by Rafael Medoff
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks this week about the lessons to be learned from the Allies’ response to the Holocaust may annoy some pundits, but he is in good company: numerous leaders of the rival Labor Party have said the same thing over the years.
“The leaders of the Allies knew about the Holocaust in real time. They understood exactly what was happening in the death camps,” Netanyahu said at a ceremony dedicating a new exhibit at the site of the former Auschwitz death camp. “They were asked to act, they could have acted, and they did not. To we Jews the lesson is clear. We must not be complacent in the face of threats of annihilation. We must not bury our heads in the sand or allow others to do the work for us.”
When Prime Minister Netanyahu made a similar point in an AIPAC speech last year, some Israeli pundits chided him for injecting the Holocaust into Israeli strategic calculations. But the fact is that linking the history of the Holocaust and modern Israeli strategy has been commonplace among Israel’s leaders since day one.
In 1946, soon-to-be prime minister David Ben-Gurion testified before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine that “There was a conspiracy of silence in the entire world [during the Holocaust]. When millions of Jews suffered death and when we tried to tell the world this horror, the answer was: It is Jewish atrocity propaganda, it is press propaganda of the Jews.” That, Ben-Gurion explained, was why “we [must] save ourselves…we [must] escape from this dependence, this being at the mercy of others.”
Speaking before the United Nations in 1956, then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir explained Israel’s recent military action against Egypt by reminding the international community how little it had done when, “within the lifetime of nearly every person here present, a dictator arose who, like this disciple of his [Nasser], informed the world in advance of his bloodthirsty plans.” Mrs. Meir added: “The ashes of the crematoria…testified to the fidelity with which he kept his purposes. Such a lesson should not be forgotten. Certainly the people of Israel are not likely to forget what the threat of total extermination means.”
President (and former Labor Party Knesset Member) Chaim Herzog foreshadowed Netanyahu when he said, at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993: “Sadly recalling that there were those who knew and did’t act, we are determined maintain a strong, viable and independent country based on the memories of the past [and] the hopes for the future…One of the major lessons [of the Holocaust] has been that it is not sufficient to have justice on your side, it is essential to be strong enough to defend it.”
President (and former Labor Party prime minister) Shimon Peres, in his Holocaust Memorial Day address at Yad Vashem in 2010, likewise explicitly linked what happened during the Holocaust and Iran’s recent genocidal threats against Israel:
“We have a right and a duty to demand of the nations of the world that they not repeat the indifference that cost millions of lives, including their own citizens,” President Peres said. “The ears of the United Nations have to be attuned to the threats of extermination uttered by one member country against another member country…Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of those capable of mass destruction, with voices encouraging that destruction – that is the most perilous combination to world peace.”
Of course 2013 is not 1943 and it is true, as one of Netanyahu’s critics said last year, that “Not every enemy is Hitler, and not every problem is Auschwitz.” But at the same time, most Israelis, whether they support Likud or Labor, recognize that history is relevant and the abandonment of the Jews during the Holocaust does have implications for our own time.
President Barack Obama in effect included itself in this Israeli national consensus when he said at a press conference last year: “Israel is a sovereign nation that has to make its own decisions about how best to preserve its security. And…I am deeply mindful of the historical precedents that weigh on any Prime Minister of Israel when they think about the potential threats to Israel and the Jewish homeland.”