updated 1/19/2009 8:52:06 PM ET 2009-01-20T01:52:06

The use of Nazi imagery at recent anti-Israel demonstrations across Europe has fanned the flames of anti-Semitism and incited violence against Jews, the head of Israel's Holocaust memorial said Monday.

Protests against Israel's Gaza offensive have included signs and slogans comparing Israeli soldiers to German troops, the Gaza Strip to the Auschwitz death camp and the Jewish Star of David to the Nazi swastika.

The protests have come amid a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic acts, including attacks on synagogues, beatings of pro-Israel demonstrators and proposed boycotts of Jewish businesses, according to the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League.

Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem museum and memorial, said the comparisons were "manipulative distortions of history" and called for the Holocaust to be left out of contemporary political discourse.

"It is legitimate to constructively criticize the policies of any nation, including Israel. However, the baseless use of Holocaust imagery and terminology as a weapon against Israel has incited a tangible surge of anti-Semitism," he said. "That is the danger inherent when people cynically use the Holocaust to distort a present political conflict."

Accusations of anti-Semitism
Most of the protesters reject any accusation of anti-Semitism.

The Nazis and their collaborators murdered 6 million Jews in an attempt to eradicate European Jewry during World War II, shutting them in ghettos and concentration camps and killing them in gas chambers.

More than 1,200 Palestinians were killed during Israel's three-week operation, launched on Dec. 27 to halt near-daily rocket fire from Gaza toward Israel. More than half the dead were civilians, according to the United Nations. Thirteen Israelis also died in the fighting.

Images of the devastation in Gaza — including the bloodied bodies of children and anguished victims in hospitals — stoked protests around the world. Human rights groups accused Israel of using disproportionate force and of not doing enough to protect Gaza's civilian population.

Anti-Semitic incidents during the war spiked markedly in Europe, the Anti-Defamation League said.

Molotov cocktails have been hurled toward synagogues in France, Sweden and Belgium. Jews have been beaten in England and Norway, and an Italian union endorsed a boycott of Jewish-owned shops in Rome.

In Amsterdam, a Dutch lawmaker marched in a demonstration where the crowd hollered "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas." Socialist lawmaker Harry van Bommel said he did not repeat calls for another Holocaust and only chanted, "Intifada, Intifada, Free Palestine."

'Big concentration camp'
The Norwegian finance minister took part in a protest where comparisons were made between Nazis and Jews. A British lawmaker whose grandmother died in the Holocaust said Israeli soldiers were acting like Nazis and most recently, a senior Vatican official, Cardinal Renato Martino, said Gaza under the Israeli military offensive resembled a "big concentration camp."

"We have always seen a link between violence in the Middle East to anti-Semitism but we have never seen anything like what we are seeing now," said Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the national director of the ADL. "Not on this scale, not in this intensity."

He said similar protests have also taken place in the United States. In San Francisco, protesters burned Israeli flags and carried banners reading "Jews are terrorists," "ZionismNazism," and "GazaHolocaust." Some read "Zionazis."

"If you think Israel is too aggressive, say it! But don't use the words 'Ghetto' and 'Nazi,'" Shalev said.

Speaking at the cornerstone-laying ceremony for a new wing at Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies, he said the school's students study the painful lessons of that era. He said that includes speaking out against injustice anywhere.

"But they also learn that absurd and vicious comparisons of current events in the Middle East to the Holocaust do nothing to further understanding of the current situation," he said. "Instead they cloud our judgment and our perceptions."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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