Israel’s greatest loss: its moral imagination

Henry Siegman writes:

Following Israel’s bloody interdiction of the Gaza Flotilla, I called a life-long friend in Israel to inquire about the mood of the country. My friend, an intellectual and a kind and generous man, has nevertheless long sided with Israeli hardliners. Still, I was entirely unprepared for his response. He told me—in a voice trembling with emotion—that the world’s outpouring of condemnation of Israel is reminiscent of the dark period of the Hitler era.

He told me most everyone in Israel felt that way, with the exception of Meretz, a small Israeli pro-peace party. “But for all practical purposes,” he said, “they are Arabs.”

Like me, my friend personally experienced those dark Hitler years, having lived under Nazi occupation, as did so many of Israel’s Jewish citizens. I was therefore stunned by the analogy. He went on to say that the so-called human rights activists on the Turkish ship were in fact terrorists and thugs paid to assault Israeli authorities to provoke an incident that would discredit the Jewish state. The evidence for this, he said, is that many of these activists were found by Israeli authorities to have on them ten thousand dollars, “exactly the same amount!” he exclaimed.

When I managed to get over the shock of that exchange, it struck me that the invocation of the Hitler era was actually a frighteningly apt and searing analogy, although not the one my friend intended. A million and a half civilians have been forced to live in an open-air prison in inhuman conditions for over three years now, but unlike the Hitler years, they are not Jews but Palestinians. Their jailers, incredibly, are survivors of the Holocaust, or their descendants. Of course, the inmates of Gaza are not destined for gas chambers, as the Jews were, but they have been reduced to a debased and hopeless existence.

Fully 80% of Gaza’s population lives on the edge of malnutrition, depending on international charities for their daily nourishment. According to the UN and World Health authorities, Gaza’s children suffer from dramatically increased morbidity that will affect and shorten the lives of many of them. This obscenity is a consequence of a deliberate and carefully calculated Israeli policy aimed at de-developing Gaza by destroying not only its economy but its physical and social infrastructure while sealing it hermitically from the outside world.

Particularly appalling is that this policy has been the source of amusement for some Israeli leaders, who according to Israeli press reports have jokingly described it as “putting Palestinians on a diet.” That, too, is reminiscent of the Hitler years, when Jewish suffering amused the Nazis.

Another feature of that dark era were absurd conspiracies attributed to the Jews by otherwise intelligent and cultured Germans. Sadly, even smart Jews are not immune to that disease. Is it really conceivable that Turkish activists who were supposedly paid ten thousand dollars each would bring that money with them on board the ship knowing they would be taken into custody by Israeli authorities?

That intelligent and moral people, whether German or Israeli, can convince themselves of such absurdities (a disease that also afflicts much of the Arab world) is the enigma that goes to the heart of the mystery of how even the most civilized societies can so quickly shed their most cherished values and regress to the most primitive impulses toward the Other, without even being aware they have done so. It must surely have something to do with a deliberate repression of the moral imagination that enables people to identify with the Other’s plight. Pirkey Avot, a collection of ethical admonitions that is part of the Talmud, urges: “Do not judge your fellow man until you are able to imagine standing in his place.”

Of course, even the most objectionable Israeli policies do not begin to compare with Hitler’s Germany. But the essential moral issues are the same. How would Jews have reacted to their tormentors had they been consigned to the kind of existence Israel has imposed on Gaza’s population? Would they not have seen human rights activists prepared to risk their lives to call their plight to the world’s attention as heroic, even if they had beaten up commandos trying to prevent their effort? Did Jews admire British commandos who boarded and diverted ships carrying illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the aftermath of World War II, as most Israelis now admire Israel’s naval commandos?

Who would have believed that an Israeli government and its Jewish citizens would seek to demonize and shut down Israeli human rights organizations for their lack of “patriotism,” and dismiss fellow Jews who criticized the assault on the Gaza Flotilla as “Arabs,” pregnant with all the hateful connotations that word has acquired in Israel, not unlike Germans who branded fellow citizens who spoke up for Jews as “Juden”? The German White Rose activists, mostly students from the University of Munich, who dared to condemn the German persecution of the Jews (well before the concentration camp exterminations began) were also considered “traitors” by their fellow Germans, who did not mourn the beheading of these activists by the Gestapo.

So, yes, there is reason for Israelis, and for Jews generally, to think long and hard about the dark Hitler era at this particular time. For the significance of the Gaza Flotilla incident lies not in the questions raised about violations of international law on the high seas, or even about “who assaulted who” first on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, but in the larger questions raised about our common human condition by Israel’s occupation policies and its devastation of Gaza’s civilian population.

