Anshel Pfeffer Looking Back to 2009: What Demjanjuk, Durban II Sagas Said About Israel

It does not matter how many times we convince ourselves and our allies that we are not war criminals.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

As soon as Pessach is over, newspaper editors frantically begin searching for "new" Holocaust survivors with fresh stories of daring and fortitude, never before told in public, to grace their pages on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Every year, the search is a bit more difficult, as the pool of survivors who have never talked to the media sadly dwindles. This year at least, the papers will have it easier, as two overseas events, with convenient timing, are unfolding, and tie in nicely with the Holocaust; the never-ending saga of Ivan "the Terrible" Demjanjuk's deportation and the United Nations' "Durban II" conference on racism in Geneva.

Even if Demjanjuk loses his legal battle to remain in Cleveland, and if the German authorities get around to putting him in the dock for the murder of 29,000 Jews in Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenburg, this would most likely be the very last Nazi war crimes trial.

There are a few dozen elderly Nazis and collaborators, in their eighties and nineties, still at large, but there is little appetite anywhere to bring charges against them when death from natural causes will likely occur before a lengthy and expensive legal process can be brought to completion. Ironically, the country least involved in the last flailing attempts to run the aging murderers to ground is Israel. After its original prosecution of Demjanjuk, on charges of being "Ivan the Terrible" of Treblinka, collapsed in a morass of contradictory identifications, no Justice Ministry attorney is going to risk a career over another wild-goose chase. (To be fair, if it weren't for his trial here, no one would have heard of Demjanjuk, and he'd be living out his retirement in Ohio, United States citizenship unquestioned).

This is an ignominious end to the Jewish state's efforts to don the mantle of the avenger of the six million. In 1958, David Ben-Gurion ordered the Mossad to hunt down senior Nazis so as to bring them to justice in Jerusalem. A hit-list was compiled, teams were dispatched, and Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped in an operation that spawned countless books, films and newspaper features. Philosopher Hannah Arendt launched the historical debate, ongoing to this day, on whether Eichmann's role in the extermination was really that central, but from an Israeli perspective, there is little argument that his trial served its purpose. It equipped a whole generation of Israelis with the ethos that their new country was there to ensure that never again would Jews be threatened in such a way.

After Eichmann, the Mossad wound down its Nazi-hunting operations, one Nazi had been enough and, anyway, there was a need to focus on collecting the intelligence needed for the successful execution of the Six-Day War.

Demjanjuk's trial, quarter of a century later, was designed to serve a similar purpose to Eichmann's for a new generation, jaded and disillusioned by another two traumatic wars, financial meltdown, social breakdown and a general feeling that an entire nation had lost its way. At first it worked. Thousands of Israelis flocked to the Jerusalem Conference Center and waited in line for the privilege of spending half an hour in the temporary courtroom; schools and workplaces came to a standstill, so many more could watch and listen to the live TV and radio broadcasts. The preordained death sentence was greeted with jubilation, but then, the Soviet Union collapsed and archives opened just in time for the appeal. There's little doubt the Ukrainian had been a concentration camp guard, but it wasn't clear at which camp, so he couldn't be hanged. After a decade as the guest of the Israel Prisons Service, he was sent back to Cleveland.

Sixteen years later, the Justice Ministry is once again dealing with the twin issues of universal jurisdiction and war crimes investigations. Only this time, the focus is on how to evade such charges. Israel, along with several Western countries, will not be represented next week at Durban II in Geneva, but allegations of its crimes against humanity will most definitely be on the agenda, as will be discussions on how to bring Israel Defense Forces officers to international justice. The media will be on the lookout for the first speaker to mention Israel's "Nazi tactics."

The response of the government and pro-Israel advocacy groups will be that any attempt to equate the two is rank anti-Semitism, and there is certainly a good deal of truth to that argument. But it doesn't cut the ice any more. No amount of slick information and propaganda operations and pro-Israel rallies have succeeded in stemming the tide; it doesn't matter how many times we convince ourselves and our staunch allies that we are not war criminals, and that those who try to portray us as such are incorrigible Jew-haters.

No matter how true that is, it just doesn't work anymore. Many think that our media operations have to be faster, more resourceful, and that if our arguments were just more forcefully made, they will get a better hearing. But we have been trying to do that for so long, only to fight a losing battle. Perhaps it would be best to finally change tactics and admit that no, we are certainly not Nazis, but occupation of another nation has made it so much harder for us to claim we are still the heirs of the victims, and not the perpetrators.



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