Dear Mr Netanyahu,
As a secular Jew and an ambivalent Zionist, it is distressing to think about what is happening in Israel today and its links to our history. To write publicly about it feels difficult. But if most of the Jewish diaspora remain silent, there is even less chance that Israel can change course. So here goes.
While you were forming your new government in Israel, Judge Gross in Germany was completing “one of the last worldwide criminal trials related to crimes of the Nazi era.” Survivors of Stutthof Concentration Camp courageously shared their harrowing experiences of brutality. Irmguard Furchner, a 97-year-old secretary to the Commandant, was found guilty of complicity in 10,500 murders. She administered orders for mass murder from her desk with a view from her window onto the death camp. She was 19 years old. According to her lawyer, while she didn’t deny that these crimes took place at Stutthof, she took no responsibility for them herself.
I have never heard anyone who helped with mass murder in the gas chambers talk about their experiences. Perhaps it is too hard to overcome their shame. Perhaps they came to believe that those murdered were merely collateral damage in their pursuit of the Aryan dream. Their masses of victims were not human. They were other than themselves.
Most historians agree that the humiliation and economic recession caused by reparations after World War I laid the foundations for the election of the Nazi Party. German people willingly absorbed the false pride and saving face of ultranationalism, fuelled by propaganda spewing hatred and scapegoating of Jews.
THE STORY OF WORLD WAR II
Today, the rise of the far-right in America and Europe is frightening. Marine Le Pen secured 41% of the vote in France’s presidential run-off. The Brothers of Italy, with roots back to Mussolini, won the last election. Just two years ago, 74 million people voted for Donald Trump’s brand of hatred. Even Sweden has elected a hard-right populist government. Ultranationalist and culturally intolerant parties are winning people’s votes.
Scapegoats are useful, particularly when economic times get tough. It is much easier to fear, hate and murder the other – those we choose to not know or understand. To protect ourselves and our group, people in other groups can even appear subhuman. You are with us, or you are against us. It is that potent combination of fear, with the security and power of believing that our group is righteous. But these toxic behaviors are not inevitable, they are choices people make.
For your part, you have chosen the convicted racist, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to be a Coalition partner to govern Israel. As leader of the Jewish Power party, he is a charismatic propagator of the false pride of Israel’s version of ultranationalism. He is a disciple of Meir Kahane who used to advocate for the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel and was outlawed as a terrorist in the USA and Israel alike. At the recent memorial to Kahane’s death, Ben-Gvir praised his mentor: “I think Rabbi Kahane’s main characteristic was love,” he said. “Love of Israel without compromises or any other considerations.” Ben-Gvir appears prepared to sacrifice Israeli Arabs and the potential for peace in pursuit of his Zionist dream.
Under your watch, Ben-Gvir will be Israel’s national security minister with increased power over the police, despite being banned from the military for his extremist views. Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, will have control over settlements in the occupied West Bank. He has previously argued for a shoot to kill policy for Palestinians throwing stones. His Ukrainian ancestors in a different time were persecuted under similar policies.
If these men get what they want, creeping annexation will become full scale annexation. Palestinian aspirations for their homeland, however, won’t disappear. Feelings of humiliation won’t evaporate. This conflict over land will ultimately need a dignified compromise between reasonable parties to reach a peaceful resolution.And yet, many young Israelis voted for the extremist, Ben-Gvir. What has gone wrong on your watch that Israel is sanctioning elements of fascism? What is your responsibility?
Palestine and Israel: A Bloody Saga
Our history of persecution is longstanding. It was a powerful spark for Israel’s creation. I fear that how we choose to process the Holocaust, intellectually and emotionally, may be a catalyst for its destruction. In the translated words of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, “Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality. And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law. We have learnt toleration in Europe. This is not sarcastically said. The anti-Semitism of today could only in a very few places be taken for old religious intolerance. It is for the most part a movement among civilized nations by which they try to chase away the specters of their own past.” I hope I live to see Israel confront its demons.
It’s at least time to increase funding of trauma-informed educational programs on conflict resolution, prejudice, and discrimination. Apparently not. Instead, you’ve enabled Avi Maoz, son of a Holocaust survivor, to increase prejudice in schools. More than 200 Israeli headteachers recently signed a petition, warning that Maoz’s “racist, homophobic, regressive, and extremist opinions are divisive and offensive to entire communities and harmful to wide identities within Israeli society.” We must not forget that inverted pink triangles sat alongside the Star of David in the Holocaust.
This chilling new era of Israeli politics is creating seismic shifts within the legal bounds of the State. Your coalition partners want increased segregation of women, constricted definitions of family and religiosity, and laws sanctioning businesses to determine who they serve based on gender, religion, creed, or race. Religious bigotry is being mainstreamed.
EMBED PAINTING ‘DIVISION’ EMMA DAVIES
I find it hard to believe that you want your legacy to be the cementing of a theocratic state. Yet you appear to have given Smotrich control of Immigration and Settlements under a new National Missions Ministry which can redefine what it means to be Jewish. A couple of years ago, he stated that he wanted “to restore the Torah justice system.” They want to take the country back to biblical times, and they don’t want the Supreme Court to stop them.
Constitutional lawyers are sounding the alarm at proposals to reduce the power of the Supreme Court. It’s widely reported that this would also help you to avoid taking responsibility for the bribery and fraud for which you’ve been charged. But surely after 15 years as prime minister, you also care about the future of the democratic state. You know that these institutions underpin Israel’s credibility in the West and reassure international investors. This isn’t just an argument between left and right.
Ironically perhaps, this lurch to the political extremes of religious bigotry could fuel more effective community and political collaboration for the soul of the Israeli state. It could spark more activism within Israeli religious communities towards peace. It might nudge the international community to put real pressure on Israel to stop illegal occupation. The increased risks to Palestinians, many of whom identify as Suni Muslims, might give the Gulf States pause for thought on economic cooperation. Perhaps in the coming months, your partners will cross a red line that you won’t be able to ignore in the middle of the night. You might even choose to resign for the sake of your beliefs, not to mention your legacy. But I doubt it.
I share the despair and shame of millions in Israel and in the Jewish Diaspora today. I hope that all those who want a democratic state can create a unified vision for the future. Through my eyes, the plan to get there must include incremental withdrawal from occupied land and investment in Palestinian youth. However difficult this will be for all, more bloodshed in an endless cycle of persecuted to persecutor and back again, renders the more likely alternative much worse.
At the end of World War II, no one would believe that a Jewish state would embrace openly fascist ideology 77 years later. You, Mr. Netanyahu, idealize leaders who have been able to prevent catastrophic persecution of the Jewish people. How will history judge you?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.