World

Israel in 2014 Is Like Germany in 1933—Can the Madness Be Stopped?

A Jewish settler and an exiled Israeli anti-war activist agree.

Israeli tank crew near the Gaza strip.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Copyright (c) ChameleonsEye

In February 1983, at a rally in Jerusalem, peace activists demanded the resignation of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon following the outcomes of a committee that scrutinized his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon.

A grenade was thrown into the crowd by a right-wing thug, killing one man and injuring others. This was the culmination of escalating violence between a right-wing mob and left-wing demonstrators protesting the Lebanon war. Ever since that time, including the rally where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, there has not been such violence among the Israeli population, divided between supporters and opponents of the peace process.

These past few weeks have witnessed a new kind of rage. The brutal murder of Muhammad El Hadir by orthodox Jews, two of whom are teens, started a surge of violent processions, harassment of Arab passersby and violent threats on the lives of journalists, actors and other public figures who spoke up in opposition to Israel’s actions in the escalating conflict in Gaza. This phenomenon has grown in out-of-control discussions on social media and in clashes between anti-war demonstrators and thugs wearing Neo-Nazi attire (mostly orthodox Jews, oh—the irony). Those thugs are led by a rapper who calls himself “The Shadow” and who refers to his followers as “Lions” (“Lions of The Shadow”).

Elkana I. is a young Jewish man—he didn’t want his full name used—who comes from these right-wing circles but had enough of this madness. He was raised in the Jewish settlement Beth-El in the West Bank, which is politically identified with those right-wing thugs, as he too supports the right of Jews to settle in all of Israel. Elkana supports military action towards the Hamas who he does not see as a potential partner for peace. He does, however, identify the dangers the Israeli society is facing at this time when a lack of leadership is coupled with mounting fear and despair. He wrote a letter to his fellow right-wing Jewish orthodox peers. He published it on his Facebook page where it went viral within hours. As is often the case in a small tight knit place like Israel, not a day had passed and he was on every radio talk show. Why? He dared to compare modern Israel to Nazi Germany in the 1930s.  Elkana’s post and the attention it received speak to a sense of urgency, confusion and terror in Israeli society itself, something that is usually well tucked away behind a shield of support for the troop and a false sense of solidarity in the face of falling rockets.  

Another person who dared compare Israelis to Nazis was the well-respected and equally notorious Jewish scholar and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Leibowitz, an orthodox Jew who lived in Jerusalem, called the Israelis to start peace negotiations days after the six-day war in 1967. He called the Israeli soldiers in the service of the occupation “Judeo-Nazis,” a phrase that kicked him far away from the consensus.

The Nazis came into power in Germany in 1933. Their propaganda against Jews was part of their leader Adolf Hitler’s racist agenda. Jews were less than 1 percent of Germany’s population, but saw themselves as an integral part of German society. They had lived there for centuries. The Nazis had one goal: purge Germany of Jews. Between 1933 and the time World War II started, in September 1939, Jews were slowly expelled from society, stripped of their rights and property. On April 1, 1933, a general boycott against German Jews was declared, in which Nazi party members stood outside Jewish-owned stores and businesses, in order to prevent customers from entering.  A week later, laws were passed banishing Jews from the civil service, judicial system, public medicine, and the German army. In September 1935 the “Nuremberg Laws” were passed, stripping the Jews of their citizenship and forbidding intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. By 1939 German Jews were being rounded up in ghettos and shipped to death camps. That was the beginning of Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.”

In Germany, where Jews were an integral part of daily life and society, something slowly shifted. The change was noticeable but slow enough for people to shrug their shoulders and move on. Germans wanted to believe in their leadership and some did, indeed believe that Jews were the source of their predicaments. Jews were being harassed on the streets, called names, beaten up and humiliated. Passers by shrugged their shoulders. Others, who tried to cry out against these acts, were called traitors.  

Stories of Jewish banishment from daily life during the early Nazi regime have been part of the Israeli ethos since the beginning. We will never suffer such humiliation again, was the message looming over the stories told by survivors, studied in history class, talked about in youth gatherings, and in the military. Elkana’s letter to fellow right-wingers, which I translated and follows below, says not so fast. What about us becoming the oppressor? What about us being the ones who shrug our shoulders and walk by? What about us being the ones who call our neighbor a traitor because he was seen buying from a non-Jew? Could it be that we have become such a society?

