What we talk about when we talk about Hitler

What we talk about when we talk about Hitler

Holocaust rhetoric looms large in any discussion of Iran

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset Holocaust ceremony in 2009 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset Holocaust ceremony in 2009 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

The shadow of the German genocide hangs low and heavy over the state of Israel, and nowhere does it lurk more ominously than on the corner of Smolenskin and Balfour streets, the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. Benjamin Netanyahu, as opposed to his predecessors, has evoked the Holocaust time and again when addressing the Iranian threat. He told the AIPAC conference on Monday night that “as prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live under the shadow of annihilation.”

But he did not stop there. He scratched at what remains an open wound for American Jewry: the US decision in 1944 not to bomb Auschwitz and the tracks leading to the camp. “In my desk, I have copies of an exchange of letters between the World Jewish Congress and the US War Department,” he told the crowd. And he read from the War Department’s demurral: “Such an operation could be executed only by diverting considerable air support essential to the success of our forces elsewhere… and in any case would be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources.” The correspondence went on to reveal an even flimsier argument: That such action might be viewed as a provocation, eliciting even more vindictiveness from the Germans.

“My friends, 2012 is not 1944,” he said. “Today we have a state of our own. The purpose of the Jewish state is to secure the Jewish future. That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

The Holocaust, and the institutional American apathy to the plight of Europe’s Jews, is the prime minister’s strongest rhetorical tool. He may be wielding it in order to obtain the freedom to act militarily against Iran or as a means of pushing a weary and bloodied American military into action. But either way, the prime minister’s verbal crusade against a nuclear Iran bears closer attention.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and the rhetorician, according to Aristotle, is he who always finds the proper means of persuasion. Like all successful pleas, the prime minister’s Holocaust rhetoric relies on the three pillars of persuasion: ethos, pathos and logos.

Ethos relates to the speaker, the presentation of oneself as an authority. This, of course, comes with the office. Israeli prime ministers are much maligned but very infrequently belittled for lack of intelligence or understanding of history. Netanyahu, particularly, is known, or makes it known, that he is a historian. He reads voraciously, quoting at will from Churchill and others. He is prone to fall into lecture mode. But according to some of the people who have worked most closely with him, he is also a gifted analyst of current events. Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2008, contends that the prime minister is not only “a great student of history” but also someone who “possesses the unique capacity of being able to look at current events with the eyes of a historian,” filtering out all the clutter and focusing on the essence.

Part of his credibility in that regard relates to his father. Professor Benzion Netanyahu is widely considered to be one of the two top experts on the Spanish Inquisition. In a new book, “God’s Jury: The Spanish Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World,” Cullen Murphy argues that Professor Netanyahu’s central thesis can be boiled down to this: the conversos — Jews who converted to Catholicism — were not persecuted because they secretly clung to their Judaism; they were persecuted out of resentment for their success, for the “impurity of [their] blood,” and for the exploitation of their riches.

Professor Moshe Zimmerman, an expert on the Jews of Germany in the 18th through 20th centuries, says these beliefs have had an unwavering hold on the prime minister. “I read Benzion Netanyahu’s work,” he said, “and if you ask me, deep down in his heart he [the prime minister] feels that everything is a plot against the Jews.”

But Zimmerman is in the minority. For in terms of pathos, the element of persuasion that is an appeal to the emotions of the audience, Netanyahu has been overwhelmingly successful, at least in Israel. His approval rating is rock solid, untouched by the turnout of nearly half a million protesters in central Tel Aviv during the summer. His Likud party is forecast to take 35 seats in the next Knesset. And in a country where the Holocaust cuts across the national psyche like a scar, few seem to take issue with the parallel between Iran and Nazi Germany.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, generally quite touchy about Holocaust comparisons, said in rather Rumsfeldian style that “as the Holocaust was an unprecedented event, it therefore is unfortunately a precedent and such an event can happen again. Therefore… these threats should be taken seriously.”

Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization that battles racism and teaches about the Holocaust, said he felt prime minister Menachem Begin had been wrong to compare Arafat to Hitler during the siege of Beirut in the Lebanon War, but that in the case of Iran the parallel was apt. “No one wants to turn powerless anti-Semites into Nazis,” he said, “but since this is a state with credentials in terms of its attempts to acquire nuclear weapons I feel the analogy is appropriate.”

Even Aharon Appelfeld, a Holocaust survivor and one of Israel’s most poignant literary voices, thinks the comparison is rhetorically justified. “We hear today the same notes that we heard sixty years ago. Annihilation. Extermination. They are sounding the same notes that we heard back then and we must not deny it,” he said.

There could be a sorrowful irony to the fact that the Zionist state, created as an antidote to anti-Semitism, as a means of eradicating the ancient plague, now speaks of it so often. One imagines that the Likud party’s ideological light, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, would have wished for a wall and a firm, South Korea-like equanimity from his followers. But the torchbearers of nationalist Zionism dispute that. Erez Tadmor, policy director and part-founder of Im Tirzu, a group devoted to advancing the values of Zionism in society, said that the parallels were not made from a position of weakness but rather of strength. “There is a will to destroy us and we have the ability to respond to that,” he said, noting that the rhetoric might help sway international opinion and bolster the sanctions against Iran.

The international audience surely hears different tones from the Israeli prime minister. There are those like Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who returned from Israel recently and told Canada’s CTV that “obviously you can understand why the Jewish people and why Israel would take him seriously,” referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s recent characterization of Israel as a cancerous tumor in need of removal. “Hitler wrote Mein Kampf more than a decade before he became chancellor of Germany.”

But there is also plenty of room for a different type of understanding from the international audience. At this winter’s Herzliya Conference on security, Sharam Chubin, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear policy program, said that he found it “unseemly and unbecoming” to compare the current situation to the Holocaust. President Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic earlier this week that while “the history of the Holocaust weighs on him” he “is also head of a modern state that is mindful of the profound costs of any military action, and in our consultations with the Israeli government, I think they take those costs, and potential unintended consequences, very seriously.”

The final element of any successful rhetorical thrust relies on logic. Naftali Bennett, the former chief of staff, concedes that the analogy between Iran and Nazi Germany has several weak points but at its heart, he said, it is correct. “Even with a strong army, if they drop two bombs on the Dan region and one on Jerusalem that is still a form of annihilation.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who appears very much in lockstep with Netanyahu on Iran-related matters, detests the Iran-Germany analogy. In his 2009 book “Israel: Where to?” he called the comparison “absurd” and said he did not “follow the conclusion.” Nowadays, his spokesman would say only that it was best to “avoid generalization when analyzing the contemporary zeitgeist.”

Professor Zimmerman, too, argued that the comparison does not hold up under any kind of logical scrutiny. “Iran is not Germany, it will never be Germany,” he said. “It does not have the same type of global standing, nor the means of implementation.” Were the prime minister not out to score easy rhetorical points, Zimmerman said, he could just as easily compare our situation to India and Pakistan, “but the world only jumps if you say Nazis and Jews.”

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