Calling Your Political Rival a Nazi Is a Time-hallowed Tradition in Israel

This specific term is a something left and right in Israel have always used against each other.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

A proposed law currently making its way through the pipelines of the Israeli legislature, which would forbid use of the word "Nazi" and the terminology or images of the Third Reich for anything other than historical or educational purposes, not only contradicts the principles of free speech, but also runs against hallowed tradition in Israeli politics, right back to the days of David Ben-Gurion.

Israel's first prime minister was in the habit of using such terminology when referring to his chief ideological rival, leader of the Revisionist Movement Zeev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky – long before the foundation of the state and even before the Holocaust. In 1933, with conflict between the two wings of the Zionist movement at its height, Ben-Gurion repeatedly compared Jabotinsky to Hitler in print and in speeches, including one where he called him "Vladimir Hitler."

Ben-Gurion reserved the comparison also for Jabotinsky's successor, Menachem Begin. In 1963, in a letter to author Chaim Guri, Ben Gurion wrote that "Begin is a distinct Hitlerist type" and predicted that if he would ever come to power "he will replace the army and police headquarters with his goons, and rule as Hitler did in Germany."

Begin for his part called Ben-Gurion a Nazi once during the heated Knesset debate over the government's decision in 1951 to accept reparations from the Germans for the Holocaust. As prime minister, Begin kept the Nazi imagery for the Arabs, likening his decision to go after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Beirut to attacking "Hitler in his bunker" and saying in cabinet that "the alternative (to launching the Lebanon War) is Auschwitz."

Auschwitz, of course, has a place of honor in Israeli political discourse due to the 1969 interview Foreign Minister Abba Eban gave to Der Spiegel in which he said that the map of Israel before the territorial gains of the Six Day War "has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz." This quote has since been employed freely by the right-wing to oppose withdrawals from the occupied territories though Eban never actually called the pre-1967 lines "Auschwitz borders" as he is frequently quoted.

In recent decades, left-wing politicians have been more circumspect, usually preferring to eschew the N-word and describe the far-right instead as merely "fascists" or say knowingly that "they remind us of dark times." The last leading voice on the left to prominently use that sort of language was philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz who in the 1980s described Israeli military actions in Lebanon and the territories as "Judeo-Nazi." His admirers, however, insist that he was not comparing Israeli solider to Nazis, as he is often accused of, but describing a mindset and eventual situation.

Interestingly, while the current legislation is coming from a right-wing government and has been sponsored by religious Knesset members, in recent decades Holocaust motifs have been used almost exclusively by their quarters.

It was the opponents of the Oslo Accords who held aloft posters with the picture of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wearing an SS uniform. The settlers and their supporters called the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 "the deportation" and the agency which dealt with their relocation 'Judenrat" and in some cases during their eviction, pinned on their shirts (and on those of their children) stars reminiscent of those the Germans forced Jews in Europe to wear, as did a group of Haredi protestors last year in Jerusalem.

Right-wing and ultra-Orthodox politicians have regularly called the 'leftist-secular' media "Goebbelsian" and compared it to the Nazi anti-Semitic rag Der Sturmer. MK Yisrael Eichler once made a Heil Hitler salute during a Knesset speech by ultra-secular broadcaster and politician Tommy Lapid and these are but a few examples. It would be much more useful if these politicians could now try and simply use their positions to educate their communities against such usages instead of resorting to censorship laws.

The wording of the proposed law isn't totally clear but it probably won't be applied to those using Nazi-related historic dates and the names of major German cities, or a certain Israeli leader who constantly refers to "1938" and "Munich" in his speeches may have to refresh his long-standing repertoire.

Menachem Begin before an image of David Ben-Gurion.Credit: Joseph Roth/GPO

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