April 28 is the day on which Jews all around the world commemorate the Holocaust. It’s an important day, a somber time for obvious reasons. One would think it would be treated with respect, especially by self-defined “Jewish leaders.” And yet, it comes as no surprise that at least one such leader, the Prime Minister of Israel, would cynically use the memory of the Holocaust to further a political agenda that presses for confrontation and uses the Holocaust memory to further the goal of ongoing occupation.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made what was probably the clearest statement of sympathy for the history of Jewish suffering in World War II ever by a Palestinian leader. He called it “…the most heinous crime against humanity in modern history.” Abbas continued by offering his sympathy to the “families of the victims and the innocent people who were killed by the Nazis including the Jews and others.” That is a decidedly clear statement, acknowledging the Jews specifically, but also not forgetting that nearly an equal number of non-Jews were killed in the Nazi camps.
Many Jews around the world welcomed Abbas’ statement, as well we should. But Netanyahu used the opportunity to declare once again that “rather than releasing declarations aimed at soothing international public opinion, he must choose between Hamas and true peace.” Bibi dismissed Abbas’ statement as a public relations move.
Well, yes, it was a public relations move, just like similar declarations by various heads of state and other leaders on this day. Just to hammer the irony home, Netanyahu issued his own public relations statement to Israel’s Druze citizens on the occasion of Nebi Shueib holiday. “Nebi Shueib is known in Jewish tradition as Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, one of the founding fathers of the Jewish People,” Netanyahu said, both co-opting the holiday and, incredibly, misrepresenting Moses’ role in Jewish memory. “This is yet another link between the Jewish People and the Druze community…In recent years I have devoted special attention to continuing the development of Druze villages and to improving their economic and infrastructure situations. It is clear to me that there is more work to be done but the changes may already be felt.”
The brazen hypocrisy of accusing Abbas of acknowledging the Holocaust as a PR stunt and then doing the very same thing with Israel’s Druze community is mind-boggling, but it doesn’t end there. Netanyahu also used the memory of the Holocaust to further his agenda on Iran.
Speaking at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Netanyahu told the crowd, “In this place I have said many times that we must identify an existential threat in time and act against it in time and tonight I ask ‘why in the years before the Holocaust did most of the world’s leaders not see the danger ahead of time?’ In hindsight, all the signs were there. Has the world learned a lesson from the mistakes of the past? Today we are again faced with clear facts and before a real danger. Iran calls for our destruction, it develops nuclear weapons.”
Has the world learned? If too many listen to Netanyahu, the answer is surely “no.” Ha’aretz reporter Chemi Shalev sums up Netanyahu’s abuse of Holocaust memory quite well. “While Israel complains (not altogether accurately) that Abbas is violating the holy of holies by daring to compare Jewish trials with Palestinian tribulations, it’s apparently quite all right for Netanyahu to equate Hamas with the Third Reich and to accuse it of seeking another Holocaust,” Shalev wrote. “And to counter comments in the U.S. media that Abbas’ acknowledgement of the Holocaust is groundbreaking and significant, Israel pits an anonymous “senior official” who tells the New York Times that the new statement is worthless because if fails to condemn the Nazi-collaborating World War II Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini. Seriously.”
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Yes, this seems to be desperation on Netanyahu’s part. He seems to have realized that none but Israel’s most myopic and radical backers believe his nonsense about why the peace process has failed. He seems to understand that most of the world, including many supporters of Israel, are fully aware that he has done everything he can to destroy the possibility of a viable Palestinian state ever coming into existence. And so he presses harder to demonize Abbas, who is without a doubt the most cooperative leader the Palestinians are ever likely to have. What else can Netanyahu do? He has no other tools in his kit.
But as a Jewish man, one who takes pride in his Jewish heritage, I must call foul on this heinous and, frankly, disgusting abuse of my people’s long history of suffering. That persecution has, thankfully, diminished enormously in recent decades, to the point that this is unquestionably the freest era for Jews in two thousand years. The threat remains, however, and it could very well grow again. Indeed, Netanyahu, and far too many of his supporters inside and outside of Israel, seems to be doing everything he can to fan the flames of anti-Jewish hatred. But at this moment this is as good as Jews have ever had it.
That’s why Netanyahu’s actions should be condemned by every Jew around the world. It may be that too much of our cultural character is based on the memory of our suffering, but that suffering is very real and has a long and frightening history. It is a history from which we, and the entire world, must learn.
The lesson is not, however, increased militancy, nor is it that Israel has some special right to hold millions of Palestinians without basic human, civil and national rights. It is not that Israel has some special right to defy international law and treaties or that it is somehow uniquely entitled to a clandestine nuclear weapons program that it maintains as a threat to its adversaries while evading all regulation of it.
No, the lesson is that bigotry, privileging one group of people above another, and reliance on military might do not bring peace or security. The lesson, ultimately, is that the Jews, the Roma, the LGBT folks, the physically challenged, the leftist activists and all the others who the Nazis tried to exterminate are still here, and those communities are growing while the Third Reich has been relegated to history. That is the lesson of the Holocaust.
The ultimate phrase of the Holocaust is “Never Again.” It means we must not allow what happened in Nazi Europe to happen again, to anyone. We must not allow it in Rwanda, in East Timor, in Cambodia, in Sri Lanka, in Bosnia or, today, in Syria. It means not just zero tolerance for genocide, which is axiomatic, but also zero tolerance for human rights violations, for massive dispossession, for reliance on war over diplomacy — yet Netanyahu is using the memory of the Holocaust and the longer history of Jewish suffering to defend and support these policies. That’s not just wrong. It’s obscene.