Israel Must Stop Overplaying the Holocaust Card

We don't have to give up on the Holocaust - it is our history and holds central lessons for all human beings - but we have to stop using it as a justification for Israeli policies.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

As this week draws thankfully to a close, we are all suffering from a severe Bibiobamal overdose. Before we allow ourselves to switch off and hopefully begin to forget these historical speeches, just one question: What did we learn over the past week?

Four speeches in Washington sought to redefine the history, present and future of the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the strategic alliance between Israel and the United States and the Jewish People as a whole - but aside from marveling once again at the rhetorical brilliance of Barak Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, which we knew about anyway, everything is still depressingly the same: Two failed messiahs delivering empty promises and no chance of deliverance from the cycle of violence, which is turning to another round of almost inevitable bloodshed come September.

Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a joint meeting of Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. Credit: Reuters

Netanyahu and Obama are more eloquent and telegenic than their predecessors, Yitzhak Shamir and George Bush the elder, but it is as if we are back in 1991 and Shamir is saying on the eve of the pointless Madrid Conference, "the sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs."

While Shamir's life-mission was simple - get up every morning to fight the Arabs trying to throw us back into the sea - Netanyahu's historical arc is much grander. "We've been around for almost 4,000 years," he lectured Obama last Friday in the White House, and when Bibi gets going through the millennia, you know where he's going to stop. "We've gone through expulsions and pogroms and massacres and the murder of millions. But I can say that ... even at the nadir of the valley of death, we never lost hope and we never lost our dream of reestablishing a sovereign state in our ancient homeland, the Land of Israel."

Yes, the millions again, though you have to give him credit for coming up with that elegant turn of phrase - why say Holocaust when you can go for "the nadir of the valley of death." He made up for it in his speech before Congress on Tuesday when he mentioned the Holocaust twice - once when excoriating the Iranian regime who "less than seven decades after six million Jews were murdered, Iran's leaders deny the Holocaust of the Jewish people, while calling for the annihilation of the Jewish state." And then again when putting the case for Israel's "right to defend itself," he said that "if history has taught the Jewish people anything, it is that we must take calls for our destruction seriously. We are a nation that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust. When we say never again, we mean never again."

By the way, I found it interesting that when he spoke to AIPAC he didn't feel the need to talk about the Holocaust. As if when among the Jews Bibi feels he has no need to use the doomsday argument, but with the goyim it's another matter. Why does Netanyahu feel the need to play the Holocaust card so often? Is it because he feels that his other arguments are beginning to sound increasingly hollow, is this his last resort? Is he not afraid of trivializing the Shoah?

The Israeli right wing claims to have legitimate arguments why Israel should be very wary of retreating from parts of the West Bank. Do they really need the Holocaust to shore them up? And if they do, doesn't that say something about those arguments?

The problem with Holocaust overuse is that it moves the focus from the present to history and allows all sides to the argument to get in on the game. When Netanyahu cites the six million, he is giving credence to the Palestinian claim that they were those made to suffer for the genocide of the Jews in Europe. He is directly bolstering the Nakba claims. Netanyahu would be the first to agree that the murders of six million European Jews do not justify the displacement of 600,000 Palestinians, but that the cause of an independent Jewish state in the historical Land of Israel was a just one, long before 1939. The Holocaust merely served to emphasize the need for that state.

But this is the worst possible moment to drag history into the equation. Frustrated at the lack of progress in the diplomatic process, more and more Palestinians and their supporters are demanding not only the 1967 borders, but the 1948 ones, in a single state, where Jews will be in a minority once the Palestinian refugees return. Many Israelis, especially on the right wing, suspect that this was the Palestinian intention all along and that the Oslo Accords were only a cover for this purpose.

Whatever the case, a battle of historical narratives, Holocaust versus Nakba (and it doesn't matter that they are incomparable ), will only perpetuate these claims. Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, who today, in 2011, prefer to cling on to history, are obstructing any chance of achieving some kind of two-state compromise and despite his new-found support for a Palestinian state, Netanyahu is one of them.

We don't have to give up on the Holocaust - it is our history and holds central lessons for all human beings - but we have to stop using it as a justification for Israeli policies. And we don't have to be afraid of the Nakba. Injustices were carried out by both sides in 1948, but if Israel would have lost, there is no question that the atrocities would have been of a totally different order. But anyway, that is history and bringing the Holocaust into the equation only forces Israel to opposing historical claims. Despite all our failings, Israel is enough of a success story to argue its case based on today's realities.