Opinion

The Lesson I Learned From the Holocaust

The Shoah was unique, terrible and happened only once, but the processes that preceded it continue

Extremist Yoav Eliasi (aka The Shadow) at a rally in Tel Aviv, March 2016.
Ilan Assayag

The lessons of the Holocaust must be learned all the time, not only on the date set by the Knesset. You have to remember that it started with processes. Yes, the Holocaust was unique, terrible and a one-time event – but not the processes. They always start legally. They are always aimed at protecting the people and the state, and they always look enlightened and rational. That time, it ended in the Holocaust. Other times they end in benighted regimes.

Why am I mentioning this? Because we also have processes, and now they are dangerous. They won’t lead to a holocaust, but they will lead to a regime no one wants.

Each stage by itself can be digested. Refugees in internment camps? We can handle that. Legislation that circumvents the High Court of Justice? We can live with that. Persecuting left-wing organizations? That’s disturbing but understandable. A nation-state law? Drivel. Undermining the free press? There’s always the internet. MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi)? He’s marginal.

We can live with any one of these individually, but not all together. There are too many indications, all of them legal, all of which will pass the relevant committees and be approved in first and second readings. All of them remind us where they might lead.

The Holocaust was unique, terrible and happened only once, but not the processes that preceded it. They were so ordinary that their language of imagery fits into our language. The language of processes is always shallow; the images repeat themselves. There’s no need to be original, it’s all been said before. Long before Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, people referred to refugees as “a cancer” and talked about “domestic enemies” who “stab us in the back.” Whoever declares “One Bible, One Nation, One Homeland!” doesn’t know, or probably doesn’t care, that it’s a paraphrase of “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer!” (“One People, One Empire, One Leader!”)

Illustration of a right-wing demonstrator attacking democracy
Eran Volkovsky

Two weeks ago, someone called me a Nazi. I wasn’t offended. After all, he didn’t really mean it. “Nazi” is what came out, but he could just as easily have called me a son of a bitch or a shit. But it made me think about how “Nazi” has been devalued. Once, that was the doomsday weapon, a 10 on the Richter scale – something you just didn’t say. But memory fades and vicious words lose their significance.

Words have lost their significance, the images are detached from memory, but the processes continue. Here, too, we’ve invented nothing. Everything has been tried and tested. Darkness never falls all at once: the lights dim, we can recline in our easy chair and prattle on about “the State of Tel Aviv.” We chat and they act.

In reality, we have a new state here. Step by step, carefully, on tiptoe. First the courts will be dealt with, then the laws, and in the end the police will enforce and the devoted media will cover it.

The lesson of the Holocaust is that we must never believe the worst is still far away. We cannot think we’ll never reach the point at which we’ll have to decide whether it’s fight or flight. We want to believe it won’t happen in our time; when it comes, we say, our children will deal with it. Meanwhile, we send them to an educational system managed by a religious-Zionist extremist, and then wonder why an item about 10-year-olds in Ramat Hasharon learning how to “confirm a kill” is pushed to the end of the news and why the process of destroying the free press is proceeding rather easily.

If Hanoch Levin’s 1970 play “Queen of the Bathtub” – a blunt indictment of Israeli militarism – were staged today, they would have to take the actors off the stage on stretchers.

The majority wouldn’t like “Queen of the Bathtub.” The majority says life is beautiful and that embittered journalists are sowing fear and despair. We bend in advance. We have stripped democracy of all that’s in it, leaving only “majority rule.” As if majority rule did not exist you-know-where. They keep lying to us, and we keep believing them. You can understand the naivete: a lie told often enough becomes the truth (no prizes for guessing who said that).

We have no political mechanism to expose lies and stop processes. The system of a government that rules and an opposition that opposes no longer works. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) is sitting in front of the cabinet room door, wagging his tail and staring forlornly at it. Stav Shaffir, Itzik Shmuli and Yossi Yonah (all Zionist Union lawmakers) are deceiving us, masquerading as bold revolutionaries but turning out to be coddled careerists (although they do great work on the committees!).

Don’t expect to see them on the street – but it’s the street that will ultimately win. That’s another lesson we must learn. Pay attention to right-wing rapper Yoav Eliasi (“The Shadow”) and anti-assimilationist Bentzi Gopstein. They’re stronger than Regev and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. The government knows the processes and fears them. It knows it’s only a matter of time before they take over. It’s happened before, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen again.