The Israeli film 'The Gatekeepers'
The Israeli film 'The Gatekeepers.' Photo by Toldot Yisrael
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When former Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon declares in the fascinating movie “The Gatekeepers” that the occupation of the territories reminds him of "the banality of evil," one might think for a moment that perhaps he is not aware of the full context of the phrase. When Avraham Shalom, another former Shin Bet head, follows suit and states explicitly that the actions of Israel Defense Forces soldiers in the territories echo those of the Germans in World War II, there is no longer any doubt. What was once an outrageous analogy, eliciting the type of clichéd, knee-jerk reaction so dear to outraged politicians, is now put forth as a matter of course even by representatives par excellence of the Israeli establishment itself -- former heads of the Shin Bet.

The comparison with Nazis goes beyond events in the territories. In Israel it is a popular measure in many spheres. Basketball fans (and players) call their rivals "Nazis." The artists who commented online on the Shas party's "conversion" election ad last week (''Wait, are you Jewish?'') drew a parallel with the Nuremberg laws. Demonstrators protesting the treatment of foreign workers accuse the state of Hitlerism. The left does not have a monopoly on the practice. The extreme right attributes Nazi behavior to soldiers who evacuate illegal settlement outposts, while the moderate right warns that the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the new Nazism.

It seems to be the most popular comparison around. In terms of historical accuracy, comparisons to the Holocaust are, of course, absurd. The world's finest scholars are still attempting to explain the human monstrousness manifested in that era. Israel’s control over another nation must end, but it cannot seriously be compared to a policy of planned, systematic genocide. Even the Shas ad, however blunt, is more about the religious character of Judaism, which at least since the destruction of the Second Temple has strived for separatism and put obstacles before those who sought to join its rank. That is not Nazism.

By the same token one could argue that the left’s desire for a "Jewish state" is bigoted and therefore contains elements of the Nazi worldview. In an understated but very interesting passage in her memoir, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice notes that although she supported Tzipi Livni’s approach she found it difficult, in light of her own identity as an African-American to hear the foreign minister of a Western democracy make the demand for a Jewish state as if this was the most natural thing in the world.

And still, the frequent comparisons to Nazi policy aren’t all that absurd for the simple reason that they involve free association. To anyone whose subconscious still bears the Holocaust, IDF soldiers could indeed be seen as Nazi soldiers, just as people in high leather boots could remind one of S.S. officers. (Bizarrely, one or two winters ago, Tel Aviv shoe stores were actually selling a trendy style as "Nazi boots"). The reason people reach for the Nazi comparison so often and so quickly, then, has less to do with historical context or accuracy and more to do with how Israeli society continues to process the memory of the Holocaust.

When David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, coined the phrase "a different Germany" and sought to play down the Holocaust, he sought to build a society that was founded on a myth of heroism, remote from victimization. But he was not a social psychologist and could not have known that the memory of the Holocaust would resurface in a variety of contexts, some of them odd or perverse. The important point is that the very fact of multiple comparisons with the Holocaust makes it unnecessary to address the truth behind them or to claim that the Holocaust is being cheapened. In an era when the Holocaust is receding as a living memory, the number of remaining survivors is dwindling and the world's Nazi-hunters have retired, perhaps there is even some good in this pop-psych commemoration of the Holocaust.