If a people who so recently experienced on its own flesh such unspeakable inhumanities cannot muster the moral imagination to understand the injustice and suffering its territorial ambitions—and even its legitimate security concerns—are inflicting on another people, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The hope for the rest of us is that we do not grasp an ethnic or national identity with such vigor that we forget what it means to be human.

To have an identity, supposedly written in ones DNA — an identity that marks one as distinct and somehow unrelated to the other members of the human family — is to perceive a divide much harder to bridge with empathy than the divide that already separates every individual. For Israelis to put themselves in the place of the other, demands that they begin to shed the shackles of their own identity.

In this regard, to be marked as a people who were victims of the greatest genocide in human history, now demands that Jews cultivate a more expansive view of human suffering. Yes, the Holocaust is unparalleled as a calculated act of brutality and inhumanity, yet the idea, no one has suffered more, is itself an incubator for brutality.

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  1. mark Molin says

    Not the greatest genocide in history .
    Have we forgotten the New world population?
    What about Africans brought to the US.
    Why are we constantly reminded not to forget the only and true victims?
    It seems the some how if you have half a brain its not just the elephant
    in the room but the room is the elephant.
    Its time to suck it up and move on from tribalism and innocent victimhood.
    Look at Israel policies and what anger these policies would cause and you
    would find the answers.

  2. The jewish holocaust was not the only holocaust in history, there have been many. As recent as ’94 we witnessed the Rwanda genocide….800,000 killed in a 100 days. Imagine the numbers if that had continued for several years. And of course no one lifted a finger to stop it.

    The actual Jews of Hitler’s camps are dying out…even a one year old born in the camps, and none actually were, would be 70 years old today, 12 year old would be 82. However the zionist keep expanding the definition of a holocaust survivor. They now include all Jews, even those who had left Europe and escaped Hitler. Recently they expanded it to also include the children of holocaust victims and sued Germany for more money for children affected by their parents mental problems and nightmares due to the holocaust.

    As bad as their and all holocaust are there needs to be a statute of limitations of victimhood.
    If all victims wanted to live eternally their victimhood and get their revenge we would be down to less than a dozen or no humans left on the planet.

  3. delia ruhe says

    I agree, Mark Molin, that it’s not “the greatest genocide in history,” and that if one wants to contemplate a far more successful genocide, one only has to study the history of New World aboriginal cultures. 60-65 percent of Europe’s Jews were murdered by the Nazis; 90-95 percent of the indigenous peoples of the Americas were slaughtered by Europeans. I am 67 years old; I have spent a good part of my life watching the First Nations of Canada putting the pieces of their shattered cultures back together again. Lots of shards are missing; many more are missing than not missing. A lot has to be re-invented, re-imagined. It is a project that will require generations more of patient analysis and community activism.

    But I think we also have to remember that if you happen to be a member of any tribe that has experienced genocide, it probably FEELS like the greatest genocide in history. It’s this feeling that has led to the “sanctification” of the Jewish holocaust – the conviction that it is unspeakable, unrepresentable, ineffable, mysterious and beyond human understanding. Moreover, any attempt to understand it is, as Elie Wiesel claims, a form of antisemitism. Therefore, no “real” Jew dares to understand.

    And that is a sure recipe for the event’s repetition, for if a whole tribe represses the understanding – both the intellectual and the emotional understanding – of a tribal experience so grave, it will resurface in the form of what Freud called “repetition compulsion,” i.e., acting out a past event over and over again in the hope that a different, more successful resolution can be achieved. And that is why people call the Palestinians “Hitler’s latest victims.”

    Palestinians are the victims of Jewish-Israeli repetition compulsion in which a destructive fantasy is made real, a fantasy in which Jews get to exercise the excessively macho power of the Nazis — BECOME Nazis — while the Palestinians are the contemptible, feminized Other who must be made to “go like sheep to the slaughter.”

    But the Palestinians have always refused to go like sheep to the slaughter – refused to be erased, annihilated, like the Jews of Europe — therefore, until they comply, the story must be repeated again and again. That is what Henry Siegman is partially disclosing in this rather brave op-ed.

  4. Netanyahu called the Mavi Marmara a hate boat. It is clear that Israelis are very familiar with hate — the state itself has turned into a Hate State. Wasn’t that picture at the end of the Haaretz article, that was labeled Protesters holding down an Israeli commando, one from the videos that shows protesters carrying an ‘injured’ commando below, where they gave medical aid?

