On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel Army Deputy Chief Warns Israeli Society Exhibiting Similarities to 1930s Germany

News & Politics

Across the world and especially in the West, it is widely considered to be highly offensive to suggest that there are similarities between the State of Israel and Nazi Germany, the racist regime responsible for the murder of millions of Jews. But after seven years of a succession of arguably the most right-wing governments in the country’s history, Israelis themselves are beginning to make the shocking comparison with ever-increasing frequency.

On Wednesday night, as Israelis marked Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - the country’s second-highest-ranking military officer courted controversy when he publicly compared contemporary Israeli racists with anti-semitic attackers in Germany on the eve of the Holocaust.

According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Yair Golan said, “If there's something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance it's the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then – 70, 80 and 90 years ago – and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016.”

Golan’s comments have surely disturbed officials in Jerusalem, but they are also likely to irk Israel’s supporters in the United Kingdom, who have in recent days fiercely attacked the suggestion that Zionists could be capable of collaborating with Nazis. In the past week, Labour party lawmakers have slammed and suspended members from their own ranks for dredging up decades-old embarrassing associations between certain Zionist leaders and Nazi government officials.

Israeli officials have long asserted that harsh criticism of the country is tantamount to inciting hatred of Jewish people. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked made this very claim just yesterday in an interview with the Washington Post, pointing her finger at the U.K.: “In the past, we saw European leaders speaking against the Jews. Now, we see them speaking against Israel. It is the same anti-Semitism of blood libels, spreading lies, distorting reality and brainwashing people into hating Israel and the Jews.”

Shaked’s efforts to cast criticism of the Israeli government as racist against Jews were especially ironic, as they were published on the same day as the sentencing of the murderer of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Two summers ago, Shaked uploaded a screed calling upon Israelis to commit genocide against the Palestinian people. Hours later, a group of Israelis kidnapped Abu Khdeir, choosing him randomly because he was Palestinian, and burned him to death from the inside out.

Just months after the incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who himself had incited anti-Palestinian violence on the same day by calling for “vengeance”, appointed Shaked to his cabinet. While former London mayor Ken Livingstone is demoted for recalling the historical fact that some Zionists shamefully worked with a genocidal regime, Israeli lawmaker Ayelet Shaked is promoted to minister after actually calling to commit genocide and inciting a brutal torture and racist lynching.

When Major General Golan spoke of “revolting processes” that he sees signs of in Israel today, we can presume that he was not speaking about Israel’s military attacks on Palestinian people, since he is in part responsible for them. Rather, we can presume that what he had in mind were the public expressions of raw racism that have become increasingly common in Israel in recent months and years.

A Pew poll conducted in March found that four-fifths of Jewish citizens of the state want to have more rights and privileges than their non-Jewish counterparts, and that half of Jewish citizens want to strip non-Jews of their citizenship altogether and expel them out of the country. As calls for the ethnic cleansing of non-Jews become commonplace, so do the Nazi comparisons, both at home and abroad.

In fact, the term ‘Nazi’ has long been used by Jewish Israelis to describe fellow Jewish Israelis who are their ideological opponents. Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion used the term on multiple occasions against his right-wing rival, Vladimir Jabotinsky. And the severe invective goes both ways: just this week, the historical association affiliated with Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party - named for that same Jabotinsky - published a political cartoon comparing Israeli socialists to Nazis.

But in recent years, we are witness to an Israeli phenomenon even more frightening: casting one’s opponents as the Jews to be genocided, and assuming the rhetorical role of the Nazi themselves. At stadium matches, some Israeli football fans are not ashamed to hold up banners calling for a “Holocaust” to be carried out on the opposing team, even picking a specifically Nazi methods of murder to be exacted on their enemies: Zyklon-B gas chambers and crematoria.

In 2008, a year before Netanyahu returned to power as premier, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai of Israel’s Labor party threatened Palestinians in Gaza with a Shoah, the Hebrew word for Holocaust: "The more Qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger Shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves," Vilnai forewarned, according to the Guardian.

