|By: Gideon Spiro|
17 October 2012 (English translation posted 20 October)
Is a German permitted to criticize Israel?
A few years ago I did a lecture tour in Germany as a guest of the German Association for Human Rights. My audiences were mostly Germans, generally people of the middle generation who had not participated in the war. There were also a few Jews. The audience was mostly liberal, with very moderate leftist tendencies, in the area of the Social Democratic Party. Since I speak the same language wherever I am in the world, so in Germany too I did not conceal my strong criticism of the policies of the government of Israel. I criticized the Occupation, the settlements, the racism, the shameful treatment of migrant workers, discrimination against Arab citizens and so on. At every meeting there were Germans who were astonished to hear my criticisms. Some because they had never encountered an Israeli who promoted human rights, and others because, as Germans, they felt they had to walk on tiptoe on all matters related to Israel; otherwise they would be immediately be accused of anti-Semitism, which is a stain in today’s Germany, and, I think, a crime as well.
At each meeting the question was raised of whether Germans have the right to criticize Israel after the Holocaust. As long as a generation of survivors of the Holocaust are still living among us, according to accepted opinion in Israel, Germany has only one role: unreservedly to support Israel on all levels: economic, military and diplomatic. I told them that I am not a rabbi who hands out dispensations. Every one of them is entitled to do what they think is right. But I told them my opinion: a German who does not deny the Holocaust, fights racism and xenophobia in Germany and is active in human rights organizations - a person like that has clean hands and is not only permitted to criticize Israel but is duty-bound to tell the government of Israel and its supporters that they have learned no lesson from the Holocaust except the cult of force. As a German who is committed to democracy and human rights, I have the right to say to Israel: don’t violate human rights, look at where it took us; leave the Occupied Territories – and at the same time also to criticize the government of Germany for its sweeping support of nuclear and colonial Israel.
Back to the present for a moment: that is the reason why I supported not only the content of the Gunter Grass’ critique of Israel, but also his right to say it.
Gunter Grass says in his poem “What needs to be said” that he had refrained from expressing what he had been holding within himself for a long time, because it concerns Israel, which enjoys nearly complete immunity from German criticism. There are courageous Germans who are prepared to defend themselves against those who will revile them for their criticism of Israel. On this matter the Jewish community conducts a campaign of terror that is intended to silence the critics. The phenomenon of Germans who are unhappy with Israel but have refrained from giving voice to their feelings is known to me from the meetings in Germany. After my lecture there was always someone in the audience who decided that the time had come to let it all out and they would really blow up at Israel. It was clear that they felt they had been relieved of a heavy burden. Most of them defined Israel as the new Nazis.
At that point I would have to intervene. I told them: you have heard my criticism. I have concealed nothing from you. I did not prettify reality. There are points of similarity between all armies of occupation: cruel oppression of a civilian population, abuse of the occupied nation, arbitrariness, pointless mass detentions without trial, torture and more. In that and in other contexts it is possible to speak of a process of nazification that Israeli society is undergoing. Israel is not a Nazi state because it does not have extermination camps (yet) and it does not have a race theory according to which the all Arabs must be destroyed. There are isolated individuals who embrace the doctrine of genocide as detailed in the Book of Joshua and try to translate it into a plan for political action, but Israel as a state has not yet embraced it.
This brings me back to the issue that is the subject of intense controversy: can a comparison be made between Israel and Nazi Germany? I have written more than a few lines on that subject, and in light of its sensitivity and the controversy that surrounds it, it seems appropriate now to re-visit what I wrote.
There are two schools of thought on the subject. According to one school, it is forbidden to compare. Any such comparison legitimizes Nazi Germany and delegitimizes Israel. The Holocaust was the expression of ultimate evil, a different planet, as the Holocaust writer Ka-Tzetnik put it. 
The second school, of which I am a member, maintains that not only is it permitted to compare, but it is also a duty to do so when necessary. Never make a sweeping comparison; always compare in the relevant context, as I have compared the tortures that caused the death of Hannah Senesh to the tortures that caused the death of Abd al-Samad Harizat in the basements Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet). The Nazi regime was not another planet, but the work of human beings, from which lessons must be learned. This school emphasizes the process of Germany’s deterioration from the democratic Weimar Republic to the Nazi dictatorship and the behaviour of its various establishments, academic, religious and economic, as well as the masses of the people, who wavered between collaboration and sitting on the fence.
Israel is in one of the stages of erosion of democracy that characterized the Weimar Republic. The Occupation is continuing and its brutality is penetrating to within the borders of the State of Israel. The Knesset is right-wing and it passes totalitarian laws simmered in the broth of racism. The parties Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), led by the settler Avigdor Lieberman, National Unity, a party all the Knesset representatives of which are settlers from the extreme Right, under the leadership of the settler Yaakov Katz, Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi (The Jewish Home), led by Zevulun Orlev, the Haredi Shas Party under the homophobe and xenophobe Eli Yishai and parts of the Likud under the settlers Moshe Feiglin and Zeev Elkin – they and their supporters constitute a political infrastructure which may produce those who will dig the graves of what is left of democracy within the Green Line. Already today their racism is supported by the majority of the people, and there is a willingness to pass laws on personal status and citizenship that are similar to the Nuremberg Laws.
