The Mengele Squad

What is the connection between the occupation and references to the Holocaust in IDF slang?

Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz's famous comment at the beginning of the First Lebanon War about "phenomena of Judeo-Nazism" as the inevitable consequences of an "occupation regime," stirred a furor in Israel. There are some things you must not say aloud, or even think to yourself. This was in 1982. The occupation was 15 years old and Leibowitz, in his sharp voice, was shouting what few others were saying here - if they did, it was in a whisper, and never, heaven forbid, in the army itself.

Noam Chayut
Tomer Neuberg

No one in Israel really thinks the IDF and the SS are one and the same, or that Palestinian life under the occupation is identical to that of the Jews in the concentration camps, not to mention the extermination camps. But it turns out that IDF soldiers have been drawing such comparisons for years. Quietly, for themselves.

In 1989, a few years after Leibowitz spoke of Judeo-Nazis and about a year after the start of the first intifada, the country was shaken by a report by Avi Benayahu (the current IDF spokesman ) in the now-defunct left-wing newspaper Al Hamishmar. According to the article, a group of Israeli soldiers stationed in Ramallah had styled themselves the "Mengele squad." Again the IDF and the Nazis were intertwined, this time not by a philosopher and well-known provocateur but by the soldiers themselves.

In a turbulent Knesset debate on the issue, MKs expressed dismay at the chutzpah of a few "wild weeds" who, according to their commanding officer, had not displayed excessive brutality toward the local Arab inhabitants. All in all, it was just an armored infantry unit, which in wartime accompanied tanks into battle, but in periods of calm and during the intifada was helping fight the Palestinian uprising without undue enthusiasm (according to the company commander ).

The army reacted with fury. Because the identity of the one who leaked the story to the press was not discovered (and has not been discovered to this day ), the whole unit was subjected to an educational seminar and pedagogic punishment in the form of a tour and lecture at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Nothing was done about the rumors of beatings and lootings of Arabs and the everyday abuse of the local population; but telling the press about it was considered unconscionable. One soldier in the unit, who now works in marketing, says without sarcasm, "All that happened was that a few soldiers decided to call themselves the 'Mengele squad,' to set themselves apart from the others - a kind of branding."

In a follow-up story, Haaretz correspondent Dan Sagir interviewed a deputy company commander in the armored corps whose unit served in Jenin at the start of the intifada. "The battalion knew we were a company of 'killers,'" the officer - the son of Holocaust survivors - related. "We were for an aggressive solution. We tried to shoot using all means, we injected gas into schools from which stones were thrown at us. In the battalion we were known as the 'Auschwitz company' or the 'Demjanjuks' because we made such extensive use of gas." (Sagir also mentioned another, far older example: the facility where paratroopers are taught to deal with the jolt of the straps when the parachute opens is called "Eichmann" by the soldiers. )

The Aktion begins

Two years later, Ari Shavit published impressions from a 12-day stint of reserve duty at the Ansar detention facility on the Gaza shore. The column's thesis was ahead of its time. Ansar, he noted, is "the best and most enlightened facility among the detention camps that were established since the eruption of the intifada. Ketziot and Fara are far worse; only Megiddo prison is said to compete with it in terms of humanism."

But Shavit went on to boldly reveal the explicit associations that struck him during his service in the humane camp that housed more than a thousand inmates: "The facility has 12 watchtowers. Some of the soldiers are shocked at the resemblance between these towers and other towers, which they learned about in their childhood. In fact, the shock is purely emotional and lacks any factual basis. After all, the watchtowers that appeared in Europe in the 1930s, for example, were mostly made of heavy European wood, whereas the towers of the Gaza shore facility are made of light Israeli metal, manufactured by a factory in Tiberias."

Some of the soldiers there dared to be even more explicit. The analogy, however baseless, was a constant presence, and the soldiers routinely invoked terms that left no room for the imagination. "When R. sees a column of prisoners approaching, led by the barrels of the M-16s of his buddies in the unit," Shavit wrote, "he says in a totally quiet, businesslike tone, 'Now the Aktion is starting.' And N., a forceful, unsentimental Likudnik, complains to anyone who is ready to listen about what makes this place look like a concentration camp."

Indeed, there were grounds for complaint. Among those brought to the camp were children of 15 or 16 who were bruised and battered, and the doctor at the clinic didn't just treat the reservists' eye infections: "On some occasions he was asked to repair what an enthusiastic interrogator had done to the limbs of a suspect."

Shavit's impressions generated an interesting insight: "The problem is not the resemblance - no one really seriously thinks there is a true resemblance. The problem is that there is not enough lack of resemblance. The problem is that the lack of resemblance is not strong enough to silence once and for all the wicked voices, the accusing sights."

Around the same time, Chen Alon was a young officer who, with his soldiers, went along when the Shin Bet security service made the arrests that kept the Gaza facility full. It was not until years later, when he was a major in the reserves, that he decided to sign the "Combatants' Letter" [of 2002] and reveal a secret that had been haunting him since his conscript days. It had to do with how he had coped with those wicked voices and accusing sights straight out of 1940s Germany when he served as a soldier in the first intifada - he obeyed and asked no questions - and as an older reservist, when he refused an order to serve in the territories and was jailed.

