Backlash to Netanyahu's Iran speech ignores Holocaust's enduring effect
Between the lines, in his speech Bibi was conducting a harsh reckoning with the predecessors of the Jewish leaders cheering him in that Washington auditorium.
Israelis needed, as we know, an entire generation until they were able to look the sights of the Holocaust, its refugees, the very fact of its occurrence, straight in the eye. We needed another entire generation until we began to acknowledge, or at least to consider, the claim that there was something cold and aloof in the Yishuv's response and in its conduct even during the time of the Holocaust itself.
Something twisted burrowed deep into the inner workings of the reemergent nation and distorted its ways of thinking. The story about David Ben-Gurion, who berated a refugee who had escaped from the camps and somehow made it to Palestine at the end of 1944 for speaking about her experiences in "a foreign language" (Yiddish ) illustrates just to what extent such a sanctification of "practicality" could warp the mind. What was at play here, apparently, was a combination of a mental inability to grasp an unprecedented, inconceivable reality with an escape into a sense of complete political impotence. This, apparently, is what gave the leadership the strength to persevere.
Certainly, there were other elements as well. Future historians, and future psychoanalysts, will continue to try to decipher just what happened then. They would do well to also study what is happening here now.
To judge by the nearly Pavlovian reactions of ridicule and disgust that filled the press in regard to the AIPAC speech in which Benjamin Netanyahu drew a comparison between Auschwitz and the Iranian nuclear bomb - it appears that this syndrome, i.e., our inability emotionally to confront the Holocaust, has yet to be cured.
"Comparing Nazi Germany to Iran," my good friend Gideon Levy wrote here, "is to minimize and cheapen the Holocaust ... Israelis eat this stuff up. In a survey, 98 percent (! ) of Israelis responded that the Holocaust is the most important guiding principle to them, more than any other principle. This is the result of Netanyahu's speeches."
In an editorial entitled "Kitsch and death threats," this paper wrote mockingly that "to spice up his speech with one of those visual gimmicks he so loves, he even pulled out a photostat of correspondence in order to imply a comparison between U.S. President Barak Obama's cautious approach toward attacking Iran and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's refusal to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz."
And historian Yechiam Weitz wrote on Ynet that "Netanyahu's comparison did not transform the reactor in Qom into Auschwitz. It transformed Auschwitz into another reactor that might be dangerous."
These responses, and many more like them, manifest that same repression, those same inhibitions. That same early pioneer, Eretz-Israel machismo which found it so difficult to accept the fact that there was someone who fully intended and was actually capable of murdering millions of Jews.
That same clinging, just as back then, to the comforting belief: It's not happening, and even if it is - there's nothing we can do about it.
Certainly, one can disdain the style of Bibi's speech. "If it looks like a duck ...," he bellowed, with tasteless humor, to the thousands of cheering Jews in the audience. "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then what is it?"
However, his critics' fastidiousness does not exempt them from having to answer his question. Nor does it discharge them from the duty of historical discernment.
Many of us feel loathing and contempt for the frequent recourse of our right-wing leaders, Begin chief among them, to invoking the Holocaust in their every political speech and action. In doing so, they devalued the Holocaust time after time and profaned its memory.
Begin's letter to Ronald Reagan in 1982, in which he compared Yasser Arafat hiding in besieged Beirut to Hitler in his bunker in Berlin, still echoes infamously in Israel's annals. But this is not to say that the right-wingers, most especially the Bergson (Hillel Kook ) group in the United States, were not correct during the Holocaust, when they fought to create political pressure on Roosevelt to save the Jewish victims of the Holocaust - and were rudely rebuffed by the Jewish and Zionist establishment.
Between the lines, in his speech Bibi was conducting a harsh reckoning with the predecessors of the Jewish leaders cheering him in that Washington auditorium. Many of those applauding understood this. Netanyahu himself all too often wallows in that Revisionist propensity for hollow rhetoric coupled with cynical abuse of the memory of the Holocaust. He is recognized, moreover, at home and abroad, after six years at the helm of the country, as a prevaricator, a dissembler and indeed an outright liar on peace and the two-state solution (and on many other, less fateful matters as well).
But this does not mean that on this particular fateful matter, the Iranian nuclear bomb, which he has been addressing incessantly for 20 years now - and rightly so as a leader haunted by the Holocaust - that here too his positions are necessarily unfounded and his statements worthy only of derision and condemnation.
It is the unwillingness (or inability?) to make this distinction, together with the intensity of the almost instinctive dismissal by most analysts of his remarks to AIPAC, that raise the fear that our Israeli Holocaust syndrome is still with us, dulling our reason and distorting our judgment.