From El Pais
The Abuse of History and the Iranian Bomb
Shlomo Ben Ami
Saturated with history, Jews tend to pay great reverence to the past. But the past, especially when not handled with care, can frequently be the enemy of the future and certainly distort our reading of the challenges of the present. This is certainly the case of the analogy Israeli leaders insist of drawing between the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust and the threat posed to the Jewish state by a nuclear Iran.
The Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem last week saw again how Israeli leaders competed with each other in feeding the national hysteria surrounding the Iranian Holocaust and Ahmadenijad as the new Hitler.
President Shimon Peres , who unlike the prime minister is sceptical of the utility of an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, spoke of the “threat of extermination” facing Israel. Even, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, usually a cold rational mind, chose Yad Mordechai, a Kibbutz called after Mordechai Anilewitz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, to alert world opinion against “Holocaust deniers, first and foremost the Iranian president who calls for the destruction of the Jewish people”.
Prime Minister Neatnyahu was especially outspoken. To him, Ahmadenijad is nothing else than another Hitler, and the world is now facing the same challenges as those on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power. Iran’s leaders race to develop nuclear weapons, he warned, can only be understood in the context of their “repeated statements to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the earth” Now, as then, the world is criminally indifferent.
Netanyahu’s Holocaustic imagery would have been just an intellectual curiosity if he were not the prime minister who would have soon to take a decision whether to attack Iran’s nuclear installations and drive the Middle East into an apocalyptic confrontation. His political mentor, Menachem Begin, has shown that these distorted analogies between past and present can dangerously inspire irresponsible policies.
Even in his disastrous 1982 Lebanese adventure Menachem Begin perceived himself as a God-sent vindicator of the legacy of the Holocaust. He chose to portray what was a cynical alliance of convenience with the Christian Falanges as a lesson of humanity to hypocritical Christian Europe that betrayed the Jews during the Holocaust. He would show them how the Jewish state, created by the Holocaust survivors and now led by one of them, comes altruistically to the rescue of a Christian minority also threatened by a holocaust.
To Begin, Arafat in Beirut was Hitler in his Berlin bunker. ,Abba Eban, who had himself been carried away when he defined the indefensible 1967 borders as “Auschwitz borders”, ridiculed Begin for behaving “as if Israel were a kind of disarmed Costa Rica and that the PLO was Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun all wrapped into one”.
Begin was the best proof Israel’s critics needed that the Zionist revolution, although it created a state from the ashes of the Holocaust, nevertheless failed to eradicate the collective self-image of the Jew and the Israeli as a victim. The Israelis, through Begin, cast themselves in the role of a nation totally incapable of breaking out of the prison of her past.
Israel is not wrong to cast serious doubts on the efficacy of the measures that the U.S. pretends to take with the hope of curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Neither the planned sanctions nor the recently published U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, a far less revolutionary document than expected, will break Iran’s nuclear appetite. More than truly believing in its capacity to cut short Iran’s nuclear programme, the world is getting ready to live with a nuclear Iran.
This would not be only Israel’s problem. Such a resounding collapse of the NPT regime would pose a formidable challenge to the world community, and particularly to the countries of the Middle East. Iran’s viciously anti-Semitic rhetoric is a transparent attempt to lhardim its terrified Arab neighbours by presenting its military might as the spearhead of an all-Muslim confrontation with Israel. But, a nuclear Iran would launch the entire region into nuclear anarchy. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey would all aspire to develop their own Sunni bomb to counter the calamity of the emergence of a Shiite nuclear empire at their doorsteps.
When he did not have to be carried away by the solemnity of Holocaust ceremonies, Israel’s Defence Minister Barak conveyed the right message to the rising Iranian power. A year ago, knowing full well that Iran was irreversibly on its way to getting the bomb, he soberly challenged Netanuyahu’s dangerous distortion of history. He then said:
“Israel is not European Jewry. We are a strong country to which the whole world attributes nuclear capabilities, and in regional terms we are a superpower”. “I admit”, he added, “I do not like the comparison with the Holocaust because it cheapens the Holocaust and stretches current challenges beyond their proper place. There is none that will dare to destroy Israel”.
History in the manipulative hands of politicians and incorrigible ideologues can be either a dangerously inebriating tool to mobilize masses in search for real or fictitious past glories, or as James Joyce put it in Ulysses “a nightmare” difficult to awake from. By obsessively filtering their conflict through the nightmare of the Holocaust and the Nakbah Israelis and Palestinians have already doomed the chances of a peaceful settlement. Addressing the current conflict between such formidable military powers as Israel and Iran through similar lenses of meta-historical disasters can only breed untold catastrophe.
Shlomo Ben Ami is an Israeli former foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of “Scars of war, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy”