Monday, December 08, 2008


Ali Abunimah, Electronic Intifada - In 1969, Israel's legendary diplomat Abba Eban warned that withdrawal from the territories his country occupied in June 1967 would be a return to "Auschwitz borders." Since then some Israeli politicians have used these provocative words to attack almost anyone who defies them.

In 1992, for instance, the George H. W. Bush administration briefly suspended US loan guarantees to Israel to protest settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A symbolic sanction that cost Israel little, it was nevertheless unprecedented for the US to condition aid on Israeli behavior. Israel's then Deputy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the move as an American effort to force Israel back within the "Auschwitz borders." He later attacked then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for signing the 1993 Oslo Accords which, he alleged, would also take Israel "back to Auschwitz." Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli Jew brought up on such rhetoric. Netanyahu served as prime minister from 1996-1999 and may do so again following elections next February.

Eban's meaning was clear -- by comparing Israel to the most notorious and emblematic Nazi death camp, he was in effect saying that Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular are Nazis no less capable and desirous of exterminating Jews than was Hitler. In Hebron, however, it is Israeli settlers protected by the Israeli army who frequently paint threats such as "Arabs to the gas chambers" on Palestinian houses.

Comparisons of present-day Israel to Nazi-occupied Europe are common in Israel itself although they remain taboo everywhere else. The late Tommy Lapid, justice minister in Ariel Sharon's government, caused an uproar in 2004 when he said that images of an elderly Palestinian woman in Gaza "crouching on all fours, searching for her medicines in the ruins of her house" demolished by the Israeli army reminded him of his own grandmother who perished at Auschwitz. Lapid compared the Israeli army's writing of numbers on the arms and foreheads of Palestinian prisoners to the Nazi practice of tattooing concentration camp inmates. "As a refugee from the Holocaust I find such an act insufferable," he said in 2002.

Lapid, who was chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial, also likened the routine harassment of Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron to the anti-Semitism of pre-World War II Europe. "It was not crematoria or pogroms that made our life in the diaspora bitter before they began to kill us," he said in 2007, "but persecution, harassment, stone-throwing, damage to livelihood, intimidation, spitting and scorn." Lapid did not live long enough to see Hebron settlers attempt to burn down a house with a large Palestinian family trapped inside, an act witnessed on 4 December by Avi Issacharoff, reporter for the Israeli daily Haaretz, who called it "a pogrom in the worst sense of the word."

While Lapid's comments shocked some Israelis, they were "actually fairly mild compared to some of the Holocaust-related insults that have been hurled across the Israeli political spectrum in the last decade," the BBC reported in 2004. An example included the frequent depiction of Rabin in the months before he was assassinated in a Nazi uniform. Uri Dromi, former head of Israel's government press office, noted that Israelis from politicians to fans of rival football teams frequently called each other Nazis: "The ease with which the Nazi Holocaust has been used is alarming."

In Israel, "Every threat or grievance of major or minor importance is dealt with automatically by raising the biggest argument of them all -- the Shoah," former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg has written using the Hebrew word normally reserved for the Nazi Holocaust, "and from that moment onward, every discussion is disrupted."

Such use of the Holocaust by Israelis rarely attracts attention or opprobrium outside the country. By contrast Palestinians must always be careful about breaking the taboo of likening any of Israel's actions with those of Nazis. Even their allies usually tell them, "don't go there.". . .

And, during the recent American presidential campaign, candidates wanting to prove their loyalty to Israel and toughness toward Iran promised that the US would never allow a "second holocaust," thus entrenching in American politics the phenomenon observed by Burg in Israel. . .

Invoking another horror of the 20th Century, the president of the UN General Assembly, Nicaragua's Ambassador Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, recently likened Israel's siege of Gaza to "the apartheid of an earlier era." This is not likely to please Israeli officials; as Nelson Mandela wrote, with the exception of the Nazi genocide, "there is no evil that has been so condemned by the entire world as apartheid."

But it does at least offer a hopeful model for collective action and solidarity. D'Escoto Brockmann recalled the sanctions that helped end South African apartheid, adding, "Today, perhaps we in the United Nations should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society who are calling for a similar nonviolent campaign." That campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions is already underway and scores new victories each week. It will strengthen in inverse proportion to the complicity of world governments, no matter what justifications Israel puts forward for its mounting crimes.

The Holocaust lesson that I learned at school is that we are obliged not to wait until things are as bad as Auschwitz before we speak out and act.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, said in an interview with Haaretz over the weekend that Israel will do harm to its relations with the United States if it insists on lobbying Washington for an American military strike on Iran.

Brzezinski was at the center of a controversy during much of the United States presidential campaign when Jewish opponents of president-elect Barack Obama sent out mass emails calling the former U.S. president's aide anti-Israel, and saying he was one of the Illinois senator's key advisors on foreign policy.

The Obama campaign denied that Brzezinski and other figures like Bill Clinton's former advisor Robert Malley with dovish positions on the Israel-Palestinian question were among his Middle East advisors. . .

On Sunday, Obama told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the West must engage in "tough but direct diplomacy" with Iran, but emphasized that Tehran's vocalized threats against Israel stand "contrary to everything" the United States believes in.

Brezinski added that even if Israel did attack Iran, it would be incapable of striking all of its nuclear facilities. The best it could hope to do is to slow down or delay the Islamic Republic's drive to build a nuclear bomb while emboldening extremist sentiment in the country. . .