SEATTLE — Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, was commemorated in Israel and throughout the Jewish world earlier this month with solemn ceremonies of remembrance. But one speech rocked Israel with its moral criticism of Israeli society.
Speaking to an audience gathered at Tel Yitzhak, a kibbutz in central Israel, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, the Israeli Defense Forces deputy chief of staff, warned Israel that the Jewish state threatened to fall into a moral chasm like the one that befell Nazi Germany for its treatment of “foreigners” — read: Palestinians and African refugees.
Here are some of his remarks [author’s translation]:
“The Holocaust should bring us to ponder our public lives and, furthermore, it must lead anyone who is capable of taking public responsibility to do so. … Because if there is anything that frightens me in remembrance of the Holocaust, it is noticing horrific processes which developed … in Germany – 70, 80, and 90 years ago, and finding evidence of them here among us in the year 2016.”
“The Holocaust … must bring us to … deep soul-searching regarding the responsibility of [our national] leadership and the quality of our society. It must lead us to fundamentally rethink how we, here and now, behave towards the other: the foreigner, the widow and the orphan [these are traditional Jewish social justice concepts].”
“There is nothing easier and simpler than hating the foreigner … There is nothing easier and simpler than fear-mongering and making threats. There is nothing easier and simpler than behaving brutishly, being indifferent [to the plight of the Other], and self-righteous.”
“On Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is worthwhile to consider our capacity to uproot the first buds of intolerance, violence, and self-destruction that lie on the path toward moral decay.”
In his speech, Golan refers in particular to the extraordinary level of incitement, hate and violence in Israeli society toward “foreigners.” Since the current round of violence began in the fall, 200 Palestinians have been killed. The majority have been Palestinians who attacked Israeli soldiers and police to protest Israeli encroachment on Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites. But close to one-quarter of the Palestinian dead have been civilians murdered by Israeli forces in incidents like this and this.
Window-dressing a deadly, pervasive problem
The IDF’s deputy chief of staff also referenced the murder of a young Palestinian man at a Hebron checkpoint in March, which was filmed by a Palestinian videographer. The graphic evidence offered by the video raised a storm of controversy within Israel, with most excusing the shooting or even lionizing the IDF shooter, whose name I first identified when it was under Israeli gag order.
Feeling compelled to act to protect its international image, the army medic who turned his gun on the incapacitated Palestinian lying on the street was charged with negligent homicide by the IDF. He is being tried in military court.
Golan’s speech highlighted the supposedly high moral standards of the IDF in prosecuting its own soldier. The legal proceedings pointed, he maintained, to a standard he urged Israel itself to emulate in its relations with Palestinians. The problem is that much of this is window-dressing. Scores of unarmed Palestinians have been killed in very similar circumstances, but only when there is a camera on hand in possession of a Palestinian or peace activist is there any accountability.
Proof of this may be seen in a tragic incident on April 27. Private Israeli security guards at Qalandiya West Bank checkpoint murdered a 23-year-old Palestinian mother who was five months pregnant and her teenage brother. The latter had secured a permit to attend a medical appointment in Israel, and they were navigating the Qalandiya checkpoint for the first time. They inadvertently entered the vehicle lane and misunderstood Hebrew language commands to retreat. Israeli forces claimed the two “threw knives” at the guards, but Palestinian eyewitnesses say the shooter was 60 feet from the brother and sister and seemingly not in any danger. They also claim the pair did not have knives, and the weapons were planted on their bodies afterward. Though there are security cameras monitoring the spot, the IDF refuses to make the footage available.
To add insult to injury, the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont reported that the young mother had committed “suicide by IDF,” as if a woman who was five months pregnant and with three young children would do such a thing. This is likely an idea planted in the journalist’s mind by official Israeli spin doctors who have launched false rumors blaming victims for their own murders in similar cases.
Evidence of collaboration between early Zionist leaders and the Nazis
Returning to Golan’s Yom HaShoah speech, considering the sensitivity with which Israel treats the Holocaust, it’s extraordinary for an active duty member of the senior military command to warn Israel that it threatened to fall into a moral chasm like the one that befell Nazi Germany. It must be seen as a clarion call from the nation’s most significant institution, urging a drawback from the abyss.
In this context, it’s worth examining a political controversy inflaming the British chattering and political classes. This one has inundated the Labour Party’s left-wing leadership with controversial attacks by the British pro-Israel lobby and the largely pro-Tory press.
