Opinion

Israel’s Dark Times Are Already With Us, Mr. President

Ilana Hammerman
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Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian cameraman during clashes with Palestinians in the village of Tuqu, West Bank, January 25, 2019.
Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian cameraman during clashes with Palestinians in the village of Tuqu, West Bank, January 25, 2019.Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasma / Reuters
Ilana Hammerman

Open your eyes and see them, Mr. President – you, Reuven Rivlin, who said the publication of the list of businesses with ties to West Bank settlements was “reminiscent of dark periods in our history.” Those dark periods are here, right here, right now.

They’re here in Jerusalem, your city and mine. Go to the Shoafat refugee camp and see the crowded ghetto that has arisen behind the barriers walling in Arab residents of Jerusalem.

Go to Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah and see how Arab families are evicted in Jerusalem neighborhoods, their homes becoming Jewish property. Join the Flag March that takes place in the Old City every year and see the masses of Jews parading through the narrow alleys, where all the shops are closed out of fear. Isn’t this what happened to the Jews in the “dark periods”?

Continue on to the Jordan Valley and see how Bedouin shepherds are evicted by Jewish settlers, how Jewish vehicles speed into the Bedouin's flocks and soldiers from the Jewish army demolish their tents and tin shacks in the middle of the night. The soldiers leave men, women, children and babies exposed to the bitter cold of the winter nights and the scorching heat of the summer days.

If you see this with your own eyes, such a decent man as yourself, your yearning Jewish soul that so reveres the memories of the past would surely cringe.

If only I had the talent of spoken word artist Yossi Zabari, I would declare in his rhythmic Hebrew about this dark period of ours: “New in the frozen section you can find high-quality cannon fodder that was lovingly raised on Zionism and the sacredness of the land, with no artificial additives or love of the stranger and respect for the other and the sanctity of life.”

And I would ask and respond as he does: To compare or not to compare, that is not the question, that is the duty.” Yes, this is the most important lesson for us Jews in Israel more than 80 years later.

Yes, to compare. Not the concentration and extermination camps but what preceded them and occurred right before the eyes of Germans who, if they hadn’t stood by and gone along, these things wouldn’t have happened. The Jews wouldn’t have been ostracized, made invisible and been abandoned, and the camps wouldn’t have come into existence.

President Reuven Rivlin speaking in Jerusalem, November 21, 2019.
President Reuven Rivlin speaking in Jerusalem, November 21, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Learned German jurists

In Germany, tens of thousands of political opponents who were defeated in a democratic election were imprisoned in the concentration camps long before the Jews. The authorities shut down their organizations and publications – they could no longer object without risking their lives. Then the persecution of Jews was honed in an elaborate system of laws whose gradual construction was overseen by learned jurists and whose application was put in the hands of the courts. And the life of “Aryan” Germans went on as usual.

Every liberal and humanist (not necessarily “leftist”) Israeli must read a book – translated into English as “Defying Hitler” – by the journalist (and jurist) Sebastian Haffner, who left Germany in 1938, long before the extermination camps were built. The process he went through must be compared to what is happening in Israel now.

As Haffner put it, while he was experiencing the events, he couldn’t gauge their significance. He intensely felt the choking, nauseating character of it all but couldn’t grasp the constituent parts and put them together.

He wrote that despite his generation’s historical and cultural education, they were completely helpless to deal with something that didn’t feature in anything they had learned. How meaningless were their explanations, how infinitely foolish their attempts at justification, how hopelessly superficial the jerry-rigged constructions with which the intellect tried to cover up the feeling of dread and disgust.

Daily life also made it difficult to see the situation clearly. Life went on, though now it had become ghostly and unreal, and was mocked every day by the events going on in the background. The only place he felt sure of himself was at the courts, though for now the courts’ activities seemed to lack meaning.

He and his girlfriend kept on going to the cinema, had meals in a small wine bar, drank Chianti and went dancing. He still saw his friends and had discussions with acquaintances. Family birthdays were still celebrated as they had always been.

As he put it, it was this automatic continuation of ordinary life that hindered any strong reaction against the horror.

A destroyed Jewish-owned store in Magdeburg, Germany, after Kristallnacht, which took place on November 9-10, 1938.
A destroyed Jewish-owned store in Magdeburg, Germany, after Kristallnacht, which took place on November 9-10, 1938. Credit: German Federal Archives / Wikimedia Commons

As Victor Klemperer saw it

The horrors at that time were the gradual denial of civil and human rights to the Jews living in Germany. A Romance languages professor, Victor Klemperer, documented this in his journals that provide an incomparable record; they were put in book form and translated into English as “I Will Bear Witness.” A former convert from Judaism and a German patriot who lived to see the Reich defeated, he too described society as the events were occurring, in disbelief that things went so far.

In 1936, he wrote that when he saw the mass of people happy and peaceful, he believed less than ever in any change in Germany’s political situation. In 1938 he noted how a gardener and a grocer he knew agreed completely: They said they had no idea what was happening, they didn’t read the newspapers.

Klemperer wrote that people were apathetic and indifferent. The grocer told him that it all seemed like cinema to him. People simply regarded it all as a theatrical sham.

Klemperer was astonished at the ease with which German society and German citizens accepted the collapse of democracy and the infringement of civil rights and liberties; they even considered this a price worth paying for Hitler’s foreign policy successes.

Later he observed, again with some amazement, how the Germans, including the seemingly decent ones, preferred to close their eyes to injustices done to him and all German Jews, based on the law, even if these Jews were friends, neighbors and acquaintances. In 1940, as still in 1942 and 1943, Klemperer mentioned the people who were horrified to learn of the restrictions imposed on him as a Jew. No, they didn’t know, they regretted to hear it.

These things must be compared to what his happening here, in Israel, where many people “regret” that their country denies civil and human rights to millions of people who live under its military rule, that it persecutes, humiliates and expels them, steals their property, imprisons them in enclaves and ghettos and is turning this reality into a permanent situation, not just a year or two but half a century already. Yes, they regret it, but they go on with their comfortable lives and do nothing about it.

It must be compared, not because no regimes are worse than Israel’s oppressive regime, but because these are exactly the things that were done to us in the dark periods of our history. They happened in a modern society in the heart of supposedly enlightened Europe, whose countries closed themselves off to Jews and where many collaborated with Nazi Germany.

This is our Jewish lesson. It’s not: Let the Israeli army win in the Palestinian cities and villages. It’s: Don’t let racism and fascism win in Israel.

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