During the summer of 2014, as the Israeli army again attacked Gaza, killing over 500 children, a popular Israeli street gang took this absurdity one step further, claiming to be both figurative Jews and metaphorical Nazis in the same breath. Protesting the wedding of a Muslim and a Jew with chants of “Death to the Arabs!”, gangsters inspired by Israeli fascist party founder Meir Kahane held signs proclaiming, “Intermarriage [sic] is a Holocaust for the Jewish people”. Yet at the same racist rally, the gang’s spokesperson told Israel’s top-selling paper Yediot Ahronot, “Hitler was right, but about the wrong nation; we are the chosen race”.

Decades ago, open calls to ethnically cleanse non-Jews were offensive even to Israel’s ruling right-wing Likud party. Back in 1985, a Likud lawmaker compared Kahane’s ideas to Nazism from the floor of the Knesset, and his party mates later voted to expel Kahane from the parliament altogether. Thirty years later, now under Netanyahu’s lead, Likud legislators invite Kahane’s protoges into the Knesset to give expert testimony on race relations. As for Netanyahu himself, his top political funder is also the lead financier of supremacist groups that are led by Kahane’s acolytes.

While Netanyahu has done little to distance himself from these local supremacist thugs - even posing for a selfie with the gang leader’s adult son the day before last - he has no compunction over smearing his non-Jewish geo-political rivals as new incarnations of the Nazis. In the last year alone, he has compared both Palestinian and Iranian leaders to Nazis. At the same time, he has fostered a law that would make it illegal for any of his political opponents to hurl the slur back at him.

Two years ago, Netanyahu government lawmaker Shimon Ohayon proposed a bill which would make it a crime to call anyone in Israel a Nazi. According to the bill’s preamble, its aim was to protect Holocaust survivors’ feelings: “Unfortunately, the phenomenon of using Nazi symbols and terminology has only become more prevalent in recent years. The unbearable ease with which these things are used on a day-to-day basis as part of public and political discourse represents grave disrespect for the feelings of holocaust survivors and their descendants.”

But Ohayon’s political program - which includes deporting all non-Jewish African refugees from the country - lends credence to the suspicion that it may have been his own feelings he had hoped to protect. Just three days after receiving ministerial approval for the bill, he led a rowdy rally in Tel Aviv calling for the refugees to be kicked out of the country and decrying the fact that Israel contains too many non-Jews: “In every direction, too many to count, all kinds of non-Jews residing here.”

The bill was never voted into law, but if it had been, Israel’s current President Reuven Rivlin might well have faced criminal charges under one of its clauses. In 2013, the Israeli government built desert detention centers and began to round thousands of non-Jewish African refugees into them. But back in 2010, when the Knesset first started discussing the issue, Rivlin told Ha’aretz: “As a democrat and a Jew, I have a hard time with concentration camps, where people are warehoused. [They are] not camps in the sense of extermination. But every camp where people are warehoused is difficult.”

In the years that followed, it became evident that Rivlin did not have such a hard time with the camps after all. In 2012 and 2013, he ended up voting twice for the legislation that formally established the camps.

True, comparing someone to a Nazi has not yet been criminalized in Israel, but it can still entail financial risks. Just this week, co-founder of a Tel Aviv soup kitchen for African refugees and former candidate for Tel Aviv City Council Orly Feldheim was forced to pay a fine of 5700 shekels ($1500) for suggesting that Israeli officers who round up African refugees off the streets of Tel Aviv and into desert detention centers are similar to Nazis. Her offending Facebook post read: “The Nazis too were normal people who just carried out orders”.

Outside of Israel, comparing Israeli racists to Nazis and racist Israeli policies to Nazism is likely to remain taboo, for fear of offending Jewish Holocaust survivors and their descendants who take exception to the analogy. But inside of Israel, where political dissidents bear witness to the government’s worst excesses and may live in fear of Jewish supremacist street gangs, the social prohibition on using the term Nazi continues to lose its sway.

Two years ago, Israel’s most celebrated author and co-founder of the group Peace Now, Amos Oz, called out these racist gangs that torch Palestinian property with increasing regularity: “We also have Hebrew neo-Nazi groups,” he said. “There is nothing the modern-day neo-Nazis in Europe do that those groups don’t do here.” Sadly, Oz’s warning went unheeded: within weeks, those groups moved from burning Palestinian property to burning Palestinian people. Whatever we choose to call this dangerous progression, it seems to show no signs of slowing down.

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