Leave the Holocaust Alone, Mr. Netanyahu

Whenever you speak of the Holocaust, you talk about Iran and not about the Holocaust. The comparisons between Iran of today and the Holocaust are baseless

Yehuda Bauer
Yehuda Bauer
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Netanyahu giving a statement about the Polish 'Holocaust law' in Tel Aviv, June 27, 2018.
Netanyahu giving a statement about the Polish 'Holocaust law' in Tel Aviv, June 27, 2018.Credit: Haim Zach / GPO
Yehuda Bauer
Yehuda Bauer

The humiliating Polish-Israeli declaration, in which the Israel government basically accepts the nationalist Polish narrative about what happened to the Jews on Polish soil during the Holocaust, should be understood in the international context. It was the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, who in 2014 coined the term illiberal democracy, which he is now pursuing.

The significance of this term is all too clear – radical nationalism, which eliminates or restricts judicial independence, uses official tools to fight a critical press, suppresses human rights organizations, restricts minority rights, fiercely opposes immigration and strives for a centralized if not authoritarian regime. There are of course significant differences between countries in which this trend is spreading, but there are many similarities between them. The list includes Russia, the United States, Poland, Hungary, Israel, and lately Italy and Pakistan.

Can one call such regimes democratic? It would seem so. No doubt that despite governmental intervention here and there, the elections in the above countries and others like them were free, and the citizens voted for anti-liberalism by choice. One of course could claim that the Democratic candidate in the United States received 2.8 million more votes than the elected president, but he no doubt enjoys substantial support.

These trends are transpiring against the backdrop of two phenomena. It’s reasonable to assume that the anti-liberal trend will continue as long as economies are thriving. However, besides the economic situation, and this mostly concerns us, a nationalist regime needs to base the present on the past, and so one of its characteristics is distorting history. It is true not only in Poland. Other countries are recoiling from admitting collaboration with Nazi Germany (or imperialist Japan) – especially regarding the murder of Jews, which was the Nazi regime of terror’s most extreme action.

European collaboration, among other factors, made the Holocaust possible. Ordinary Danes rescued little Jewish Denmark, but some 6,000 Danes volunteered for the SS, and there are of course many other examples. The anti-liberal trend thus entails warping the past.

This isn’t about right versus left. The leader of European liberalism heads a conservative party in Germany. The French president is a centrist, not a leftist. The Australian prime minister is a conservative. In contrast, the Canadian prime minister is on the center left, close to social democratic. The Swedish minority government is an alliance of social democrats and the Green Party. Social democracy fights today for liberal values.

The main divisions are on the right itself. The German chancellor has fewer problems with weakened social democracy, and even with the extreme right than with the radical arm of her government (headed by Bavarian Horst Seehofer). The British prime minister is fighting with the radical wing of her party headed by Boris Johnson, while many of the battles the U.S. president is waging are aimed at the Republican establishment, which is more moderate than he is.

The main rival of the ruling party in Poland, Law and Justice, is the moderately conservative opposition from the Civic Platform party and not the disintegrating left. In Israel, there is no substantial difference between Yesh Atid and the ruling rightist bloc, or between it and the Avi Gabbay camp within the Zionist Union. The main struggle is focused on the question of who will lead the country and less about content. In Pakistan the victory of Imran Khan brought to power an alliance between radical, non-territorial Islamism and the military. The opposition there comes from a more liberal conservative party.

There is no need to exaggerate the parallels between all these countries, but one can point to a general trend, which is expressed in various ways in different countries.

A right-wing anarchist leads the strongest country in the world. Despite the history of anarchism being a radical leftist phenomenon, and rightist anarchism is basically a contradiction, the U.S. president proves it’s possible. On the one hand, he fights the institutions he heads, tries to control the judicial branch and the press, and represents both working-class people who feel alienated by society’s institutions, and tens of millions of Evangelists who oppose the government in Washington and support delirious, radical religious ideas.

On the other hand, he represents the billionaires who support him. He has no policy and could not have one because anarchists only have general trends. The question we love to ask, whether he is for or against Israel, is irrelevant. As long as Israel serves as a mobile U.S. aircraft carrier, a tool in the hands of American policies, he will support its government. Tens of millions of Evangelicals are very important to him, and so he will move the embassy to Jerusalem. Theology doesn’t interest him, but their support does. That’s the global backdrop.

The joint declaration regarding the Polish law, which forbids attributing responsibility to the Polish people for the crimes of the Holocaust, creates a sort of ideological, anti-liberal partnership between Israel and Poland. There are of course differences. Poland has one-party rule. It is striving for authoritarian rule, bordering on anti-Communist Bolshevism. In contrast, Israel has a coalition of anti-liberal parties instead of one ruling party, but the two governments have many common denominators. The matter of the Holocaust was getting in the way of all this, and they needed to make it go away by joint whitewashing.

Yad Vashem responded to the joint declaration with a position paper, which expressed unequivocal opposition. Three experts on the issue signed it. Yad Vashem’s entire team of researchers – save for Prof. Dina Porat – supports the position paper. The paper objects in principle to giving politicians the legitimacy to establish facts about the past. It rejects the historical narrative invented by the Polish side, and the Israeli government’s acceptance of this narrative, even if it is tacit. Moreover, it calls for the defense of freedom of research in the face of the threat by Polish law to prosecute researchers who speak the truth and to undercut the budgets of research organizations. The fact that it was agreed that such researchers would not be prosecuted criminally but only in civil courts does not change the truth.

I would say this to Israel’s prime minister: Whenever you speak of the Holocaust, you talk about Iran and not about the Holocaust. Iran is a real threat, which deserves debating. The comparisons between Iran of today and the Holocaust are baseless. The Holocaust issue is complicated, and even I, who have been examining it for 60 years, have more questions than answers. Please, sir, leave the Holocaust alone. As you have already demonstrated, you understand very little about it, if anything at all.