On Holocaust Day, Israelis Debate Netanyahu’s Parallel with Iran

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Ariel Schalit / Reuters

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lays a wreath during a ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, marking Israel's annual day of Holocaust remembrance, April 19, 2012.

Thursday was Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, an annual event marked by solemn ceremony, highways dotted with drivers standing beside their cars stopped for a mid-morning moment of silence and, this year, a lively debate on prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s frequent use of the catastrophe to draw attention to Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu drew the parallel at the United Nations last September, in assorted speeches since, and most famously last month in Washington, where he waved a 1944 letter from the War Department declining a request to bomb Hitler’s concentration camps.  On Wednesday night, as stores closed early and entertainment channels went black, he made the most emphatic case yet, dedicating most of his remarks to Iran’s potential nuclear threat while speaking at Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem museum dedicated to the six-million Jews killed by the Nazis in World War II.

“I know that there are people who say that we must not mention the evil of the Holocaust when talking about the current threat,” Netanyahu said. “They say that that cheapens the Holocaust and insults its victims. I absolutely reject that attitude. On the contrary, I say that today, like then, there are people who want to annihilate the Jewish people. And as the prime minister of Israel not only am I entitled to bring up the memory of the annihilation of one-third of the Jewish people when talking about existential threats to our people—it is my duty. I will not be deterred from saying the truth to the world.”

The response was respectful, but decidedly mixed.

“In his speech last night on the occasion of Holocaust Memorial Day, did Binyamin Netanyahu address the different reality that reigned prior to World War II and which is now partially recurring?” asked Dan Margalit in Israel Hayom, a free daily owned by an ardent Netanyahu supporter.  Margalit pointed out that Israel, with an army far more powerful than any in the Middle East, is not nearly as vulnerable as the oppressed Jews scattered across Europe at the dawn of World War II. “Moshe Dayan once said in a eulogy that was cited yesterday that there isn’t a tree and a house in Israel without a military helmet and a cannon,” Margalit wrote. “The Jewish state by now has far more than that. It cannot be defeated, provided it doesn’t force itself to stumble.”

What Israel has, of course, is a nuclear arsenal of its own – never officially acknowledged, but so openly taken for granted that 64% of Israelis told the Dahaf Polling Institute that an Israeli nuclear weapon is the reason they don’t think a second Holocaust will happen.  In a tidy footnote to history, a portion of those weapons is believed to stand ready aboard Dolphin-class submarines that were built and paid for by Germany, one recompense for the Shoah being the gift of a second-strike capacity: If someone hits Israel, the submarines guarantee the ability to reply.

“And another thing,” wrote Ben Caspit, a frequently tart critic of Netanyahu writing in Ma’ariv: “Isn’t it a bit excessive to compare Tehran’s threats of war to the Nazi extermination machine, the theories about racial superiority, the creation of a murder machine that was unprecedented in the history of humankind that not only exterminated six million Jews but dragged the entire world into the flames?”

Is it? Iran in fact has a complex relationship with Judaism.  The whole world knows President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements questioning the historical basis of the Holocaust, and his oft-cited call to “wipe Israel off the map.”  There’s also Iran’s sponsorship of Hizballah, the militia that fights Israel from neighboring Lebanon, and rained missiles down indiscriminately on Israeli cities in the Second Gulf War.  But the founder of the Islamic Republic, Grand Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, called Judaism an honored branch of the same tree of monotheism that produced Islam.  Official news outlets usually take pains to distinguish between Jews and Zionists, the latter being members of the movement that planted a Jewish homeland in what they regard as the heart of the Muslim world.

In Tehran, a small Jewish community remains, no more than 25,000,  but including a member of parliament. By law one seat is reserved for the Jewish community. The man holding it called a news conference to complain after Ahmadinejad first referred to the Holocaust as  a “myth.” He says he got a good hearing. Iranians by and large preach moderation to one another. In man on the street interviews at that time, even self-described conservatives shook their head at their president’s bomb-throwing rhetoric, one saying, “Everyone knows the Holocaust is a historical fact.”  But the smartest smack-down came at a government conference on “inter-faith dialogue.”  Prominent in the room were members of a Jewish ultra-Orthodox sect that objects to Israel on theological grounds: They think Zionists erred by returning to the Holy Land before the arrival of the messiah.  They and their beaver-skinned hats had been flown in by Ahmadinejad  from Manchester, England, and professed no particular discomfort with anything Iran’s president was saying. Except for one thing. “If people want to debate the details of the Holocaust, they’re welcome to,” said Rabbi Ahron Cohen, and gave the smallest of shrugs. “We happen to know. We were involved.”