Why the Holocaust Still Matters
By Michael B. Oren
Toughened by their frontier ethos, steeled by serial wars, Israelis are not prone to flattery. Most, in fact, eschew using the closest equivalent to the Hebrew word for flattery–chanupa–in favor of the derisive Yiddish-derivative, firgun. An Israeli joke holds that the word, slashed by a red diagonal line, graces the exit from Ben-Gurion Airport, together with the warning, “You are now entering a Firgun Free Zone.”
Not surprisingly, then, several Israeli commentators reacted unflatteringly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly. Though many international leaders and even the audience in the U.N. hall applauded Netanyahu, his words were lambasted in Haaretz by Tom Segev as “unnecessary and embarrassing” and by Gideon Levy as “demagogic” and “insulting to the intelligence.” Aluf Benn, one of Israel’s most respected journalists, faulted the prime minister for failing to address a global, rather than an Israeli, audience.
The bulk of the speech highlighted the threat of Iranian nuclearization, the travesty of the Goldstone Report, and Israel’s hopes for a peace with the Palestinians based on security and mutual recognition. Yet criticism of the prime minister virtually ignored these topics and focused instead on his opening remarks, about the Holocaust. “One third of all Jews perished in the great conflagration of the Holocaust,” Netanyahu reminded the delegates. “Nearly every Jewish family was affected, including my own.” He went on to assail President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the world’s premier Holocaust denier, who had addressed the same assembly the previous day, as well as those ambassadors who did not walk out on him. “Have you no shame?” Netanyahu upbraided them. “Have you no decency?”
Detractors of Netanyahu alleged that, by asserting the reality of the Holocaust, he stooped to Ahmadinejad’s level–worse, that he granted credibility to the Iranian thug by debating him over a universally accepted truth. “If 64 years after World War II concluded with Hitler’s fall … the debate on the reality of the Holocaust has reached the UN General Assembly,” Benn wrote, “then Ahmadinejad has succeeded in instilling doubt.”
Perhaps because they were raised in a society suffused with Holocaust consciousness, some Israelis might be unaware of the extent of ignorance of the Final Solution throughout the world, even in the United States, and especially among youth. Confronted with the enormity of the horror, many young people today–much like American Jewish leaders in 1942–react with incredulousness, rendering them susceptible to denial. Millions of Muslims, moreover, subscribe to the syllogism: If Israel was created by Europeans out of Holocaust guilt, and the Holocaust never occurred, then Israel’s existence is unjust. Where better than the General Assembly, a body established in response to World War II and affording a global audience, to reaffirm the veracity of an event now so widely questioned if not refuted?
But in concentrating on the prime minister’s preamble, critics overlook the deeper connections between the Holocaust and his subsequent themes. Recognizing the murder of six million Jews more than six decades ago is, in fact, vital for understanding the supreme dangers posed to six million Jews in Israel today by a nuclear Iran and by the Goldstone Report. Reasserting the factuality of the Holocaust is a prerequisite for peace.
Many factors contributed to the Holocaust–European anti-Semitism, mass murder technologies, and Allied indifference–but none more elemental than the Jews’ inability to defend themselves. Israel and its citizen Defense Forces represent the most palpable means for redressing that incapacity.
Accordingly, denying the Holocaust not only deprives Israel of its raison d’être, but, more nefariously still, it invalidates the Jews’ need to defend themselves. So, the Iranian leader proceeds to arm Hamas and Hezbollah and produce nuclear weapons while claiming that the Jews of Israel–like those of 1940s Europe–have nothing to fear. But Ahmadinejad does not stop short at merely deeming the Holocaust a “fairy tale;” rather, he portrays Israel as a Nazi state–guilty of perpetrating the very offenses against the Palestinians that the Nazis never did to the Jews.
Where Ahmadinejad leaves off, the Goldstone Report, or, as it is officially called, the “United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,” persists. The U.N. mission purports to have investigated Israel’s military action in Gaza last winter, an operation launched in response to the firing of more than 7,000 Hamas missiles at Israeli towns since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Strip. But instead of probing Hamas’s deliberate effort to maximize Israeli civilian casualties and its doctrine of hiding behind Palestinian human shields, the judges interviewed handpicked Hamas witnesses, several of them senior commanders disguised as civilians, and uncritically accepted their testimony. Inexorably, the report, which presumed Israel’s guilt, condemned the Jewish state for crimes against humanity and for mounting a premeditated campaign against Gaza civilians.
The Goldstone Report goes further than Ahmadinejad and the Holocaust deniers by stripping the Jews not only of the ability and the need but of the right to defend themselves. If a country can be pummeled by thousands of rockets and still not be justified in protecting its inhabitants, then at issue is not the methods by which that country survives but whether it can survive at all. But more insidiously, the report does not only hamstring Israel; it portrays the Jews as the deliberate murderers of innocents–as Nazis. And a Nazi state not only lacks the need and right to defend itself; it must rather be destroyed.
Ahmadinejad’s genocidal rhetoric and the iniquity of the Goldstone Report notwithstanding, Israel will, of course, continue to defend its citizens. No amount of vitriol will compel Israel onto a course of self-destruction. But what will be destroyed is any chance for peace. Having twice withdrawn unilaterally to recognized borders and received only onslaughts in return, and having suffered censure for protecting themselves from that aggression, Israelis will understandably recoil from additional retreats that will leave them vulnerable. Israelis, moreover, will not withdraw from any territory liable to become staging grounds for terrorist groups empowered by international agencies and convinced of their ability to murder Israelis with impunity.
Israel will pursue policies with or without firgun. But by making the connection between the Holocaust and its denial, the Iranian nuclear program, and the Goldstone Report, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has exposed the venal narrative that concludes with Israel’s paralysis. By reaffirming Israel’s right to safeguard its citizens, he has demarcated the only path to peace.
Michael B. Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.