Israel's Culture of Martyrdom
Zertal cogently demonstrates how a social construction of a "second coming Holocaust" was built before and during the wars of 1948 and 1967 for the mobilization of domestic public opinion, world Jewry and Western nations. In fact, this campaign of fear directly contradicted the Zionist dogma asserting that a Jewish state in Palestine would insure Jewish security (and normalize Jewish existence). This inherent paradox was ironically expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who referred to the Jewish state as Shimshon der Nebedicher (in Yiddish "the Wretched Samson"), the mighty military superpower that considers itself a victim. By invoking the Holocaust as a catastrophe whose repetition had to be avoided by any means (such as Abba Eban's famous definition of the Green Line as "Auschwitz borders"), Israeli leaders unburdened themselves of almost any moral restrictions, or even obedience to internal and international laws, whether it came to the making of nuclear weapons (with France's assistance and America's tacit acceptance), the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza or the invasion of Lebanon. Faced with political problems, Israel saw only existential threats. Once the Palestinian national movement was defined as a mortal threat to Jewish survival, any response to it, from the demolition of homes to the bombing of refugee camps, could be justified as legitimate self-defense.
The worst abuses of the Holocaust in Israel, however, have occurred in the midst of debates between Jews, particularly the controversies around the territories occupied in 1967. The frequency and casualness with which Israeli Jews accuse one another of Nazi-like or anti-Semitic behavior today is a disturbing measure of the coarsening of the country's political culture.
The example of such invective best-known outside Israel was the left-wing philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovitz's description of settlers as "Judeo-Nazis." More common and far more dangerous, however, has been the abuse of the Holocaust by the Israeli right wing. As Zertal points out, almost every Israeli politician who has tried to make peace with the Arabs has been likened to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who tried to avoid the Second World War by appeasing Hitler, or as a "Nazi" whose secret desire is nothing less than the annihilation of the Jewish people. Any "concession" to the Arabs signals, in these terms, the destruction of Israel, the end of Zionism and the end of the Jewish people. Another symbol often seen at right-wing demonstrations is the yellow Star of David, the single most emotive symbol of Jewish victimization. If Ariel Sharon is Israel's prime minister today, it is in large part because of this right-wing campaign of vilification against supporters of a negotiated peace with the Palestinian people. Now, it seems, it is his turn to be demonized as his proposed evacuation from the Gaza Strip settlements comes to be labeled as a process aimed at making the Land of Israel judenrein--i.e., cleansed of Jews.
In October 1995 Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu and the late Rafael Eitan attended a rally in Jerusalem organized by the extremist right-wing organizations Chabadand Zu Artzenu. The assembled mob called for the deaths of the "Oslo criminals" Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Cabinet minister Shimon Peres, calling them the "Judenrat." One month later Rabin was shot dead by Yigal Amir, a religious nationalist youth who hoped to stop the implementation of the Oslo Accords. Rabin's assassination was the culmination of months of unprecedented incitement and violent demonstrations against the accords and the prime minister himself, who was blamed for betraying the idea of a Greater Israel. At right-wing rallies protesters held up posters depicting Rabin in an SS uniform. Opposition leaders played a major role in these incitements by using an unrestrained rhetoric of blood, land and treason.
"Never forget" has been the mantra of Jewish and Israeli politics for three decades. But in Death and the Nation, Idith Zertal argues, daringly and I think rightly, that one can "remember too much." The obsessive commemoration of the Holocaust and of Jewish victimhood has blinded much of the Jewish community to Israel's real position in the world and to the humanity of the Palestinian people. The result has been to make ever more distant a reasonable political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is the victory of death over life, of the past over the future. To be sure, there are periods in the history of a nation when ultimate sacrifices are necessary, and a cult of death unavoidable. The question in Israel today is whether this heroic period has come to an end or whether the prevailing ideology of the 1948 war will last another hundred years, until the entire "Land of Israel" is "liberated." To choose the former option is to grant priority to the lives of Israel's citizens, Jewish and Arab. To choose the latter is to remain a community of victims, joined in a mythical communion of Jewish sacrifice in an eternally hostile gentile world. Tragically, most of the organized American Jewish communityseems to prefer the mythic option, a course that can only lead to disaster.