The remembrance of the Holocaust fills a central role in Israel’s foreign and defense policy. Our nation’s leaders and IDF commanders describe their main mission as preventing a new Holocaust; which in their opinion is lying in wait for the Jewish people. Next week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit the former death camp of Auschwitz and inaugurate the permanent “Jewish exhibition” there. At such occasions, Netanyahu warns of a new Shoah that Iran is planning, and he promises: We will never again stand helpless in the face of those seeking our deaths.
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Netanyahu is not alone. IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, the son of Holocaust survivors, presents a horrifying document he received during the March of the Living at Auschwitz. In the document, a Nazi official calculates the economic cost and benefits of a Jewish prisoner. The commander of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, led a flyover of F-15s above Auschwitz a decade ago. The IDF sends hundreds of professional soldiers to its Witnesses in Uniform program in Poland every year, a program that is intended to “strengthen the feelings of the commander to the IDF, to the State of Israel as a democratic nation, and to the Jewish people,” and to “make the commander into the trustee in his unit and environment of instilling the remembrance of the Holocaust.”
The connection between the Shoah and current events seems natural and understandable today. But it wasn’t always so. During the Yom Kippur War the IDF found itself in a greatly inferior position: Egypt and Syria pulled off a surprise attack, the Air Force found it difficult to operate at the fronts, and hundreds of soldiers were killed in the battles to stop the enemy. Nonetheless, even at the most difficult hours, the statesmen and military commanders did not see the Warsaw Ghetto or Majdanek facing them. In the many books that appeared about that war it is possible to find terror and fear, confusion and loss of control − but the enemy is not described as Hitler or Eichmann.
The leaders of Israel in 1973, Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, did not speak about the Holocaust even during the first and hardest days of the war. Golda, who believed in the importance of public relations no less than Netanyahu, said at the time to foreign reporters: “Our neighbors are fighting to destroy us.” Golda said we know that surrender means death, the destruction of our sovereignty and the physical destruction of all our people. In the Knesset she said: “This is a war over our existence as a nation and a people.” But at the time she did not compare Anwar Sadat or Hafez Assad to the Nazis.
The change came about with the political upheaval and Menachem Begin’s rise to power in 1977. The father of the Likud was barely rescued from the Holocaust, in which his family was murdered. According to his biographer Shlomo Nakdimon, the Holocaust was the single greatest influence on Begin’s worldview. “As opposed to other Israelis, who see the Shoah as a one-time form of historical catastrophe that will never happen again, Begin believed with all his heart that the lesson of the Shoah is that the Jewish people must defend themselves in their land so as to prevent a renewed danger to its existence.”
In the same spirit Begin would compare Yasser Arafat to Hitler, and the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor he described as an operation to prevent the Holocaust that Saddam Hussein planned for the Jewish people. The bombing of the Osirak reactor in 1981 seemed to be a turning point after which the message began to be accepted in the IDF, too. Brig. Gen. (res.) Yiftach Spector, the most senior of the pilots who participated in the attack on the Iraqi reactor, described in his book “Loud and Clear: The Memoir of an Israeli Fighter Pilot,” the reunion 20 years later of those who participated in the operation. Israel (Relik) Shafir, one of the youngest pilots, surprised Spector when he told him how during the briefing before taking off for Baghdad, he had thought of his grandfather and aunt who were murdered in the Stutthof concentration camp. The veteran pilots in the operation, including the Sabra sons of the families of the nobility of the Yishuv, did not think in such terms.
Since then, Shoah warnings have taken over the political and military discourse. The stronger Israel becomes diplomatically, militarily and economically, the more fearful its leaders and military commanders have become, and the process reached its peak in Netanyahu’s time. The question is if, above and beyond the rhetoric for domestic and foreign consumption, these fears also instruct policy − and whether this will lead Netanyahu, Gantz and Eshel to attack the nuclear facilities in Iran.