Today, 20 percent of the Israeli citizens are Palestinian. Their relationship with the state is complex; having to deal with being second-class citizens from the day the country was established. Palestinian-Israelis are an integral part of society and are represented in the media, the parliament, as musicians, actors and public figures. Last week, Palestinian Israelis called for a trade strike in support of the people of Gaza. In response, Israel’s right-wing Foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called for a boycott Arab businesses, calling to mind the Nazi ban of 1933. Now read what Elkana said about all this.

We are Germany 1933 (Posted on Facebook by Elkana, July 20, 2014):

You are not going to like this. A conservative, a believer in “a Jewish state for the Jewish people.” I voted for Naftali Bennet (Minister of Economy, leader of right wing party: “The Jewish Home”) and would vote for him again. I think Mahmud Abbas is not a partner for peace. I would provide more examples, but I think you get the point.

Here it comes: I think we are similar to Germany in the 1930s. Now you are surprised, appalled, you cuss me out; this sentence is only being said by those lefties. What made me, Elkana, the soldier from Beth- El [settlement] decide to say it out loud?

Not the “Death to all Arabs” cries; not the “Erase Gaza” bumper stickers; not even the horrific murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. I think the Arabs in Israel today are faring better than the Jews in Germany did at that time. And I also don’t remember there being terrorists who sprung out of the ghettos of Europe.

“You can’t compare.” This mantra is repeated. We are not Nazis. We were never Nazis, are not Nazis now and we will never be. I’m not comparing us to Nazis. Calm down one sec.

So if we’re not Nazis, and the Arabs are not persecuted for being Arab, so how are we similar to that terrible time?

I read Facebook posts and see photos that I am ashamed of, as a Jew and a conservative. Yes, I identify with Gila Almagor and Orna Banai (Israeli actresses) who came under fire this week. I am ashamed; ashamed of being a part of a group whose people threaten the lives of others of the same nation, for their opinions alone.

Don’t tell me, “They are ruining the country!” “They’re selling us for human rights” and other BS. You won’t persuade me that the ones who are threatening are “wild thorns,” “a loud minority,” and a “mob led by thugs.” Because I’m not so sure anymore.

Everyone thinks they are in the right: they know exactly what needs to be done and the worst; that they are the silent sane majority, and the extremists just make us look bad in the media. So why should I believe you? Why believe myself? Maybe this minority is loud because it is not a minority at all? Maybe a lot of things happened since “Power to Israel” (extreme right political party) didn’t get into the Parliament and the people who phone every journalist who dares to say his opinion and threaten his life are actually the majority of us? Maybe the guy sitting next to me on the bus was at the demonstration in Tel Aviv last night, beating up dudes who were expressing their solidarity with the innocent victims in Gaza? Maybe the whole bus is like that?

So I am scared. Because the day before yesterday it was the disgusting Arab member of Parliament, Hanin Zoabi, (not a “traitor,” she was never on my side anyway, was she?) Yesterday, it was Yariv Oppenheimer (director of “Peace Now,” a Zionist pro-peace movement in Israel) and Dov Khenin (left wing parliament member from Hadash party). Today it’s Gideon Levy(left wing journalist) and Orna Banai (actress) and tomorrow someone will call to wish me a horrible death or worse just because I’m writing this post?

And this, my friends, is how the Germans and the Poles who lived with the Jews as good neighbors, felt when they started to get spit on and called “traitors” in the streets. The Jews of back then have nothing to do with the Arabs of today, and the Nazis have nothing to do with today’s “lions of the Shadows.” I’m talking about those everyday Germans who sip their coffee in the morning and read the paper, who believe the nonsense about Jews plotting to rule the world, and then they start hating Franz the German; who went to school with them, because he does business with his Jewish neighbor.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope those are a few lonely, frustrated idiots who need to get a life, but I can’t afford to be smug about this. I approach you, extremists. We are lucky to be living in a country where there is freedom of expression. Don’t turn it into Lenin’s Russia, Assad’s Syria or worse—Hitler’s Germany.

Israel 2014 is like Germany 1933. Please don’t let Israel 2020 be like Germany 1939.

 

Orit Weksler is a psychotherapist, writer and translator who left Israel in 2002 and has since been living in the San Francisco Bay Area.