Holocaust as Political Weapon in Israel
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s on-again, off-again, on-again invitation to Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum has ignited a firestorm of debate in Israel, as might be expected in a Jewish state where 20% of the people are Holocaust survivors or their offspring.
Israelis, like American Jews, have divided into two main camps: those who hoped that a tour of the memorial would teach Arafat about Jewish suffering and let him acknowledge it to Palestinians who see the Holocaust as Zionist propaganda, and those who view Arafat as an unrepentant killer of Jews whose presence in the museum would make a mockery of the worst chapter in Jewish history.
But across the divide, Israelis have united in charging that the Shoah, as the Nazis’ attempt to annihilate European Jewry is called in Hebrew, is being exploited for political gain.
“The Americans who started this wanted to use it. Arafat said yes because he wanted to use it. And the American Jews who said no wanted to use it too,” John Lemberger, director of Amcha, a center for Holocaust survivors, said of the planned visit. In the end, Arafat said his tight schedule this week did not leave him time to tour the museum but that he will do so the next time he comes to Washington.
“It was a kidnapping of the the Shoah for political ends,” Lemberger said.
In fact, using the Holocaust is nothing new in Israel’s polarized national politics and feverish public discourse. Activists on the left and right, as well as secular and religious militants, frequently invoke the language of the Nazis to attack their political enemies. Holocaust memories--and the fears they awaken in Jews--are evoked to sway public opinion in the Jewish state.
Israeli leaders going back to Menachem Begin have called Arafat a “Hitler” and compared the Palestine Liberation Organization to the Nazi SS. Various Likud Party leaders have referred to Israel’s 1967 borders as the borders of Auschwitz.
On the left, a prominent physics professor and political commentator named Yeshayahu Liebowitz once said that Israeli soldiers putting down the intifada, or Palestinian rebellion, in the occupied territories were “Judeo-Nazis.”
More recently, ultra-Orthodox demonstrators trying to close Jerusalem’s Bar Ilan Street on the Jewish Sabbath by throwing rocks at motorists called the intervening Israeli police “Nazis.” And after a wave of suicide bombings by Islamic extremists in 1996, opponents of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process said the Labor Party government that signed the agreements was leading Israelis “to slaughter like sheep.”
Violent Hyperbole in Political Debate
While such terms are used in many other countries, it is not with such frequency and does not have the same resonance as in Israel. The use of such violent and vulgar hyperbole in Israeli political debate, the experts say, is part of the trauma of the Holocaust. For Jews, the Nazi era represents the total collapse of human values and the death of 6 million brethren. Hitler is evil incarnate, and his name is the worst epithet a Jew can use against an enemy.
“No one accuses their enemy of being Saddam Hussein, Mussolini or Hirohito,” said Yehuda Bauer, director of education at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.
“It is a social and psychological trauma. . . . After all, these analogies reflect unrealistic attitudes. What the Nazis did in Europe cannot be compared to anything that has happened here,” Bauer said.
In the last 30 years, there have been 2,000 Palestinian deaths in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bauer said. “That is one-sixth of one train from Hungary to Auschwitz. It is too many, but it cannot be compared. The same is true on our side. We have had 600 to 700 casualties. That is horrible, but a comparison is ridiculous. This is two people fighting. The intention of the Nazis was to annihilate every single Jew.”
Israelis have a more complicated relationship with the Holocaust than outsiders might expect. In British Palestine and the early years of the state of Israel, as the starved and broken Holocaust survivors poured in, open discussion of the tragedy that had befallen the Jewish people was taboo. Many Jews were ashamed that their kin had been led so easily to slaughter. Many were angry that the victims had not put up a greater fight, and they felt guilty that they had not done more to save their own.
“There was a great deal of shame, and people did not know how to deal with it,” said Tom Segev, author of “The Seventh Million,” a book about Israel’s treatment of the Holocaust.
That the state of Israel was established largely as a result of the Holocaust only made things more difficult.
“It would not be unreasonable to say that the U.N. resolution on the establishment of the state would not have passed were it not for the trauma of the genocide which took place on European soil,” commentator Ran Kislev wrote in the daily newspaper Haaretz this week. “Even the mass immigration to Israel might not have occurred without the Holocaust. This is the close political connection between the Holocaust and the state of Israel, part of whose population is Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren.”