I will conclude with two quotes that I believe support the “comparison” school.
Professor Dan Bar-On (RIP), who was the head of the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Ben-Gurion University, studied German and Israeli society. For two years he was a military psychologist, and he wrote the following: “I am aware of the essential difference between the suppression of the Intifada by the Israeli army and the systematic killing of millions of Jews during the Holocaust, which was intended to eliminate the Jewish race. But from my research on both phenomena I have learned that on the level of basic psychological and social mechanisms which influence all of us, the border lines are not as sharp and clear as we would like to believe”, and he goes on to write: “behind every criminal in the Holocaust there were at least nine who stood aside in various sectors of society: flag-wavers in the crowd, people who yelled slogans against Jews, people who watched the expulsions and did not respond, those who enjoyed the property of those who had been deported … without their active or passive roles and those of many others, the criminals could not have implemented their plans. In this context my position is that the acts of injustice that were carried out by the military unit as described in the article by Elitzur and Ishai-Karen (as described in the book Ketem shel ‘anana qetana: tzava ve-hevra ba-Intifada (Blot of a small cloud: army and society in the Intifada) and other acts of injustice that occurred in the time of the Intifada and afterwards, could not have been done if the Israeli public had paid full attention to what was happening under the Occupation regime”. (Excerpted from an article by the author Ilana Hammerman, who wrote a review of the book in the literary supplement of the newspaper Haaretz, 10 October 2012)
Here we have an example of a first-rate scholar, who won more than a few awards, who knew how to distinguish between what is different and not suitable for comparison, and what is similar, to which comparison is appropriate. And indeed, the evil that permitted the instigators to commit their crimes, here as there, is the standing aside, the collaboration of most of the nation with acts of injustice. That is what made it possible for the Holocaust to happen and that is what is perpetuating the 45-year-old Occupation. When Professor Bar-On mentions the Germans who enjoyed the property of those who had been deported, does this not also recall the Jews who plundered the property of Palestinians, some of whom were expelled and some of whom fled in panic from the terrors of the war in 1948? And does it not also recall the allocation of the Palestinian villas in Katamon, Talbiyeh and the German Colony – and those are only examples from Jerusalem – to people with ties to the regime?
That review took me back 12 years to the book Ezrahim ‘al tenai, Yehudim Germanim – pirqei zichronot 1780-1945 (Citizens on probation: German Jews, selections of memoirs 1780-1945) (published by the Bialik Institute and the Leo Baeck Institute), a book one of the contributors to which was my father, Dr. Shmuel Spiro (RIP), who wrote memoirs of his youth. The book was published in the original German and translated to Hebrew. I have a copy of each version in my home.
I have kept Professor Moshe Zimmerman’s review of the book, which was published in Haaretz on 3 February 1995 under the headline, “The great insult to the Jews of Germany and their desecrated honour” (Ha-‘elbon ha-gadol shel Yehudei Germania ‘al kevodam ha-mehulal). In his article Zimmerman quotes one of the contributors to the book, who wrote: “Deprive a person of food, prevent him from sleeping, torture him, dress him in ragged shapeless clothes, shave his head, let his whiskers grow, strip him of the human form – and they have lost those last remnants of humanity which even the SS man has perhaps conserved. Then it will be easier for him to destroy a creature that has lost all the external signs of human dignity”. And Prof. Zimmerman adds: “This is a double process – those who orchestrated the deprivation of dignity knew this – that’s how the Jewish person (or any victim) loses self-respect, and at the same time the criminal, the perpetrator, loses what remains of the feeling of human respect for the other. That is the fundamental essence of the Third Reich and similar regimes. That is the central experience that this collection of memoirs documents”.
Zimmerman gave a very interesting definition of the essence of the Third Reich: the loss of human respect for the other. This is the common denominator of all despotic regimes, a universal definition, and I am in agreement with it. Do the above words not remind us of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the image of humanity that is lost in the basements of the Israel Security Agency and in the prisons? Their daily humiliation and the insults to their dignity are points for relevant comparison.
Beyond this common denominator, every despotic regime has its own distinct characteristics. That is the case with the Nazi regime and the Holocaust: unprecedented genocide in the modern period. On that there is no controversy.
1. “Ka-Tzetnik 135633” was the pen-name of the writer who was best known in the English-speaking world as the author of the 1955 novel The House of Dolls, about sexual slavery under the Nazis. His real name was Yehiel Dinur. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yehiel_De-Nur