‘It’s your families that burned’ in the Holocaust, Likud minister tells critics

Galit Distel Atbaryan stands by Knesset speech, but says she regrets using language suggesting Sephardim should care less about victims of the Nazi genocide

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan at a Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan at a Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Critics reacted with outrage and disgust Wednesday to a speech by Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan, in which she appeared to draw a distinction between how Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews should be talking about the Holocaust.

Distel Atbaryan, an author and former pundit, protested in her speech Tuesday evening — delivered in her trademark animated style — against comparisons, ostensibly drawn by some of her detractors, between Likud leaders, allegedly including herself, and Nazis.

“They call me the propaganda minister — Goebbels here, Goebbels there,” she said, referencing Joseph Goebbels, whose official title under Adolf Hitler was Reich minister of public enlightenment and propaganda. “Nazi [comparisons] like confetti. A dozen Hitlers a dime. I don’t even find it shocking anymore.”

Addressing her critics, she continued: “That’s bad news for you because for years, I’ve safeguarded the memory of [the victims of the] Holocaust. I’ve fought the trivialization of the Holocaust for years. But it doesn’t shock me anymore. And it’s your families that were burned there. How is this possible?”

The Holocaust’s victims were mostly European Ashkenazi Jews, but in Israel it is treated — and experienced — as a tragedy of the entire Jewish people. That includes Sephardim, who predominantly immigrated to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa and account for about a half of the country’s Jewish population.

Distel Atbaryan’s speech was primarily about the radical judicial overhaul led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, which has campaigned on a sentiment of disenfranchisement among Sephardi voters and is the most popular party in many heavily Sephardi municipalities.

The planned overhaul would allow the government to override court decisions with the barest majority, and put the selection of all judges in the hands of coalition politicians. Opponents argue it will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have charged it is a much-needed reform to rein in an activist court.

Distel Atbaryan’s remarks set off a ruckus on social networks, with some construing the minister’s remarks to mean that she should be able to care less about the Holocaust because most of its victims were related to left-wing Ashkenazi Jews now critical of the overhaul.

“I don’t know where to start to try and tackle this text, let alone the ideas it represents,” said Michal Shik, a business development expert and former head of the startup division at the Manufacturers Association of Israel. She understood Distel Atbaryan’s remarks to mean that, to the minister, “the Holocaust belongs only to a segment of the population, which she calls elitist, anarchist, privileged and other such compliments,” she wrote on Facebook.

The minister’s message “is very uniting,” Shik added sarcastically. “The Holocaust doesn’t belong to all Jews, but to you, Ashkenazim, and she has kindly indulged you by honoring the memory of its victims. But no more.”

In a Wednesday Facebook post, Distel Atbaryan pushed back against the criticism of her speech. “I stand behind what I said last night. I am no longer shocked when I hear my name and the title ‘propaganda minister,’” she wrote, saying she perceived the title as a reference to Goebbels. “I am shocked by the trivialization of the Holocaust, the way we chip away with own Jewish hands at the memory that many of our enemies are happy to deny.”

In a subsequent interview with The Times of Israel, Distel Atbaryan insisted that she did not mean to draw a distinction between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, but merely to protest the abuse of the memory of Holocaust victims generally, saying she is “aghast at such interpretations.”

“It’s not what I meant and, in hindsight, I regret having used language that can be interpreted as drawing a distinction between how different groups of Israelis should talk about the Holocaust. None of us should be making Nazi comparisons. There’s no excuse for it. What I meant is that it pains me, especially when I see it being done by people whose own relatives perished in the genocide, because this defies explanation.”

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