Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu and the Holocaust: The ethics of memory
In using the Holocaust to defend indefensible policies, Netanyahu harms the ethics of memory that Ahmadinejad is incapable of endorsing.
When the German Foreign minister recently called Ahmadinejad a shame to his own country and people, he spoke the minds of many. Now that Ahmadinejad is not even recognized by many of his own countrymen and women as legitimate, and that the Iranian regime's legitimacy is questionable within Iran itself, it is time for the world to support the opposition by making clear what a miserable figure this fanatic ignoramus is.
Because an ignoramus he is: Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial is not a cynical ploy. He believes what he says - and he is unlikely to have invested much time in the huge historical evidence for the Holocaust.
The question then remains: is there anything interesting about Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial - except, of course, that it provides one of his 'arguments' against the state of Israel (unfortunately he hasn't read up on the history of Zionism, which started almost a century before the Holocaust, either.)
I think there is something interesting. I have a heavy dislike for the question whether the Jewish Holocaust perpetuated by the Nazis does or doesn't compare to others; whether it is the worst of all genocides in history. How do you measure the horror of human cruelty and suffering? Do you count the dead? In this case Mao is probably the worst killer in history, closely followed by Stalin, with Hitler coming in 'only' third. Do you measure the means, the organization, the hatred, the irrationality and the sheer inhumanity?
While the Nazi Holocaust certainly has unique features, I do not think that this should be a moral or political argument for or against anything, including the existence of the State of Israel. That nowadays is simply a fact that even most Arab states are acknowledging.
I believe that it is the commemoration of the Holocaust that is unique. The Jewish people, after a period of initial shock, have turned the remembering of the Holocaust and its victims into a moral duty. Historians, novelists, psychologists and filmmakers have invested huge energies simply in remembering; museums have been built around the world, simply to make sure that those murdered will not vanish without a trace, and that humanity should never forget what it is capable of.
Here is the question that I would like to pose to Mr. Ahmadinejad - without expecting a response, of course. Could it be that the main problem he has with the Holocaust of the Jews is that we adhere to a very strict ethics of memory, to use Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit's felicitous phrase? That we try not to allow any of the victims to have died without a trace? That we try to mourn the horrors that our families have endured, without turning these horrors into mythical heroism?
Mr. Ahmadinejad perpetuates a regime that has done horrible things to its own people. Khomeini sent scores of thousands of children into a useless war of attrition, arming them with plastic keys he told them would open the doors of paradise. He sent them into minefields using a military approach discarded after WWI, of trying to conquer positions through waves of human beings. Are the people of Iran allowed to mourn this act of horror? Or are they only allowed to glorify the useless death of their children (Khomeini sent them into battle when the Iraqi army was no longer on Iranian soil) by saying that they are shaheeds?
In speaking in favor of the ethics of memory, I do not really address Mr. Ahmadinejad; he seems incurable, and it is only to be hoped that his people will find ways to get rid of him. There is a lesson for us here.
Netanyahu has made the comparison of Iran with Nazi Germany and warning the world that a new Holocaust is on the way the centerpiece of his rhetoric. As Aluf Benn has pointed out, Netanyahu likes to think of himself as the Churchill who refuses to accommodate Hitler. Let us leave aside the question whether the comparison between Nazi Germany and Iran is justified - I think it isn't.
Netanayhu's latest installment was the speech at the UN. (Get the full text of Netanyahu's speech here). The part of the speech in which he attacks Ahmadinejad and the Holocaust denial is certainly justified. But then he moves on to defend operation Cast Lead by comparing it to the London Blitz. Netanyahu plays the Holocaust card to defend the indefensible. Even if Netanyahu thinks that the Gaza operation was justified, the constant harping on the Holocaust to justify Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza is both politically useless and ethically problematic.
Nobody in the world can see any connection between the Iranian threat and holding on to the West Bank and pandering to Israel's ideological right. Nobody can see how making the lives of Palestinians miserable will stop Iranian missiles. And while many believe that Israel had the right to defend itself against the Qassam attacks, they feel (and I agree) that the way Operation Cast Lead was conducted is indefensible.
In making use of the Holocaust to defend indefensible policies, Netanyahu harms the very ethics of memory that Ahmadinejad is incapable of endorsing. Remembering the Holocaust is a moral duty for Jews and non-Jews alike. Netanyahu's politicization of it does not fulfill this duty; it taints it. Instead of weakening Ahmadinejad, he enters the arena in which truthfulness about history is no longer a duty in its own right, but where history is used for the sake of political manipulation.
He taints the work of Raoul Hilberg, a Jewish soldier who participated in the liberation of Concentration Camps, and became the first historian to document Nazi extermination of the Jews; of those like Primo Levi, Shaul Friedlander and Steven Spielberg, who have made every effort to remember without embellishment and without manipulation. The lessons we should learn from Mr. Ahmadinejad is that remembering for its own sake is a virtue that must never be compromised.
Previous blog entries by Carlo Strenger: