Mengele, Charlottesville and the Lessons of History
JNS.org – What can the hunt for Josef Mengele teach us about the challenges facing Jews today? With a debate stirring about whether left-wing or right-wing Jew-haters pose the greater threat, a new account of the decisions made by Israel’s leaders regarding the evil doctor of Auschwitz should give us some food for thought.
Author Ronen Bergman has written a new book about Israeli intelligence and contributed an op-ed in The New York Times concerning an enduring mystery of the Mossad: Why wasn’t Mengele brought to justice like Adolf Eichmann?
Israel made the capture of Eichmann — the man responsible for organizing the Nazi industrialization of murder — a priority mission for its intelligence operatives. After he was run to ground in Argentina and brought to Israel for trial and eventual execution, Mengele was the logical next target. Yet he evaded capture and died a free man in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1979.
Was he just too clever or lucky? No. As Bergman reports, Mengele was spotted in Sao Paulo in 1962 by a Mossad team. Had their commanders and their political masters ordered an operation to snatch him, he would have gotten the same just desserts Eichmann received. But they didn’t, and their reason provides an insight both into Israeli history and the choices that are often posed to the Jewish people.
As Bergman explains, the same day that the news about Mengele’s spotting arrived on Mossad chief Isser Harel’s desk, he learned Egypt was recruiting German scientists to build missiles. Harel oversaw the operation to get Eichmann but thought the threat from Egypt was more important than justice for Mengele. Had the Nasser regime — which was then using chemical weapons in its military adventure in Yemen — acquired missile technology, that raised the prospect of Jews being gassed the next time Egypt attacked Israel.
With limited personnel at his disposal, Harel ordered the Mossad to stand down in Brazil and to concentrate on a campaign of intimidation and murder of Germans helping Egypt. Harel’s successor Meir Amit went further. He ordered his agents, “Stop chasing after ghosts from the past and devote all our manpower and resources to threats against the security of the state.” In other words, forget about old Nazis and concentrate on those Arabs and their allies trying to murder Jews now. Every Israeli prime minister concurred with Amit until Menachem Begin was elected in 1977. But Mengele died long before the Mossad was able to track him down again.
Yet the question lingers as to whether the Mossad’s decision to deprioritize the hunt for Nazis was correct. Perhaps it might have been possible to do both, but it is not unreasonable to argue that a choice had to be made. Getting Mengele would have been just and emotionally satisfying, yet addressing its scarce resources to the more potent threat was probably the rational option.
Today, Jews face another portentous choice.
Thanks to what happened in Charlottesville, Va., last month, neo-Nazis are much on our minds. The imagery of a torchlight march of American racists chanting antisemitic slogans evoked the tragic past in a way that few events have done. With a small but noisy alt-right movement spreading Jew-hatred on the internet and social media, it’s also no longer possible to claim the antisemitic right is dead, as many of us had thought.
Yet while Charlottesville has refocused us on neo-Nazis, the growing forces of the antisemitic left may be a far more potent contemporary threat. President Donald Trump’s inconsistent statements about Charlottesville were outrageous and have encouraged hate groups. But although we are right to worry about the alt-right, the ability of left-wing Israel-haters and their Islamist allies to mobilize far larger numbers of supporters in Europe and on American college campuses is a more serious problem. They can also influence popular culture and mainstream politics via the anti-Trump “resistance.” That presents a clear and present danger to Jewish communities and students that the marginal figures that assembled in Virginia do not.
Jews are capable of opposing both threats. Yet if, due to the antipathy Trump generates among many Jews, we ignore the left-wing antisemites in order to concentrate on the less dangerous right-wing haters, that would be mistake. The Jews have more than one enemy, but the one that is still actively plotting the destruction of the Jewish state and the murder of Jews should remain the default priority. The lesson of Jewish history is not just “never again.” Meir Amit’s warning about chasing ghosts should also not be forgotten.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.