How do we understand the present and our history? Is history a concrete entity or an agglomeration of our own images that create reality?
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The historian Yehoshua Arieli grappled with this question in an essay on history as a reality shaped by images we create. He argued that people like to form their world through images. A person’s reality has an experiential component interspersed with mental constructs that suit the given person.
But reality, unlike its image, is a contemporary notion composed of what exists in the present. By observing, collecting, analyzing, monitoring and integrating, we conceptualize reality into a collection of rules that explain every case we face.
The understanding of history also follows such a process. The past is gone, but it can survive through symbols, traditions, relics and other sources. We reconstruct elements that suit the present, turning them into images that only resemble what really happened in the past.
In other words, what happened in the past is a set of images we create in the present, congruent with our cultural traditions, whether of a nation or a group within it. The historian’s role is to uncover these images and determine their veracity, or criticize them if they are wrong.
Gadi Taub is a historian. As he has done in Haaretz this month, he has the right to say that what is happening in Israel is not fascism and bears no resemblance to Germany just before the Nazis came to power.
But he is betraying his professional calling. He takes images from the past and instead of considering them judiciously, making required analogies, understanding where these images are similar or dissimilar to our reality – in other words doing what a historian does – he scornfully dismisses such arguments as a frustrated elite's mental disorder. He calls it narcissism that prefers a separation from public life and the building of a sectarian identity.
Indeed, drawing a simplistic parallel between Israel and Nazi Germany provokes hostile reactions. The images identified with Nazism aren’t part of Israeli Jewish culture, and making such a comparison is dismissed out of hand.
Taub exploits this emotional rejection in a demagogic way when he says one can’t compare 3 million SA thugs to the hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of hooligans in the West Bank, or to the anti-gay Lehava organization and its supporters.
A worthy historian would ask for which period is a comparison valid: 1934, when the SA was at the peak of its power, or 1925, when it was still a small group? And what’s the relation between 3 million SA members and Germany’s population of 65 million, and the unknown but growing number of their counterparts in Israel with its population of 6.5 million Jews?
Israel will not become Mussolini’s Italy, Nazi Germany or even Ottoman Turkey of 1915 that gave us the Armenian genocide, or Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia that killed 1 million of its own people.
But can Taub state with certainty that Israel doesn’t provide the conditions that could lead to an attempt at ethnic cleansing? Can one say that Israel doesn’t include racist legislation that expands discrimination against non-Jews? Can one say the segment of Israeli society concentrated mainly in the occupied territories, trying to achieve an ethnic cleansing of Arabs, is marginal and hasn’t found its way to the centers of Israeli power?
Since the Rwanda genocide, researchers have been trying to identify flash points where a confrontation could deteriorate into ethnic violence and massacres. As such a flash point, they warned about Syria a year before the outbreak of the civil war there. Now researchers are pointing to Uzbekistan, North Korea, Cameroon and especially Burundi. They say Israel isn’t there, though one day there could be a risk of this happening.
This could involve the type of crisis that led to the slide into fascism in other countries. This could involve a national or ethnic conflict evading resolution, a threat of war, strong factions promoting racist isolation, strong factions employing violent methods unmet by the authorities’ decisive response, or a strong urge to annex territory and hold down a resistant population.
Taub claims that such a process can’t happen here without noting, as a researcher must, what he’s basing this claim on aside from his feelings. Blindness to reality is common among intellectuals. The tendency to use learned arguments to cling to what you believe in is a known phenomenon among people who refuse to open their eyes after it’s clear their faith is leading to a terrible national disaster.
One could call such people naive, cowards or people oblivious to their surroundings. Will Israel become Nazi Germany? No, but not due to the reasons uncritically spouted by Taub. It won’t happen because we’re not in 1933 and Nazism is dead. But Israel is different from what it was in the past, and this should be understood not only by historians.
Daniel Blatman is a historian of the Holocaust at the Hebrew University.