About a year ago, the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces held a special discussion on the lessons of the Holocaust. The generals met in a conference hall at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, but the discussion was closed to the media and void of any sign of ceremoniousness. At one stage a lively argument broke out among the country's top officers on the question of whether the heritage of the Holocaust is beneficial or harmful, essential or superfluous for soldiers who are now called on to suppress the intifada.
It was a fascinating meeting. Generals who identify with the left advocated the presence of the Holocaust as a restraining factor; those who identify with the right advocated the presence of the Holocaust as a steeling factor. True, the Holocaust has become a major component of the Israeli identity, but contrary to what is commonly thought, it is not always a unifying factor.
Some people tend to emphasize the national lessons of the Holocaust, find in it the justification for Israel's establishment and for entrenching its security, and frequently cite it to justify government policy, including the defense of the settlements in the territories. Others are inclined to emphasize the humanitarian lessons of the Holocaust: the obligation to defend democracy and human rights, fight racism and explain to Israeli soldiers that the law obliges them to disobey flagrantly illegal orders, referring mainly to orders entailing serious harm to a civilian population. These two approaches are not necessarily contradictory, but it is only natural that the national lessons are more readily accepted by the right, while the humanitarian lessons speak more cogently to the left.
Both sides of the political map have always made use of Nazism as a term of abuse, and this can still be seen in the Knesset. Nearly every Arab leader, including President Sadat, was likened to Hitler.
David Ben-Gurion likened Menachem Begin to Hitler, and Begin likened Yasser Arafat to Hitler. Not long ago, Arafat learned that Israel Defense Forces soldiers were writing numbers on the arms of Palestinians whom they arrested in the territories, and he immediately shouted "Nazis! Nazis!" This week, he was joined in that shout by Jose Saramago, from Portugal, a Nobel Prize laureate for literature. Saramago declared that Israel's actions in the territories are comparable to the crimes that were perpetrated at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. That sounds more like something he read on the inside of the door of a public lavatory than something he wrote in his books. What he said was harmful to the cause it was supposed to serve, so he also emerged from the episode looking stupid. Because to shout "Nazis! Nazis" is tantamount to crying wolf.
The Holocaust, which is today a universal code of ultimate evil, conferred on all of humanity moral and political lessons, and people in most countries of the world recognize those lessons. Concomitantly, anti-Semitic laws no longer exist, and many countries, including Germany, viewed the Holocaust as a source of inspiration to establish or fortify democratic regimes. There have always been people who have stood by Israel because they felt that the Holocaust cast responsibility on them for Israel's well-being. And there have always been people who in the name of the Holocaust demanded that Israel display lofty moral attitudes and some who demanded a higher morality from Israel than they themselves manifested. There have always been people, among them Arabs and anti-Semites, who rejected Israel's very right to exist and likened it to Nazi Germany. To this day there are anti-Semitic undertones in some of the media articles that are critical of Israel.
However, probably some of the criticism that is voiced abroad concerning Israel's refusal to evacuate the territories and its repression of their population prevents Israel from doing even worse things in the territories. In this sense, the criticism abroad saves Israel from itself: there is hardly a country anywhere that does not take external criticism into account. Criticism from the outside also encourages domestic criticism and self-restraint. But the opposite is also true: those who liken Israel to the Nazis usually produce the opposite of the result they had intended. Because nowadays everyone says, and rightly, that Israel is not perpetrating Nazi deeds in the territories, and the next logical statement is that Israel is A-OK: after all, it's a fact that it isn't doing what the Nazis did. Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau said that to compare Israel to the Nazis is to turn it into "an outlaw state," and it follows that of Israel is Nazi Germany, it must be destroyed. So, like then, in the Holocaust, we are again together, facing a cruel world that is entirely against us. All thanks to Saramago.
The correct place of the Holocaust is first of all within its historical context. It is legitimate to view it as a source of inspiration for values and for moral and political lessons, legitimate to debate those values and lessons, provided the debate is serious, deep and honest. It is not legitimate but reprehensible, and, above all, it is ineffective, to exploit the Holocaust as a demagogic argument for political purposes. Saramago's remarks recall a letter that Menachem Begin sent to U.S. President Ronald Reagan in which he informed him that he had decided to send the IDF to Beirut in order to apprehend Adolf Hitler in his bunker. To which the writer Amos Oz responded: "Mr. Prime Minister, Adolf Hitler is already dead." Mr. Saramago, one could say in the same vein, Auschwitz and Buchenwald are already closed down. The continuing systematic assault on the human rights of the Palestinians in the territories is so terrible not because it resembles what the Nazis did to the Jews, but despite the fact that it doesn't.
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