Politicizing the Holocaust in Modern Israeli Politics
The somber rituals of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel are traditionally apolitical. When the nation’s notables gather at Yad va-Shem and the first memorial siren of the year pierces the silence, there’s enough history, tragedy and heroism to recall without getting into political fights over the meaning and the place of this memory in Israeli national life.
In this sense, Holocaust day is a day of rest. On all other days of the year, the issue is constantly and hotly contested. So much so, in fact, that last year the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) took up the legislation of a bill that would make it illegal to call someone a “Nazi”, with the punishment of a fine for committing the offense. This comes as leftist activists are defending themselves from a libel suit, having called the political movement “Im Tirzu”, the self described “extra-parliamentary movement that works to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism” a “despicable fascist outfit”.
After secular Israelis reacted with outrage to a number of misogynistic outbursts by the Ultra-Orthodox, the more cynical activists of this community reacted by putting on a show of children’s demonstrations in Jerusalem, complete with yellow Stars of David and the slogans “Pogrom in Israel”. They followed the path beaten by the settlers of Gush Katif 6 years before, who, in a last desperate effort to avoid evacuation, had pinned yellow stars on their own children and made them walk with their hands in the air, weeping, between the lines of black-clad police – all in vain.
But this year the main target of the Holocaust connoisseurs, who can’t stand the whiff of the actual and political wafting over the Mount of Remembrance, was, of course, the Israeli Prime Minister himself. Liberal Jews, here and in America, refuse to forgive Netanyahu for the crime of comparing Nazi Germany – a resourceful military power in the grip of a brutal dictatorship obsessed with the eradication of the Jews – with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a resourceful military power in the grip of a brutal theocracy obsessed with the eradication of Israel. Really, what can be more dissimilar?
Liberals, of course, know better. For them, the Holocaust is sacred and should not be cheapened by such nonsense. Liberals stand guard over the memory of the six million – that is, when they are not busy utilizing it in a most shameless way to promote their pet peeve du jour – be it Palestinian “suffering”, illegal immigration, gay marriage or the rule of the courts over parliament. Liberals created a veritable industry of the “lessons of the Holocaust”, which somehow apply only to the surviving victims. If someone would say that a woman who was brutally raped should in the future be more permissive with men, we would put him in a mental hospital, and for good reason. Yet we have become so conditioned to the liberal propaganda, that a statement “the memory of the Holocaust commands us Jews to be [whatever form of consent and accommodation to demands of a radical minority is required today]” does not arouse even a shade of a rage it should provoke in any sensible Jew.
If anything, the Holocaust and its history stand today as an eternal rebuke to the liberal catechism of pacifism, internationalism and the “soft power” of knowledge and culture. Before the war, the Jewry of Europe was the very model of a liberal society. The ease with which it was drowned in a sea of hatred is a lesson that we should learn from and pass on to future generations. While President Obama’s conception of Israel as a problem child of the Holocaust is an insult both to the Jewish legacy and the facts of history, there can be no doubt that the triumph of political Zionism over its Jewish detractors in America, Britain and Palestine was the result of the Holocaust. The destruction of the Jews in Europe simply left no room for debate – Jews must be united, Jews must be armed, Jews must achieve and preserve national sovereignty. Herzl’s pioneering, yet naive vision of the Jewish state as a solution for anti-Semitism was transformed into a much harsher concept of Israel as a sword and shield against the anti-Semitic threat that will not disappear.
In this way, Holocaust remembrance is profoundly and viscerally anti-liberal in its nature, and it is no wonder the Israeli left time and again tries and fails to evict the Holocaust from the public square. From former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg to the writer Yoram Kaniuk, the demand to decouple the national experience of today from the true lessons of the Holocaust is a staple of a radical Israeli liberal ideology.
The liberal claim that the Holocaust is irrelevant goes hand in hand with the embrace of the favorite Palestinian canard – that somehow Palestinians have been made to pay for the sin of the extermination of the Jews. To present Palestinians as “a victim of the victims”, not only was the Nazi collaborator Hadj Amin al-Husseini presented as a marginal figure, but the whole “Great Arab revolt” of 1936 was stripped of its influence on the fate of the European Jews. Arab violence and the craven British response, which closed the gates of Palestine to legal Jewish immigration, had obviated the initial Nazi plans to get rid of the Jews through forced migration and made their extermination inevitable.
Despite the best efforts of the good people of Yad va-Shem, despite the appeal to “Jewish Solidarity” as this year’s memorial’s central theme, the attitudes to the Holocaust and its legacy are part and parcel of the great divide between those who see themselves first and foremost as Jews and those who want to be “Israelis”; those who refuse to forget the betrayal of the Gentile world and those who want to be part of it; those for whom a strong and just Jewish nation-state is a natural lesson of the Holocaust and those who are locked in their fear of nationalism and militarism. With the passing of the last of the survivors and the Iranian threat looming ever large, this conflict is only going to deepen without any hope for compromise.