Many years ago, I asked a senior French official to explain the strategic logic of France's independent nuclear capacity, its force de frappe. The Soviet Union, after all, had immeasurably greater and more powerful nuclear capacities. There was no question of mutual destruction or mutual deterrence.
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I will never forget his gobsmacking reply. "Our force de frappe's not aimed at Russia; it's aimed at Germany." The previous century had been an intermittent saga of Franco-German wars, he continued, all of them the results of German militarism and aggression. Even though they were allies and partners now (with West Germany), France still needed to keep its guard up.
In other words, its recent historical experience was the basis for a central part of France's defense policy.
And that was sans a Holocaust. There had "just" been bombing, shelling, invasion, trench warfare, tank warfare, and periods of occupation.
What's wrong with that? Why should a nation not rest its policy upon its recent collective experience? I ask this in connection with the latest welling up of 'anti-Holocaust' sentiment among the Israeli intelligentsia following interviews in Haaretz with top Air Force officers who took part in the symbolic fly-past over Auschwitz exactly ten years ago. IAF Commander Amir Eshel said he considered that fly-past, by three F-15s which he led, the flight of his life. Photographs of the IAF planes over the notorious – and notoriously unbombed – rail lines adorn many military and civilian offices in Israel's governing establishment. Men like Eshel keep mementos of that fly-past with them as they contemplate and plan today a possible strike in Syria or a possible strike in Iran.
All this seriously worries liberal opinion. In Haaretz's own editorial two weeks ago, "Israel today is a strong, independent entity that has been accepted by the international community. The Holocaust's memory is a historical obligation, a monument to human brutality that must not be forgotten. But it cannot constitute a strategic or security consideration that statesmen and army chiefs must deal with today. They must outline Israel's strategy and its diplomatic and military way, while focusing on its future and on the needs of its people, who want to live not as captives of past traumas."
Arguably though, what's wrong is not the IAF's memorable demonstration a decade ago nor Eshel's legitimate and proud memory of it, but rather the unremitting inability of left-liberal Israelis to assimilate the Holocaust into their Zionist ethos – and hence into our national history and policy. The Yishuv, they insisted before and after 1939, comprised New Jews, to be distinguished, if not dissociated, from the millions writhing under Hitler's jackboot. If Rommel defeated the British and swept through Egypt, they would fight him from the Carmel (!)
This sad and complex reaction, which had ramifications beyond the establishment of the State in 1948, has been amply documented and debated by some of our best historians.
Later, Menachem Begin's incessant rhetorical hyperbole exploiting the Holocaust achieved precisely the opposite effect than he intended, at least among left-liberal opinion. His tasteless analogies – Arafat in Beirut to Hitler in Berlin for instance – triggered an almost instinctive spurning of any Holocaust analogy as demagogic and devaluing.
But arguably this instinctive reaction has itself become polemic and hyperbolic. Such reactions become outright irrationality when Prime Minister Netanyahu proclaimed his own Holocaust analogy, pointing out that Iran, pursuing the Bomb, was threatening to incinerate Israel and was denying the Holocaust.
This, of course, is the sub-text of the criticism of Eshel and the other IAF generals. They are accused, in effect, of reinforcing Netanyahu's analogy by referring back to their dramatic fly-past over Auschwitz.
Well, it certainly works with me. Whenever I see that photograph of the IAF at Auschwitz my eyes tear. When I saw on Mossad Chief Meir Dagan's wall, next to the government's instructions to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions, the photograph of his grandfather, on his knees, about to be shot, the tears flowed.
Granted, as Haaretz asserts, Israelis "want to live not as captives of past traumas." But, as the French official helped me understand, many people find it natural and unavoidable to live – and make policy – as captives of their past traumas. Our trauma was the worst of all.