Although the country held an official commemoration of the Holocaust each year, the emotional turmoil led to an official silence about its horrors, much like the one that prevailed in Germany between the generation that filled the Nazi ranks, or turned a blind eye to what happened, and that generation’s children and grandchildren.
For ultra-Orthodox Jews, grappling with the Holocaust was even more difficult. They had been among the hardest-hit groups of European Jews because they were the least able to emigrate or to blend in and hide among the Gentiles. On top of their losses, they had to confront the deepest of theological issues: Why had God allowed this to happen?
Many chose to blame the secular Zionists who moved to Israel and established a secular state in the Jewish Holy Land.
“For the ultra-Orthodox, secularization is identical to the annihilation of the soul,” said Menachem Friedman, a respected sociologist. “You prevent a person from inheriting heaven; you kill him spiritually. What the Nazis did to the body, secular Jews did to the soul. Only that was worse, because the soul is eternal.”
The secular Zionists, then, were as bad as the Nazis and were attacked as such in the ultra-Orthodox press.
While many ultra-Orthodox may still believe this, their rabbis and media are somewhat more careful about saying so today, aware that likening Jews to Nazis hurts many people in Israel.
Holocaust Passed On ‘Almost in Our Genes’
Meanwhile, among secular Israelis the painful silence on the Holocaust has been breaking down over the last decade, and gradually the tragedy has become part of the nation’s collective identity. The majority of Israelis find the use of the Holocaust by political and religious extremists abhorrent.
There are about 360,000 survivors of the Holocaust and an estimated 700,000 offspring in Israel, according to the Amcha organization. Many of the survivors now feel comfortable enough to roll up their sleeves in public to reveal the bruise-like concentration camp numbers tattooed on their forearms, or to tell the story of seeing their parents marched off to the gas chambers, to evaporate into smoke and ashes.
Today, thousands of Israeli students visit the Polish and German concentration camps each year and go to Yad Vashem to learn about the Holocaust. Robert Wistrich, a history professor at Hebrew University, said he has to turn students away from his overcrowded course on Nazism and the “final solution.”
Many Israelis who never experienced the Holocaust now feel that they are survivors themselves.
“Each of us carries something of the Holocaust inside, and it is passed almost in our genes from generation to generation,” Kislev wrote in Haaretz. “Our collective memory is based on this. But this does not justify turning the Holocaust into a political tool, whether by politicians or parties, to attack their enemies. And this is so not only because it is wrong, but mostly so as not to cheapen the Holocaust, thereby minimizing its importance and terrible significance.”
Kislev called the controversy over Arafat and the Holocaust museum “foolish” and said, “One may choose to accept or reject Arafat as a partner in the peace process; one may even reject the entire process--but please, leave the Holocaust out of it.”
Shevah Weiss, a Labor Party member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and its former speaker, is not one to let political abuses of the Holocaust experience go unpunished. But he acknowledges that just about everything in Israel is political, and the Holocaust often comes into play.
Weiss, who spent some of his childhood hiding from Nazis underground in Ukraine, called a halt to Knesset deliberations over one of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements in 1995 after learning that protesters had brandished pictures of then-Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wearing a Gestapo uniform. He demanded an apology from then-opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who had spoken at the downtown rally where the poster appeared.
Netanyahu apologized, although he said he knew nothing about the offensive picture held up at the back of the crowd. It turned out that the drawing had been distributed by a right-wing activist and informant for Israel’s secret service who also was a friend of the man who assassinated Rabin a month later over peacemaking with the Palestinians.
Weiss supports the peace process and said he hoped that a visit by the Palestinian leader to the museum could contribute to an atmosphere of forgiveness between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Arafat was our enemy and a very cruel enemy, but today he is a partner in making peace. With [the peace agreements], we have an historic obligation to know more about each other’s history, suffering and dreams,” he said. “A visit by Arafat would be a dramatic step.”
Acknowledging each other’s suffering is a step that neither Israelis nor Palestinians usually are willing to take. To do so would be to acknowledge the other’s rights, as well, while the two sides are still locked in a political battle over land. Many Israelis fear that Palestinians--and the Arab world--want to annihilate them and feel they still are fighting for survival.
