Netanyahu’s Holocaust Rhetoric Under Fire


netanyahuBy Tobias Buck

When Bibi Netanyahu warns of the danger posed by the Iranian nuclear programme, he knows that almost all Israelis share his deep concern. Yet the prime minister is now facing mounting criticism at home over a small but deeply significant aspect of his international campaign: his frequent references to the Holocaust.

Some warn that Mr Netanyahu’s rhetoric, which draws a parallel between Iran and Nazi Germany, cheapens the memory of a singular historical event: the murder of millions of Jews in Nazi concentration camps during the second world war. Others argue that the historical comparison is inappropriate, because it portrays contemporary Israel as a helpless victim, and Iran as a crushingly powerful country that is bent on genocide.

A third line of criticism is political. Critics say that Mr Netanyahu’s language is heightening tensions at a time when leaders outside Israel are still looking for a diplomatic solution to the stand-off with Tehran. Their concern is that any comparison with the Nazi genocide creates a moral imperative that may ultimately make an Israeli attack on Iran inevitable.

The latest debate over Mr Netanyahu’s rhetoric was prompted by the prime minister’s speech to Aipac, the US-Israeli lobby group, in Washington this month. At one point in the speech Mr Netanyahu held up a letter written by the World Jewish Congress in 1944, urging the US to bomb the concentration camp in Auschwitz. The request, he added, was turned down.

“Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again,” Mr Netanyahu said. “That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

Mr Netanyahu had drawn similar parallels on many previous occasions. This time, however, the echo at home was largely negative. In columns and editorials, the speech was denounced as “infuriating”, “vulgar” and “inane”. Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition, called on “Netanyahu and his government to stop with the hysterical comparisons”.

Israel, she added, was strong and there was “no need to create an atmosphere of Holocaust threats and annihilation and to scare the citizens”.

According to Tom Segev, an Israeli historian and the author of a book about Israel and the Holocaust, the Nazi genocide has long had a profound effect on politics: “The Holocaust is a very central element of the Israeli identity. There is not a single day without a reference to the Holocaust in the media . . . and there is not a single Arab leader who has not at some point been compared to Hitler. It is a very old cliché.”

Mr Segev argued that Mr Netanyahu’s comparisons were not unusual as such, but that they came at a moment that many Israelis regarded as too sensitive for rhetorical escalation. “It is legitimate to draw political and historical lessons from the Holocaust – but it is a question of style, of how you use it and how much you use it.”

The backlash has shown no sign of subsiding. Amos Oz, Israel’s most celebrated novelist, weighed into the debate on Friday. “Anyone who compares Iran of today to Hitler, and Israel to Auschwitz, is committing an act that is anti-Zionist and demagogic, encouraging people to emigrate from Israel and sowing hysteria,” he told Haaretz in an interview.

Writing in the same paper on Monday, Avner Cohen said: “If the state of Israel is indeed the most powerful entity in the region, something that defence minister Ehud Barak repeatedly declares, it has no need for manipulations of the fears about another Holocaust.” He also slammed Mr Netanyahu for “detract[ing] from the unique quality of the Holocaust that was”.

Mr Netanyahu’s office dismissed the criticism. His spokesman argued that the Aipac speech was far subtler than the prime minister’s opponents allege, and was careful to distinguish between the situation in 1944 and the situation now: “Today, there is a Jewish state that has the ability to defend itself against threats, while at the time of the Holocaust the Jews were defenceless,” he said.

{Financial Times/ Newscenter}