In testimony to the makers of the documentary film "On the Objection Front" (2004 ), Alon said, "As a 19-year-old kid it doesn't seem so terrible to you to enter someone's home. But when you live your life and have a family and a home of your own, and you argue for an hour about where to hang each picture and where each thing should go, suddenly the thought arises that someone will knock on your door and you will have to open, and 10 animals like me enter, and each of them can kick a chair, mess up a cupboard, open a door, spill everything on the floor, tell you 'Open this door,' ask you, 'What are these papers?' And this can happen on any given day at any given time, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day, at whatever time someone can enter your home without any sort of permission or authorization. Just because he feels like it; and even if he doesn't feel like it - because he has to. Because he was ordered to enter homes twice during the patrol. That is an intolerable thought.

"I remember that we were taken to Dir al-Balah [in the Gaza Strip]. This was in 1990. On the first or second day, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at us. That made us feel that everything was justified, from now on everything is justified, what I mean is that the feeling was that we certainly had to defend ourselves. Every patrol was with eyes open and more violent than we planned, more intensive, now we're here for war. I remember I received an operative order - I don't remember exactly when, but after two or three days - that an arrest was going to be made. It was one of the first arrests I executed. You go with someone from the Shin Bet. It was like something from a James Bond movie.

"What I remember most vividly from that night is the horrible quiet there. That is, my task was to position all the forces that were sealing off the house and on top of the house, too, and go in with the Shin Bet agent to bring out the terrifying wanted man. I only remember the Shin Bet guy whispering all kinds of things in Arabic to them and that I went with him from room to room in the house. We go into some room and he pulls some kid of nine, maybe ten, from bed, he looked like a little kid. That's it, we leave. There was a feeling as though it never happened, because it was quiet and we did not exchange a word between us, we did not exchange a word with the Shin Bet man, he didn't talk to them, we didn't talk to them. So it was an action in which not a word was spoken by any side. It was just done in quiet.

"That was it. I went back and I had nothing to say to my soldiers. A debriefing had to be made - I am after all a serious platoon commander. I had nothing to say: nothing happened. Not a thing happened. I told them to stand where they stood, they stood there, they waited, we came, quiet, we took a boy, we left, he went, nothing to do with us, we returned on foot, it was very close to where we were. 'Go to sleep,' I told them.

"I also went to bed. There were a few laughs, talking, but it didn't let me go. I got into the sleeping bag, pulled the part that covers the face over my head and I told the battalion commander what happened there. No one was appalled, it was one story of many. And just for laughs, as I was trying to fall asleep, he came over, lifted the top part of the sleeping bag, hissed 'Nazi!' at me and then closed it. It was a standard joke with us."

If in the first intifada, Holocaust terminology was a type of black or underground humor, the ongoing occupation and the second intifada brought it to the surface. The growing need to suppress every type of uprising made it increasingly difficult for Israel to go on perceiving itself as the victimized nation, a perception on which the Zionist ethos is, in part, founded.

Lost Holocaust

This is precisely the point of Noam Chayut's lament in his impressive book "My Holocaust Thief" (Am Oved, 2010, Hebrew ). On the day the Muqata, Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, was captured, Chayut was an officer in the Nahal paramilitary brigade. He and his soldiers were ordered to maintain quiet and order at the site. He saw a group of Palestinian children and smiled at them, but even though he was a simpatico fellow and handsome, too, the children broke into a run, apart from one girl, who froze in her tracks. Her terrified look was the basis for the disillusionment that led him to write the book.

"As for what that girl took from me," he writes, "that is something I understood long afterward. She took from me the belief that absolute evil exists in this world, and the belief that I was avenging it and fighting against it. For that girl, I embodied absolute evil. True, I was not as cruel as the evil I imbibed, was raised on and matured with. I did not have to reach the level of its sophistication and intensification in order to grasp my role in her life [...] Since then I have been left without my Holocaust, and since then everything in my life has assumed a new meaning: belongingness is blurred, pride is lacking, belief is faltering, contrition is heightening, forgiveness is being born."

The process of disillusionment he experienced prompted him to found, together with some of his buddies who had served in the 50th Battalion, a new organization. Called Breaking the Silence, it disseminates information about IDF and settler activity in the territories, mostly by collecting and publishing soldiers' testimonies. A perusal of the testimonies shows that in comments by the soldiers - who are steeped in militaristic education, but guilt-ridden at the same time - the comparisons arise by themselves, though naturally with reservations (which are justified ). They precede their stories with "Listen, I am not comparing," or "It's not the same thing and there is no connection, but ... " and other expressions of their searing psychological distress. It's hard to be both victim and victimizer at the same time. The evacuation of a large number of civilians, more than 4,000, including women and children, before a bombing run by the IDF, with the aim of preventing casualties, was dubbed "Schindler's list."

"Of course you know that it's clearly not the same thing, because you are not a Nazi and you do not kill them," says a soldier who took part in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. He adds, "You also don't do it from hatred or anything. You even do it for their benefit, so they won't be hurt by the bombing. But it's impossible not to compare, there's no way not to think about it."

Ruvik Rosenthal, author of "The Dictionary of Israeli Slang" (Keter, 2005, Hebrew ), is actually surprised that Hebrew slang in general and IDF militarese in particular contain so few expressions that originate in the Holocaust. In his view, this is proof that socialization and taboo processes remain so powerful that "people don't talk about the Holocaust." According to Rosenthal, it is not the occupation that is responsible for Holocaust references in the army, but the experience of loss in the first phase of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which brought back to the Israelis the sense of Jewish helplessness. The desperate shouts of the trapped soldiers that were heard over the army's radio network suddenly sounded like the screams that might have been uttered in the gas chambers.

Shiri Tsur is the director of the documentary film "On the Objection Front" (2004; Hebrew title: "I Wanted to Be a Hero" ).