Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been comparing the Iranian threat against Israel to the Holocaust of European Jewry, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler. That's what he did as opposition leader and that's what he's done since returning to power. "We will not allow the Holocaust deniers to commit another Holocaust on the Jewish people," Netanyahu declared at the Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration on Monday, against the backdrop of Ahmadinejad's aggressive speech at the UN's anti-racism conference in Geneva.
The political discourse is replete with analogies to the Weimar Republic, World War II and the Holocaust that have already become cliches. Israel's supporters and opponents frequently compare their adversaries to Nazis, and it is easy to understand why. The audience knows the historical facts and who the good guys and the bad guys are. This comparison is an exaggeration rebutted from both the right and the left.
Israel's adversaries are not necessarily disciples of Hitler, just as the roadblocks and settlements in the territories are not the Warsaw Ghetto or Treblinka. Turning the Holocaust into political triviality is a sign of disrespect to its historical uniqueness and to the memory of its victims, but politicians and columnists find it difficult to overcome the temptation.
The current Iranian president, in his hate speeches, his preaching about the elimination of the "Zionist regime" and his claims that the Holocaust is a myth designed to harm the Muslims, fits the stereotype of the tyrant more than past enemies of Israel - such as pre-state Jerusalem grand mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yasser Arafat. Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and attain regional hegemony, its active support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and the increasing inclination in the West to appease Iran increase the sense of threat. Even if a nuclear Iran hesitates to drop an atomic bomb on Tel Aviv, Netanyahu explains, it could force demands upon Israel and relegate the country to a position of strategic inferiority.
There is no doubt that such a situation would not be pleasant, but neither would it constitute national catastrophe or genocide. Even in the face of a resolute and dangerous enemy like Ahmadinejad, one must conduct oneself with intelligence and good judgment, refraining from sowing panic and national paralysis. Netanyahu's warnings of a second Holocaust, backed up by leaks about advanced preparations for assaults on nuclear facilities in Natanz, Arak and Isfahan, are interpreted as an attempt to mobilize domestic support and international understanding for a preventative war against Iran. "If you don't act, we will," Netanyahu warns the world, but the world is not getting excited. Instead it is tossing the ball back to the prime minister's office in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu's rhetoric is bringing Israel closer to not being able to refrain from going to war against Iran. In his talk of a Holocaust, the prime minister is blocking his and the country's escape route from military confrontation, and is abandoning other courses of action. The question is no longer if Israel can and must attack, but how it could be possible not to attack.
This is a direct and unsophisticated approach to a complex strategic problem. Netanyahu's message to his domestic audience is even more problematic, and potentially demoralizing. If the Iranian nuclear program is the train to Auschwitz, what will the Israelis and the Jews do if an operation to foil the program fails and Iran gets the bomb? What should young people think as they weigh their future? If the analogy to the Holocaust is accepted as simple, the answer is clear: They should find refuge for themselves elsewhere. Most of those saved from the Holocaust left Europe in time, before the Nazi conquest, particularly for the United States and the Land of Israel. If Israel is indeed facing a Holocaust, then Netanyahu should ask Barack Obama for immigration visas for 6 million Israelis, not just for the go-ahead to attack Iran.
Of course Netanyahu wants to encourage national mobilization, not to cause fright or emigration. He emphasizes that, unlike in 1939, this time the Jews have a state and an army and the ability to defend themselves, and that another Holocaust can be stopped before it happens. But when responsibility for the fate of the state is in his hands, he should think about the significance of his words.
If the Israelis become convinced that their physical existence is in danger and that it would behoove them to flee in the face of the enemy, Ahmadinejad will achieve his aims without firing a shot. Instead of fearing a Holocaust on our doorstep, Netanyahu must demonstrate practical statesmanship - capable of dealing with the Iranian threat and minimizing the damage.
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