The debate has spilled over into the American media as well. Raw Story published a piece by Prof. Rainer Schulze which largely supports the notion that London’s former left-wing mayor, Ken Livingstone, has crossed a bright red line by claiming that Adolf Hitler “supported Zionism.”
The facts are far more complicated than Schulze makes them out to be. First, Livingstone’s claim, while overstated, is by no means a “historical error.” In fact, there is ample historical evidence that the Zionist leaders of the 1930s Yishuv and senior Nazi leaders collaborated in significant ways. Their collaboration was not based on shared values or principles, but on mutual self-interest. But that, of course, does not make the partnership less significant.
In 1933, German Zionist organizations, with the support of the Yishuv, signed the historic Transfer (“Haavara”) Agreement with Nazi authorities. It stayed in effect for nearly a decade and saved some 20,000 German Jews. But it is the method by which they were saved that is the most troubling: The Nazis liquidated the property of the emigrants and shipped Nazi goods of equal value to Israel where they were sold. Some of the proceeds of the sale were then returned to the emigrants when they resettled in Palestine.
For the Nazis, the deal solved critical needs. Germany faced an increasingly effective international boycott organized by American Zionists, led by Rabbi Stephen Wise. While the boycott had begun among the Jewish community here, it was beginning to resonate far beyond U.S. borders. Hitler had just begun to contemplate the military buildup that would eventually lead to World War II, and he knew an international boycott would destroy his rearmament effort.
Part of the deal meant that Wise and the American Zionists would call off the boycott. Thus ended one of the most promising attempts to strangle the Nazi infant in its cradle before it could grow up to wreak havoc on the world.
Further, in 1933 the German economy remained mired in the Great Depression and was also saddled with the onerous financial penalties of World War I reparations. The funds the Nazis looted from German Jews played a role in pumping needed cash into the economy.
Schulze minimizes and misconstrues both the history of the Nazi approach to the “Jewish Question” and the Transfer Agreement’s role in its evolution:
“While this implicitly always suggested murder and extermination, it took time until it became clear how this extermination could be effectively executed and until the Nazi authorities felt that such a radical ‘final solution’ could be pushed through.”
As the following sources show, it wasn’t until the early 1940s that it was clear that the Nazis had embraced the “Final Solution” of mass extermination. Prior to that, they had displayed a certain flexibility in their notions of how to deal with European Jewry.
‘Blood for Goods’
There is an even later and more obscure episode in the history of that era that involved negotiations between the Nazis and the Yishuv, in the form of the Jewish Agency. In 1944, a small group of Hungarian Jews established a rescue committee to try to save as many Jews from the Nazis as they could. Among them were Joel Brand and Rudolf Kastner, who would be assassinated in Israel in 1957. They contacted the Nazis to offer bribes in return for stopping the deportations to Auschwitz. Not only were the Germans amenable, none other than Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, met repeatedly with Brand and came up with a far more ambitious scheme. He appointed Brand to present it to the Jewish Agency, the foreign office of the Yishuv.
The plan would offer Jewish lives in return for supplies the Nazis desperately needed on the Russian front. Notably, 100,000 Jews would be freed (and permitted to emigrate to Palestine) for every 1,000 trucks the Jews or the Allies shipped to the Nazis. The plan was nicknamed “Blood for Goods.” A total of 1 million Jews were offered in return for up to 10,000 trucks.
When Brand traveled to the Middle East to present the plan to the Jewish Agency, the latter appeared not to understand the gravity of the situation in Europe or the seriousness of Brand’s proposal. The agency had sent a lower level official to meet Brand. After Brand protested, the agency sent the far more senior Moshe Sharett, a future prime minister. When Brand told Sharett that 6 million Jews had already perished and that another 2 million would meet that fate unless the agency acted, Sharett reportedly looked at him as if he were a mad man.
But another factor proved even more decisive in arresting the plan: The British arrested Brand and imprisoned him in Egypt. They didn’t trust him or the plan. Brand never returned to Budapest to report to Eichmann, who in return began the mass deportations which led to the murder of 400,000 Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz.
The irony is that it was the British government which had an opportunity to negotiate to save the largest remaining intact Jewish community in Europe, but it refused to do so. If Britain wishes to debate anything, it might review the choices its leaders made in this decisive moment.
