Israel’s Greatest Loss: Its Moral Imagination
If a people who so recently experienced such unspeakable inhumanities cannot understand the injustice and suffering its territorial ambitions are inflicting, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Following Israel’s bloody interdiction of the Gaza Flotilla, I called a life-long friend in Israel to inquire about the mood of the country. My friend, an intellectual and a kind and generous man, has nevertheless long sided with Israeli hardliners. Still, I was entirely unprepared for his response. He told me—in a voice trembling with emotion—that the world’s outpouring of condemnation of Israel is reminiscent of the dark period of the Hitler era.
He told me most everyone in Israel felt that way, with the exception of Meretz, a small Israeli pro-peace party. “But for all practical purposes,” he said, “they are Arabs.”
Like me, my friend personally experienced those dark Hitler years, having lived under Nazi occupation, as did so many of Israel’s Jewish citizens. I was therefore stunned by the analogy. He went on to say that the so-called human rights activists on the Turkish ship were in fact terrorists and thugs paid to assault Israeli authorities to provoke an incident that would discredit the Jewish state. The evidence for this, he said, is that many of these activists were found by Israeli authorities to have on them ten thousand dollars, “exactly the same amount!” he exclaimed.
When I managed to get over the shock of that exchange, it struck me that the invocation of the Hitler era was actually a frighteningly apt and searing analogy, although not the one my friend intended. A million and a half civilians have been forced to live in an open-air prison in inhuman conditions for over three years now, but unlike the Hitler years, they are not Jews but Palestinians. Their jailers, incredibly, are survivors of the Holocaust, or their descendants. Of course, the inmates of Gaza are not destined for gas chambers, as the Jews were, but they have been reduced to a debased and hopeless existence.
Fully 80% of Gaza’s population lives on the edge of malnutrition, depending on international charities for their daily nourishment. According to the UN and World Health authorities, Gaza’s children suffer from dramatically increased morbidity that will affect and shorten the lives of many of them. This obscenity is a consequence of a deliberate and carefully calculated Israeli policy aimed at de-developing Gaza by destroying not only its economy but its physical and social infrastructure while sealing it hermitically from the outside world.
Particularly appalling is that this policy has been the source of amusement for some Israeli leaders, who according to Israeli press reports have jokingly described it as “putting Palestinians on a diet.” That, too, is reminiscent of the Hitler years, when Jewish suffering amused the Nazis.
Another feature of that dark era were absurd conspiracies attributed to the Jews by otherwise intelligent and cultured Germans. Sadly, even smart Jews are not immune to that disease. Is it really conceivable that Turkish activists who were supposedly paid ten thousand dollars each would bring that money with them on board the ship knowing they would be taken into custody by Israeli authorities?
That intelligent and moral people, whether German or Israeli, can convince themselves of such absurdities (a disease that also afflicts much of the Arab world) is the enigma that goes to the heart of the mystery of how even the most civilized societies can so quickly shed their most cherished values and regress to the most primitive impulses toward the Other, without even being aware they have done so. It must surely have something to do with a deliberate repression of the moral imagination that enables people to identify with the Other’s plight. Pirkey Avot, a collection of ethical admonitions that is part of the Talmud, urges: “Do not judge your fellow man until you are able to imagine standing in his place.”
Of course, even the most objectionable Israeli policies do not begin to compare with Hitler’s Germany. But the essential moral issues are the same. How would Jews have reacted to their tormentors had they been consigned to the kind of existence Israel has imposed on Gaza’s population? Would they not have seen human rights activists prepared to risk their lives to call their plight to the world’s attention as heroic, even if they had beaten up commandos trying to prevent their effort? Did Jews admire British commandos who boarded and diverted ships carrying illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the aftermath of World War II, as most Israelis now admire Israel’s naval commandos?
Who would have believed that an Israeli government and its Jewish citizens would seek to demonize and shut down Israeli human rights organizations for their lack of “patriotism,” and dismiss fellow Jews who criticized the assault on the Gaza Flotilla as “Arabs,” pregnant with all the hateful connotations that word has acquired in Israel, not unlike Germans who branded fellow citizens who spoke up for Jews as “Juden”? The German White Rose activists, mostly students from the University of Munich, who dared to condemn the German persecution of the Jews (well before the concentration camp exterminations began) were also considered “traitors” by their fellow Germans, who did not mourn the beheading of these activists by the Gestapo.
So, yes, there is reason for Israelis, and for Jews generally, to think long and hard about the dark Hitler era at this particular time. For the significance of the Gaza Flotilla incident lies not in the questions raised about violations of international law on the high seas, or even about “who assaulted who” first on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, but in the larger questions raised about our common human condition by Israel’s occupation policies and its devastation of Gaza’s civilian population.
If a people who so recently experienced on its own flesh such unspeakable inhumanities cannot muster the moral imagination to understand the injustice and suffering its territorial ambitions—and even its legitimate security concerns—are inflicting on another people, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is a former Senior Fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations and, before that, was national director of the American Jewish Congress from 1978 to 1994.