Nazareth – There is no bigger taboo in Israel than comparing the state of Israel to Nazi Germany. And yet that is precisely what Yair Golan, the deputy head of the Israeli military, did last week during a speech to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.
“If there’s something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance, it’s the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe – and particularly in Germany – 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016.” Golan called for “national soul-searching”, adding: “There is nothing easier than hating the stranger, nothing easier than to stir fears and intimidate. There is nothing easier than to behave like an animal and to act sanctimoniously.”
It was a moment of extreme self-recrimination rare among Israel’s political and military leadership. The political backlash was not long coming. The same day Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, demanded a retraction in an angry telephone call to Moshe Yaalon, the defence minister.
Golan dutifully backtracked, with a “clarification” that equating Israel and Nazi Germany was “absurd and baseless”, and that he had not intended to “criticise the political leadership”. Nonetheless, at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu directed his fire at Golan again, calling his speech “outrageous”. Such comments, he added, “shouldn’t be said at any time”.
are now furiously going after him.”]
Other ministers were equally indignant. Science Minister Afir Okunis said the comparison would cause “massive harm to Israeli public diplomacy all over the world”. Miri Regev, the culture minister and a former military spokeswoman, called on Golan to resign.
Earlier, Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of the far-right settlers’ party Jewish Home, tweeted that “our soldiers will be compared to Nazis, God forbid, with legitimisation from high above.”
Neve Gordon, a political scientist at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, said the political fallout underscored the significance of Golan’s comments. “All camps in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict want to be able to claim exclusive ownership of victimhood,” he told Al Jazeera. “Golan’s offence was to dare to identify Israelis as the oppressors. That’s why [government politicians] are now furiously going after him.”
Golan is a war hero, and for that reason he may – just – survive this incident. Though extremely uncommon, such comparisons have been made before by Israeli public figures, though never before by someone of Golan’s standing. Shortly after the occupation began in 1967, the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a renowned scientist and philosopher, began warning that Israel was in danger of succumbing to what he termed “Judeo-Nazism”.
A similar argument has been made by Avraham Burg, a former Speaker of the Israeli parliament. In the words of a prominent critic, his 2007 book Defeating Hitler argues that “Israel has no moral core and has become a brutal Sparta, fast sliding towards Nazism”.
And only last month Haneen Zoabi, a politician from Israel’s large Palestinian minority, rejected an invitation to a Holocaust Memorial Day event, noting “alarming similarities” between Israel and Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Despite the outrage in Israel that greeted Golan, Burg and Zoabi’s remarks, none went so far as to suggest that Israel is committing a Nazi-style genocide of the Palestinians. They referred instead to Germany in the 1930s, when the Nazis came to power and started creating a structure of racist laws. This period was a prelude to the Holocaust, which began several years later.
Golan has found some very limited support. An editorial in Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, Haaretz, “saluted” him for his “brave words”. It added: “One of the most important lessons of the Holocaust was ignoring the early signs that brought the Nazi regime to where it ended up.”
Golan’s comparison is likely to register as more significant with Israelis – even if it is no more popular – than Zoabi and Burg’s. Zoabi’s statement was chalked up to Palestinian “anti-Semitism”, while Burg is widely dismissed as a leftist intellectual.
The reasons for Golan’s decision to speak out are complex and relate to fears prompted by a growing fault line both within Israeli politics and the military that does not strictly adhere to the usual left-right divide.
Yaalon, the defence minister, also a leading member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, came to Golan’s aid too, even while distancing himself from the Nazi Germany comparison. He argued that the general was calling for the military leadership to serve as “a compass and a conscience” for Israeli society.
Michel Warschawski, a founder of the Alternative Information Centre, a joint Israeli-Palestinian advocacy group, told Al Jazeera: “The heads of the military-security apparatus are genuinely fearful for Israel’s future. They think the right is driving Israel into a wall.
“Golan and the others understand that Netanyahu has already lost global public opinion and now they see that in time the right will drive away Western states. Eventually Israel will be left in total isolation.”
Notably, Netanyahu used his Holocaust speech not to promote the universal values highlighted by Golan but to focus on what he claimed to be the continuing dangers faced by Jews. “Anti-Semitism and the lies didn’t die with Hitler in the bunker in Berlin,” he said. The targets of his attack ranged from the Arab and Muslim worlds to Swedish government ministers, British MPs and the United Nations.
The danger of this kind of tribalism was underscored last month by the furore that greeted the army’s decision to put on trial for manslaughter Elor Azaria, an army medic filmed executing a Palestinian in Hebron as he lay he severely wounded on the ground.
Polls have shown a majority of Israelis – including those drafted into the military – believe no action should be taken against Azaria. Some call him a hero. Golan alluded to the Hebron incident several times in his speech. There seems to be a palpable fear among army commanders like Golan that they are losing control over their soldiers – and with it any hope of holding on to their much-cherished claim to be the “most moral army in the world”.
“Outside the very top echelon, the Israeli army is now controlled by people who are affiliated with the settler movement,” Gordon said. “That raises an uncomfortable argument about the place of religion in the military. Who gives the orders – God or the generals?”
Columnist Asher Schechter observed at the weekend that there was no little hypocrisy in Golan and Yaalon’s efforts to preach morality to the rest of Israeli society. Golan, for example, was disciplined in 2007 for using Palestinians as human shields, two years after Israel’s supreme court outlawed the practice.
“The irony is that the [Israeli army] had more than a hand in nurturing the kind of right-wing zealousness and disregard for human life that now worries its highest-ranking officers,” he wrote.
Journalist Gideon Levy concurred, arguing that army commanders like Golan “would do well to examine their roles in the moral decline of the country and of the army, and question what they are doing now in their high positions to institute change.”