Netanyahu Proved That Even the Holocaust Isn't a Consensus in Israel

Different groups espouse an array of theories and myths – and the prime minister’s remarks only reinforced them.

Olivier Fitoussi

More than a week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his deranged remarks about the responsibility borne by Haj Amin al-Husseini for the Holocaust, the subject appears to have been exhausted. One question that has not been addressed, however, is why what Netanyahu said seemed so astonishing. What accounts for the fact that two sentences, describing an event that occurred almost 75 years ago, became the focus of attention,at a time when reality itself is far from sane and the streets are drenched with blood?

This is hardly the first time Netanyahu has strayed from the truth. His speeches and statements over the years are rife with remarks that have ranged from inaccuracies to outright lies. Still, references to the Holocaust seem to possess magical power. Many people find it deeply disturbing that fabricated information about the Holocaust is being spread by the leader of a country. In fact, it is impossible to separate the deranged nature of what Netanyahu said from the derangement of the hysterical responses.

The Israeli historical consciousness has become extraordinarily narrow. In the frenetic pace of the flow of information on television and via the social networks, even events that took place a few months ago are rapidly erased from the consciousness. Few of us take an interest in the historical conceptions of the people around us, whatever their social or professional standing.

For example, many people think the world was created less than 6,000 years ago and deny that dinosaurs existed. Some will consider this a primitive approach, but hardly anyone will boycott those who hold that view or demand that they retract it. Others espouse bizarre theories about the reasons for the outbreak of World War I, or about how the Indians reached America, but the reaction they get when they expound their ideas is rarely more than a raised eyebrow, if that.

Even in regard to sensitive historical issues, such as slavery in the United States, the Nakba (“catastrophe,” as Palestinians refer to the events surrounding the founding of the State of Israel), the kidnapping of Yemenite children in Israel or the pullout from Gaza a decade ago, it’s clear that people hold different views and there is little consensus about the facts and their interconnections.

But a totally different approach exists with regard to the Holocaust. Statements on that subject are rigorously scrutinized by historians, journalists, organizations and the public at large. Every inaccuracy summons forth a demand for correction and a reprimand, as though merely to speak the words is damaging. Talk about the Holocaust carries a status similar to that possessed by pledges of faith in medieval Europe: Anyone who deviated from the doctrine about the holy trinity or about Jesus’ divine nature was considered a heretic and risked denunciation and severe punishment.

There is nothing accidental about this response to remarks about the Holocaust. According to the sociologists Eliezer Don Yihyeh and Charles Liebman, the Holocaust is one of the central elements in the Israeli civil religion. Disparaging its memory is thus tantamount to blasphemy.

Of course, this strict truth regime also has rational justifications. The Holocaust was a unique event; its denial or distorted usage is often intertwined with anti-Semitism, racism or a call for violence. Acknowledgment of the Nazis’ crimes and dissociation from them is today perceived as a precondition for the political debate, together with a rejection of racism and support for democracy. Nevertheless, it’s doubtful whether that convention is accepted unreservedly.

It’s no secret that many Israelis espouse racist, undemocratic views. Less talked about is the fact that many in Israel also do not recognize the crimes of the Nazis, or perceive them very differently from the accepted approach that is religiously preserved by Holocaust experts and commemorative organizations. There is no genuine basis for the assumption that a broad societal consensus exists concerning the basic facts of the Holocaust, even among Jewish Israelis.

Every year around this date – and especially this year which marks two decades since the event – the media express outrage over the fact that young people in Israel are increasingly adopting false myths and theories about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. These group narratives, which constitute an alternative to the dominant narrative that is taught in the schools, are transmitted outside the formal structures – in the home, in synagogues and via the social networks.

But similar theories abound about the Holocaust, too. Everyone who talks with Israelis from various social or ethnic communities, or who reads the comments on the Web about articles on the subject is immediately exposed to these other narratives. Among the claims frequently encountered: The Jews were dirty and the clean Germans could not bear their existence; the United States and Britain cultivated Hitler and helped the Nazis come to power; the Holocaust was a divine punishment for assimilation or for Zionism; the communist regime in the Soviet Union was effectively run by Jews, so their murder was inevitable.

Not long ago a popular Israeli Jewish blogger claimed that Europe’s Jews practically “devised a final solution” for the Continent by promoting communist totalitarianism before they themselves fell victim to the Nazis’ Final Solution.

The “official version” of the Holocaust is unraveling at the edges. Facebook groups and others that advocate conspiracy theories discuss – in Hebrew – claims that deny the existence of the gas chambers. Among the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, as well as among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, ideas about the Holocaust prevail that would be considered shocking by the supervised standards of the media and the education system. Not long ago, the popular television series “Zagouri Empire” dealt with the reserved approach of many Mizrahim – Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent – to the “Holocaust Day of the Ashkenazim.” But unorthodox views are also widespread among secular Ashkenazi Israelis – for example, that the pre-war Jews “lusted after the fleshpots of Europe” and therefore are effectively to blame for their own deaths.

From this perspective, Netanyahu’s remarks are noteworthy principally because, for the first time, the most senior political figure in the country has officially reinforced one of the alternative theories about the Holocaust that are widespread among the general public. It’s likely that in the years ahead, nonorthodox views about the Holocaust will be increasingly voiced, and from more respectable platforms than at present. Still, it’s doubtful whether memory can be controlled, even when almost unlimited resources are devoted to this goal. Instead of adding more memorial days for the Holocaust, perhaps it would be better to devote time and thought to the historical memory itself and to its elusive character.