Author Segev says that the country has used the “final solution” as proof of the validity of Zionist theory. “The Zionist lessons of the Holocaust are that we ought to be strong and make sure nothing like that ever happens again,” he said.
In other words, the Holocaust proved the need for Jews to leave the Diaspora to form a country of their own with a strong army and defensible borders in the Holy Land.
Denial Among Palestinians
For Palestinians, however, the Holocaust became a justification for the Jewish occupation of land they saw as their own. They resented it and taught their children that the Holocaust was part of Zionist propaganda, without teaching facts of the Holocaust as well.
Even today, the details of Nazi Germany and the “final solution” do not appear in most Palestinian schoolbooks as anything more than the tragedy they posed for Palestinians--Jewish settlement in Palestine. This has led to a great deal of Holocaust denial among Palestinians. Even as debate raged over the proposed Arafat museum visit, some Palestinians were demonstrating in the Gaza Strip on behalf of Roger Garoudy, the French philosopher on trial in France for Holocaust denial.
Salim Tamari, director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies, notes that the Holocaust took place as the Palestinians were fighting for national independence from British and French rule.
“The dimensions of the Holocaust were not clear to the Palestinians, and they were also compounded by the fact that the solution for the Holocaust and the victims would come at the expense of the Palestinians,” Tamari said.
He noted that some major Palestinian writers, such as Emil Habibi and Edward Said, have called for more sensitivity toward persecution of Jews and the Holocaust and have criticized Garoudy. But, he said, most Palestinians “feel the Holocaust was used to justify what happened to them.”
Hatem Abdel Qader, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council who represents Jerusalem, opposed Arafat’s visit to the memorial for that reason.
“I am not against Jews, and I am against the massacre of Jews and strongly condemn it. But why should Arafat have to visit the museum? We have paid for Jewish persecution in Europe even though we did not cause it. Our people here are persecuted by Jews, and no one seems to pay attention to them,” Abdel Qader said.
Bill Would Outlaw the Rhetoric
Such prevailing attitudes were used to bolster the arguments of those Israelis who also objected to an Arafat visit to the museum. The Israeli government keeps a running list of quotes by Palestinian officials and remarks in the Palestinian media that it considers to be anti-Semitic.
A 13-page report was issued last month with examples of anti-Semitic stereotypes, Holocaust denial and comparisons of Israel with Nazis and fascists. For many Israelis, the only thing worse than a Jew calling a fellow Jew “Hitler” is for a Palestinian to do so; many felt that until the anti-Semitism stops, Arafat should not go to the museum or, at least, not be treated as a head of state.
“There is no question that if he goes, it is to see how this can be utilized for his own ends and prove what he wants to prove,” Lemberger said. “The argument [for his going] is that maybe if he is exposed to the sights and sounds, maybe he can understand the pain of the Jewish people. I don’t think on a political level it works.
“The history of this neighborhood, and dealing with Arab countries and governments, the PLO and Arafat, is that it is a different mind-set. Their way of using words and images is not the Western way. This is not Jacques Chirac or Tony Blair,” Lemberger said, referring to the French president and British prime minister.
Whether in politics or other fields, he said, invoking the memory of the Holocaust in Israel for anything other than education is playing with the emotions of survivors.
Hai Shaki, a member of parliament from the conservative National Religious Party, recently revived a bill he had introduced that would make it a crime, punishable by financial sanctions, to engage in hurtful Holocaust rhetoric.
“The use of the Holocaust and Nazi language is wrong and abominable, regardless of the political direction it comes from and the agenda it is used to promote,” Shaki said.
The abuses must stop, he added.
But even as he urged this, a bitter debate was erupting in the Knesset over Arafat’s planned visit to the Washington museum. Rehavam Zeevi, of the extreme-right Moledet Party, stood at the podium and said: “What is Arafat looking for in the Holocaust museum? . . . Is he looking for the deeds of the original Adolf to learn from him?”
Upon stepping down, Israel Radio reported, Zeevi turned to the Arab members of the Knesset and muttered that Arafat was not a neo-Nazi but a Nazi, pure and simple.
Efrat Shvily and Maher Abukhater of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.
* ARAFAT REJECTS PROPOSALS
In Washington, the Palestinian leader turns down Israel’s proposal for limited troop withdrawal from the West Bank. A10