A red herring
In his recent report, Schulze seems fixated on the false notion that Livingstone is claiming the Nazis not only supported Zionists, but that they were Zionists. He writes:
“The Haavara Agreement does not mean the Nazis were ever Zionists. … These policies do not in any way resemble Zionism.”
At no point has Livingstone ever suggested they were, and Schulze sets up a red herring argument by claiming that he does.
Schulze appears to be unaware of this little known, but critical source praising the affinity of Zionism and Nazism. It is this glowing encomium penned by Reinhard Heydrich, the SS chief, in 1935, which was published in a leading SS publication. Francis Nicosia quotes it in his 1985 book, “The Third Reich and the Palestine Question”:
“‘National Socialism has no intention of attacking the Jewish people in any way. On the contrary, the recognition of Jewry as a racial community based on blood, and not as a religious one, leads the German government to guarantee the racial separateness of this community without any limitations. The government finds itself in complete agreement with the great spiritual movement within Jewry itself, the so-called Zionism, with its recognition of the solidarity of Jewry throughout the world and the rejection of all assimilationist ideas. On this basis, Germany undertakes measures that will surely play a significant role in the future in the handling of the Jewish problem around the world.’
Göring’s January 24, 1939, note to the Interior Ministry gave Heydrich the authority to determine which parts of the world were the most suitable destinations for Jewish emigrants. The SS had consistently favored Jewish emigration to Palestine and would continue to do so with its enhanced authority in emigration policy.”
It’s important to note that in 1935, the Nazis had yet to formulate their plan to exterminate European Jewry. That came in 1942, after the war terminated the opportunity to rid Europe of Jews via emigration. But regardless of this fact, it indicates that there was an affinity between senior Nazi leaders and Zionism.
Hitler, himself, may have viewed these matters differently, and so Livingstone’s claim is somewhat imprecise. But whatever reluctance the Nazi leader may have felt toward such arrangements was overwhelmed by the practical needs the Nazis had for material support the German Jewish plunder could provide.
Expressing genuine concern or exploiting a trope?
There were also significant elements in the Yishuv Zionist movement which returned the admiration Heydrich expressed above. The Irgun, the militant rightist movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, was eager not only to do business with the Nazis, as the Yishuv did, but to forge an alliance based on ideological affinity. The Irgun envisioned a Jewish state that would not be a democracy, but rather one based on the totalitarian ideals espoused by the Nazis:
“The establishment of the historical Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, and bound by a treaty with the German Reich, would be in the interest of a maintained and strengthened future German position of power in the Near East.
Proceeding from these considerations, the NMO in Palestine, under the condition the above-mentioned national aspirations of the Israeli freedom movement are recognized on the side of the German Reich, offers to actively take part in the war on Germany’s side.”
It’s important to note that the Irgun was considered the opposition to the majority Yishuv leadership. It was in the minority and would not take control of the state until 1977, under the leadership of Menachem Begin and later Yitzhak Shamir.
But the Irgun was a powerful force in pre-1948 Palestine. It conducted dramatic assassinations of British leaders and international negotiators like Count Bernadotte. The ruling Yishuv leadership often looked the other way at such mass violence. Some rightist violence was directed against indigenous Palestinians as well. The infamous 1948 attack on Deir Yassin was the work of Irgun “freedom fighters” under Begin’s leadership.
It is absolutely false to label criticism like Livingstone’s as unfounded or anti-Semitic. It is, in fact, historically accurate. The real question is how one deals with the historical record. It would be far better for Israel’s supporters to accept the truth and critique the decisions made by the leaders of the Yishuv than it would be to smear those who summon history to criticize Israel.
The Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University, an Israeli academic institute which studies world anti-Semitism, recorded a dramatic decrease in anti-Jewish acts around the world. There was a 50 percent drop from 2014 to 2015. Given these statistics, one wonders what exactly pro-Israel forces in Britain are worried about. Are they genuinely concerned about anti-Semitism, or are they exploiting a trope which they know will resonate among Jews and non-Jews alike, in order to sabotage the Labour Party’s left-wing leadership under Jeremy Corbyn?
There is an enormous danger in playing the anti-Semitism card in such a fashion. Like the boy who cried wolf, if you cry discrimination when there is none, there will come a time when you really need to warn the world of mortal danger to Jews, and no one won’t believe you because you abused their trust in the past. This would be a truly unfortunate development for Jews, Israel and the world.