Weimar Germany and especially its cosmopolitan heart, Berlin, was a volatile Mecca of art, science, political dispute, diversity, violence and sexual permissiveness – a fast and furious burst of cultural momentum that died prematurely with the rise of its antithesis, Hitler. The image of 1920s Berlin as an Atlantis drowned by the deluge of Nazism is a lasting and powerful one, perhaps best immortalized in Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin,” which later became the award-winning musical, “Cabaret.”
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Last month, watching the 200,000 people in various states of undress and intoxication dancing in the annual LGBT Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, one could characterize Israel as an oasis of tolerance, freedom and liberal values in a much-less cosmopolitan Middle East – and rightly so. The parade is just one reflection of the country’s modern, progressive ethos: Israel is the world’s fourth-most educated nation, ranks 12th in Nobel Prize laureates per capita, has more museums per capita than anywhere else on earth and is a powerhouse of technological innovation. Tel Aviv is celebrated for its excess of gourmet cuisine, beach culture and hedonistic anything-goes nightlife.
All that glitters in Tel Aviv, however, is not gold. Life here, like that in the Berlin of Isherwood’s fictionalized memoir, is punctuated by incidents of racism and threats to enlightened pluralism. Just one week before the Pride Parade, for instance, an innocent Arab supermarket worker was savagely beaten in broad daylight on the streets of Tel Aviv, for failing to show ID to undercover cops who he thought were civilians. One need only check the Berl Katzenelson Fund’s weekly hate and racism monitor or the Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s list to understand the pattern and proportion of anti-democratic legislation, hate-speech and racism casting a growing shadow.
Israel’s quickening tempo of undemocratic legislation, angry nationalism and hate speech is being criticized by respected public figures, often comparing the current aspirational racism and chipping-away at democracy to 1930s Germany.
The most controversial such pronouncement was that of IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, who on this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day said, "If there's something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance it's the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then – 70, 80 and 90 years ago – and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016."
Maj. Gen. Golan made the comparison after Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon criticized an IDF soldier caught on video executing an incapacitated Palestinian in Hebron, which, in Israel’s twisted reality, made him and the defense establishment the clay pigeons of a nation where many people don’t give a damn about ethics when Arabs are involved.
The comparison between Israel and Germany was inflated, twisted and summarily condemned by a peanut gallery of right-wing politicians. The prime minister stated that such comparisons “wrong Israeli society and cheapen the Holocaust.” Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev called for Golan’s resignation, arguing that Golan was “part of the delegitimization against Israel."
Even if one ignores the recent attacks on egalitarianism, the “villa in the jungle” metaphor favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer hides what’s going on in the occupied West Bank, where there are neither concentration camps (but freedom of movement is restricted), racial laws (yet there are two different legal systems for Jews and Palestinians), looted art (although the IDF routinely seizes Palestinian land) nor forced labor (but Palestinians workers are not protected by Israeli labor laws).
Critics are correct when they make a stark contrast between Israel and 1930s Germany. The West Bank is not Auschwitz. Netanyahu might be a megalomaniac who shamelessly uses scaremongering, racism and hate to secure votes, but he is not Hitler.
Yet all this seems to have missed the point.
Why do Israeli intellectuals make comparisons to Weimar Germany? For the same reason that historians, writers, artists and politicians around the world have for the past 70 years: It is the ultimate example of the beguiling, incremental implosion of a highly cultured, politically sophisticated nation.
Comparing Israel’s current predicament to Germany at the edge of the abyss is not about precise factual parallels or a checklist of horrors. Rather, it is an emotional expression of fear from a society that sees its country creeping toward belligerent nationalism, a bid to stop Israel’s figurative train before it reaches the collapsed bridge.
For the better part of the last century Jews have repeated the mantra, “never again.” Neither this sacrosanct yet largely empty verbal commitment nor the Jewish people can stop mass killing from happening around the world, as we have witnessed in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur; believing otherwise would be ridiculous.
The point of “never again” is that Jewish people use the trauma and lessons of the Holocaust to speak out against dangerous forces and trends. First and foremost, this means criticizing their own Jewish neighbors or government. The Israelis who do so prove their moral rigor. Not only is the Germany/Israel comparison valid, but it is the ethical inheritance of the Holocaust. If Israel really is the only real democracy in the Middle East with “the most moral army in the world,” then it can surely stand up to the strictest ethical tests.
Isherwood, in “Goodbye to Berlin,” stoically portrays a city in which the banality of evil is slowly taking over but causing no alarm. “Our street looked quite gay when you turned into it and saw the black-white-red flags hanging motionless from windows against the blue spring sky. On the Nollendorfplatz people were sitting out of doors before the cafe in their overcoats, reading about the coup d’etat in Bavaria. Göring spoke from the radio horn in the corner. Germany is awake, he said. An ice cream shop was open. Uniformed Nazis strode hither and thither, with serious, set faces, as though on weighty errands. The newspaper readers by the cafe turned their heads to watch them pass and smiled and seemed pleased.”
The comparison that offends so many is not meant to be analogous. Rather, it is the obsta principiis of people who’ve learned the lessons of the Holocaust and refuse to let Israel become like Isherwood’s Berlin - a doomed, decadent cabaret for some and a ghetto for others.
David Sarna Galdi, a former editor at Haaretz, works for a non-profit organization in Tel Aviv.