It’s Time to Learn From History, Bibi

A response to the prime minister’s accusation that the West has forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem, April 15. 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem, April 15. 2015.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Dear Bibi,

We were going to send you the annual letter congratulating you on another year of Israeli independence next week as usual. But since you saw fit to address us on Wednesday night at the Yad Vashem ceremony opening Holocaust Remembrance Day, and made us the main focus of your speech, we felt it would be better to write a bit earlier this year.

In your speech you accused us of having forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust. Of being weak and deluded, and, therefore, eager to appease a genocidal Iranian regime bent on the destruction of Israel. You deduce the entire moral bankruptcy of the “enlightened” West (interesting that you single out the West in your speech, but fail to mention Russia, which is actively arming Iran) from our position on the P5+1 talks with Iran. Our decision to try and come to a deal with Iran on its nuclear program is proof enough for you that we have forgotten history and are failing to learn the lessons of the Holocaust.

Let’s put aside the argument over whether this is the best course to try and prevent Iran from reaching a nuclear weapon. We argue that every other week of the year, and obviously will continue doing so. But ask yourself this: would we have spent so many months wrangling over a deal if we didn’t feel we had to prevent Israel’s main enemy from acquiring the weapon it could use to eliminate the Jewish state?

Has there ever been such a comprehensive set of international sanctions on a country which is also Israel’s arch-nemesis? If you think we are so eager to just roll over and do business with Tehran, would we have spent all this time and effort and erected so many obstacles, instead of just going ahead and doing it? We are doing all this precisely because we have learnt from those terrible chapters in history. You may be right – we may be going about this the wrong way, and you have ample opportunity to lobby against our policy.

We remember Munich 1938. We remember also the conference at Evian two months earlier, in July 1938, when no country was prepared to take in Jewish refugees, barely a year before the storm engulfed them.

We’ve learnt from history. That’s why, every few weeks, our best diplomats are back at some hotel in Switzerland (we’ve gone to Kazakhstan as well) sitting through interminable sessions on numbers of centrifuges and levels of enrichment: because we haven’t relinquished our historical duty.

You are right to be skeptical of our methods, but not our motives. There are many reasons we want to stop Iran from being a nuclear power, but if Israel’s security wasn’t one of them, do you really think we would have gone to such an effort? After all, as you constantly remind us, we failed with North Korea. But we didn’t put up half the fight with them we are now with Iran. Draw your own conclusions for what historical reasons we have been doing this.

Bibi, you recently described yourself as the spokesman “for all the Jewish people.” And as elected leader of the only Jewish state, you have some claim to this title. But don’t forget that more Jews live in our countries than in Israel. Twice as many Jews voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 – that’s a direct and personal expression of trust in his leadership – than voted for your Likud party last month. You said in your speech that when the survivors of the concentration camps emerged after liberation, only the Jews had no country to go to. You know that, historically, that is at best only half-true. Of course, many of the survivors made their way to Palestine where, three years later, with the backing of our votes in the United Nations, a Jewish state was founded. Don’t forget the billions Israel received, not only in reparations from Germany, but in aid from other countries as well, to help those survivors have a new life, to build Israel’s economy and equip the Israel Defense Forces. Yes, we learnt from Europe’s terrible history.

But many Jewish survivors found other countries they now call home. You know many of those survivors personally – you even tried to convince one of them, a U.S. citizen, to become Israel’s next president, instead of Ruby, who you so despise. We were silent earlier this year when you called upon Europe’s Jews to flee in the face of Islamist attacks. But don’t think we failed to notice the insult you caused our citizens by telling them they should leave their chosen homeland.

We don’t begrudge you your responsibility for the safety of Israel’s citizens, and for ensuring Israel remains a secure haven for other Jews who in the future choose, or are forced by persecution, to live there. But as long as they choose to live among us, we take our responsibility toward them very seriously. We learnt that much from history.

At no previous time have so many public funds been allocated in our countries to protecting Jewish communities, to supporting Jewish culture, education and religious life – and, yes, to teaching all our students what happened in the Holocaust and the terrible price we pay when we forsake our responsibility to our fellow human beings.

We know, you feel you are unfairly judged by parts of our media and some of our parliamentarians. Quite often you’re right; a lot of the coverage of Israel is disproportionate and fails to take into account the real challenges you face.

We get treated pretty roughly by them ourselves, and certainly some of the more radical elements exercise double -standards when judging us also. But you have a free press as well, and we’re not about to hold you accountable for everything they write or broadcast. Not every unfair criticism toward you is rooted in anti-Semitism, though there is still a fair amount of that about, and we have never been so resolute in showing it zero tolerance.

Don’t feel so hard done by. There is a double standard toward Israel, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You get a lot more stick than many nasty regimes because you aspire to be “the only democracy in the Middle East.” None of those regimes have the level of trade you have with us (except for oil, but even that’s changing) or receive anything near the amount of aid, grants, subsidies and other incentives Israel does. None of them share our intelligence secrets or have the sort of access you have, either.

And while we’re on the subject of double standards, how about another issue on which we treat Israel differently than any other nation. Since this is a private letter, we can mention here the project down in Dimona – the one we never bring up in public – because we understand Israel’s unique need to have the ultimate guarantee for its survival. And yes, because we trust you not to use it in an irresponsible and belligerent manner. So, no sanctions, no reports, no pressure to join nonproliferation treaties. Instead, you get subsidized submarines from Germany. Not that the thought of it doesn’t make us uneasy, but we really do understand because we have learnt from history. Let’s hope we can keep trusting each other on that.

You have your responsibility to your citizens (by the way, did you really think we wouldn’t notice how you maligned 20 percent of your citizens last month?), and we respect that. We admire the fact that you’ve succeeded in being a democracy throughout your entire existence (within the Green Line, that is – but that’s another argument we’ll get back to in a week). It can’t have been easy, with no prior experience and while going to war every few years. Sixty-seven years ago, most of us still ruled colonies overseas and none of those nations who became independent around when you did have done nearly as good a job at building their own democracies. But another lesson we learnt from history is that democracy building takes time.

So, chag atzmaut sameach, Bibi. Since we’re being honest, we would have preferred to have been writing this letter to Bougie, but that’s Israeli democracy for you. We admire the process, even if we’re not always happy with the results. As long as you are still the only Israeli prime minister to have been born in an independent Israel, perhaps we can ask you to start learning from history and act your age.

Happy Independence Day,

The “enlightened” West

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