'Zionism Has Been Kidnapped by the Far Right,' Says Holocaust Historian Friedlander

Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander says Israel's left has no choice but to base its arguments on lessons of the Shoah.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Saul Friedlander.
Saul Friedlander.Credit: Courtesy
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Seated in the lobby of a Tel Aviv hotel, Saul Friedlander looks indulgently out of the windows, at the sunbathers on the beach outside. But he does not share their carefree attitude. He is troubled by the newspaper on the table in front of him and the subject of our interview. “For personal and family reasons I’m happy to see the captivating human fabric of Israel,” he says. “But it’s important to put aside this pleasant Tel-Aviv life and to go to Jerusalem where things are a bit more complicated. When you forget the pleasant daily life, think for a bit and read the paper, you get into an angry frame of my mind. It reminds me of Leon Roth who was the first professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University and then went to teach [in 1953] at Cambridge. Someone asked why he left and he said that ‘when I’m in Israel, everything in the newspaper makes me angry. In Cambridge it doesn’t.’”

Prof. Friedlander could be excused for sitting back and enjoying his vacation. The foremost Israeli and Jewish veteran historian of the Holocaust, he has been writing and teaching history for over 50 years in Switzerland and Israel, and since 1988, at the University of California. He is an Israel Prize (1983) laureate and a Pulitzer winner for his massive account - “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945,” which weaved together the stories of Nazi perpetrators, Jewish victims and ordinary German bystanders. And Sunday (May18) he is to receive the prestigious Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University. But at 81, a year after finally retiring from active academic work, he is concerned for the future of the country he chose to emigrate to, as a 16-year-old Holocaust refugee, at the height of the 1948 Independence War.

Not a Zionist

“I am connected to this country. My eldest son and grandchildren live here but I can’t call myself a Zionist. Not because I feel estranged from Israel but because Zionism has been taken, kidnapped even, by the far right. You could say I was a normal Zionist until 1968, when I wrote a short book in French about Israel’s future. I don’t think it was especially daring, but I already then I wrote that we couldn’t continue holding on to territories with Arab population; no one called them Palestinians then. I thought and still do that it would ruin the values of Israeli society from within.”

Friedlander is aware that many Israelis and Jews find it difficult to reconcile his historical research, much of which has focused on the nature of Nazi anti-Semitism and the inaction of German society and the Vatican throughout the Holocaust, with calling upon Israel to relinquish its hold on more defensible borders. “Already in 1974 when I gave a lecture at Hillel in Los Angeles and spoke about my research and also about Israeli policy someone from the audience asked: ‘how can a man who is so aware of the Holocaust’s lessons have such dovish views?’ I answered that learning about the Holocaust may lead some to right-wing conclusions but it can be the other way around and lead you to emphasize more the moral imperative in accepting ‘the other.’ But I have never asked myself why none of this has ever made me paranoid or nationalist. For me the paramount question has always been how the individual man deals with his conscience when faced with injustice and crimes.”

'The right excels at using the Holocaust'

As an early member of Peace Now, Friedlander regrets that his colleagues in the Israeli left prefer not to base their arguments more on the lessons of the Holocaust. “It’s a mistake of the left to keep clear from such a major part of our history. They are afraid of dragging the Holocaust into the political game but we can turn around the way the right uses it.”

Friedlander is fundamentally opposed to making political use of the Holocaust, but believes the left has no choice, since the right has been doing so for over 30 years. “Since the 1970s when Menachem Begin described Yasser Arafat as a ‘second Hitler,’ we have seen how the political right in Israel has been using the Holocaust and its memory to justify more and more radical positions. It caused the left to refrain from even mentioning the Shoah. Personally, it caused me a dilemma when I saw how the subject which I devoted my life to has been used to prop up the most repulsive political attitudes.”

The first books Friedlander published in the late 1960s, on Pope Pius XII, who was accused of not speaking out against the extermination of the Jews, and SS officer Kurt Gerstein, who passed on information to Western diplomats of the death camps, established the theme to which he would return to in his later research on the conduct of German civilians and religious leaders during the war. And those are the lessons he wants Israelis to learn today.

“What fascinated me was the way people can ignore what is happening around them – and that is happening to us today as well. We are in a situation where life here seems good. Despite tough social problems, the average Israeli can enjoy life and ignore the worsening political situation, the violence and the impunity.”

Friedlander knows the backlash awaiting anyone who compares what is happening today between Israel and the Palestinians with the dark days in Europe. But few know as much as he does about that period. “Things that are being said now remind us of some of the bad regimes of the 1930s, but not the 1940s,” he says, making a clear distinction. “But it’s dangerous to compare because the ordinary reader doesn’t distinguish between the thirties and the forties. The moment someone says Germany you immediately think of extermination; it’s a very slippery slope. But the political-messianism and its connection to religion and extreme nationalism we see in Israel today is similar to the main component of extreme European movements.”

Throughout his career Friedlander was fascinated by what he calls “the collision between political calculation and moral imperatives. That’s why I wrote about Pope Pius, because I had seen a different side of the church in my childhood.” Friedlanders’ parents were captured by French police and sent to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. He was saved by hiding in a Catholic boarding school and was planning a future as a priest when he discovered his parents’ fate in 1946, embraced his Judaism and became a young Zionist.

As a historian, he has disagreed with prevailing schools of thought both in Germany and Israel regarding the roots of the Holocaust and the Nazis’ hatred for Jews. He sees a “redemptive” motivation behind Hitler’s anti-Semitism, a particular death cult focused on ridding the world of Jews, which is different from the traditional European anti-Semitism. This interpretation sets him apart from many German historians, who sought to put the Holocaust in a wider context of social and political processes in Germany, and from Israeli historians, who see the genocide as the culmination of long centuries of persecution going back to the Spanish Inquisition. One of the leading proponents of that view was Benzion Netanyahu, late father of the prime minister. “We corresponded though we didn’t agree; he was an extreme ideologue” says Friedlander of Netanyahu senior.

A message to Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu, who repeatedly mentions the Holocaust as well as other events in Jewish history in his speeches, is very aware of history. “If I could speak to Netanyahu, I would say to him, as a historian, that while this period may seem a good one -- Israel is strong, we’re not facing a war or a crisis -- it may be remembered in the future as a bad period in Jewish history because we were lulled by the daily comfort and feeling of safety. A historian knows that a leader has to dare and make decisions that may be very unpopular. I don’t know if Netanyahu realizes that is what he has to do and is just too weak or whether he’s actually an ideologue. Talleyrand once said of an order given by Napoleon that ‘it was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.’ And every child can see the stupid mistake the government is making by continuing to oppose dividing this land into two states.”

An ultra-Orthodox demonstration in Jerusalem’s Kikar Hashabbat. Friedlander is opposed to making political use of the Holocaust.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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