monday 7 September

Poster in Jerusalem
Ultra-orthodox Israelis have clashed regularly with police in recent months

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

Enflamed language

It was, said one angry onlooker, "a holocaust".

Time to back up. The onlooker was, according to the Haaretz newspaper, a supporter of the "pale, agitated and tearful" former welfare minister, Shlomo Benizri. Mr Benizri had just arrived at Masiyahu Prison in central Israel to begin a four-year sentence for taking bribes.

A crowd of big-wigs and supporters was on hand to display their loyalty to the former minister. The newspaper reported that some blew shofars - ceremonial ram's horns. Some handed out stickers showing Mr Benizri's face and the word "innocent".

And some proclaimed their disgust at his imprisonment. "A disgrace," said one. "A holocaust," said another.

This is no aberration. In Mea Shearim, the haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jerusalem neighbourhood, you can see posters calling the Israeli police - with whom some haredi men are regularly battling at demonstrations over a number of complaints - "Zionist Gestapo".

Earlier in the summer, when a haredi woman was accused of starving her child, the Jerusalem hospital doctors who had raised the alarm were described, by outraged haredim, as "Doctor Mengeles" - after the incomparably sadistic doctor at Auschwitz.

And when, from time to time, the Israeli border police move on to a hill-top in the West Bank to dismantle the shacks marking out a new Jewish outpost, what do the settler youth chant?

"Kapo! Kapo!" A kapo was a class of inmate at the Nazi concentration camps and death camps, whom the guards used to do some of their dirty work on the ordinary prisoners.

It is odd. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of "holocaust" back to 1250.

It meant a sacrifice completely consumed by fire. From the 17th Century it carried wider connotations of utter destruction. But since the Nazi genocide, the Holocaust has acquired a capital letter and become inseparable from the deaths of six million Jews.

Poster in Jerusalem
This poster reads: ‘Killers! Second attempted murder by the commanders of the Zionist Gestapo’

Almost all Jews believe that the Holocaust was an episode of unique evil.

They shudder when non-Jews refer to Gaza as a "concentration camp", or when Hamas deplores draft UN plans for Gazan children at UN schools to be taught about the Holocaust because - in the words of a Hamas spokesman - it is "a big lie".

And yet Matan Vilnai remains deputy defence minister, 18 months after he warned the Palestinians in Gaza that they might bring a "shoah" (the Hebrew for holocaust) on themselves, if militants were to carry on firing rockets into southern Israel.

He meant, we were told, a "catastrophe", rather than a "holocaust". But it was, at the least, a rather maladroit use of the word.

Some Israeli Jews have explained to me that their compatriots use the word "shoah" in the way that black Americans use racist terminology that would be unacceptable coming from the mouths of white people. Indeed, it can be empowering to throw around a term once used as a badge of your victimhood.

But in this case, it could quite easily be a symptom of how fractured and febrile this place has become. One liberal rabbi, whose parents are both Holocaust survivors, managed to smile in wonder, as he told dinner guests from America about how some haredim were comparing Jerusalem's main hospital to Auschwitz.

"It's amazing how they jump straight in with the most extreme language they can," he said. "And then they just turn it up a notch or two."

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