    When the extent of their hate is such that every such act is ‘against’ them and a threat, there is small hope for their recovery. It is very probable that a huge proportion of their population can never return to normal. There are very few grounds to suppose an equitable two state solution can ever be found when the Palestinian state is to be disarmed and only those such as Israeli commandos are permitted to ‘protect’ the state. Netanyahu merely uses the idea as a tempting carrot. The West (clearly a society that does not include Israel) needs to smarten up and abandon such an illusion. The real struggle has to be against the continuation of apartheid within the single entity Israel/Palestine.

  5. Lysander says

    “Moral Imagination?” Not sure what that means but whatever it is, it seems Israelis lost it a long time ago. If they haven’t noticed until now, then it couldn’t have been that important to them.

  6. delia ruhe says

    Christopher writes: “there is small hope for their recovery. It is very probable that a huge proportion of their population can never return to normal.”

    I think there is genuine fear among older generations that unless younger generations are taught who their enemies are (i.e., the goyim) and provided with reasons to hate them, they will be victimized in another holocaust. Some younger Israelis resist this “brainwashing,” but many of them end up leaving Israel for the diaspora — which, of course, only exacerbates the problem for Israel.

    If my reading of it is correct, the hate is carefully cultivated. As I recently noted somewhere else, Israelis drink a lot of their own Kool Aid. As we’ve seen over the last 2 weeks, the hasbara propaganda machine has brought 90% of the Israeli population in line with the IDF version of events. The vast majority are absolutely convinced they are right and the rest of the world is just plain wrong. After all, what can you expect from a world in which antisemitism is globalized and permanent. The scene in the Knesset in which the Arab MK who was aboard the Marmara is accused of treason and threatened with loss of citizenship and deportation is instructive.

    But more striking is a process I’ve watched in two film documentaries where teenagers are taken to Poland ostensibly to bond with the ancestors, but the trip comes across as a carefully planned traumatization and hate-indoctrination program. There’s nothing wrong with hating Nazis, but they’re all dead, so what are these young people supposed to do with all their new-found hatred? There is also a course (camp? seminar series?) for high school kids which supposedly prepares them for service in the IDF. It was written up in Ha’aretz earlier this year. It appears more like a kind of madrassa that makes sure kids are going into the army with the “right” attitude towards the Palestinians.

    Apparently, Israel is suing Germany for the cost of psychotherapy for the children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors — which suggests to me that a hell of a lot of Israelis are in therapy. If it’s working, this might be the best investment Germany ever made in Israel.

  7. DE Teodoru says

    I sought to emphasize my fear of the HOLOCAUST PSYCHOSIS because of the position into which it forces Zionists. In the case of many very realistic Israelis I cannot forgive it as it is a psychosis of convenience and I was with them numerous times when they bragged about how they duped those “dumb goyim.” So perhaps inferiority complex with a superimposed defensive superiority complex underlies this Holocaust- complex-of-convenience. After all, the Israelis were far away from, safe from the Nazis, protected in Palestine by the British while while negotiating with the Nazis for assistance (see Black’s and Seigev’s books). Whatever the case, the luxury of POLARIZING the goyim with such theatrics as are employed in today’s hasbara, is nothing but succumbing to an old Leninist trick: POLARIZE TO MOBILIZE as an effective ruse. This Leninist tactic consists of forcing those ambiguous and neutral into Israel’s corner by permitting them to consider only one other alternative solution possible that seems so absurd an extremist a position that it would repulse anyone– like, for example, insisting that to pity the Gazans and to be outraged by the fate of the Flotilla is to want all Israelis exterminated by HAMAS and Hezbollah. So, if I were Mr. Siegman– one of my most favorite human beings in the world– I would have told his friend: my friend, hoping to resolve the inner conflicts in your mind with an extreme position that you try somehow to dupe yourself and the goyim into believing will only degenerate whatever of the Jewish Ethic is left in your mind; for you are forcing Jews to choose and they will all choose against your hasbara because they are NOT “dumb””– nor are the goyim. So, would you ever think that most goyim would go the way of your paid trained seals in the Western media? The Washington Post Editorial Board will not go to fight for Israel’s freedom…we who do not pay it any mind will; so think of what seems moral to Diaspora Jews bound by the Jewish Ethic and we goyim bound by the Judeo-Christian Ethic, not what appears in WashPost editorials. We will not be bought as will desperate media rags losing readers and advertisers and desperate for investors. Nor will we be intimidated. What you are doing is in violation of ALL ethical codes and your self-confident self-congratulations are not successfully hiding your nervousness over the reliability of your thesis that Westerners are all “dumb goyim” who will succumb to Academy Awards performances about “times of Hitler.” Those times, thank God, are over, so stop trying to bring them back in what you do and how you justify it. You just might bring about some ugly horror with a totally current stimulus by treating people like they’re stupid!

  8. Ian Arbuckle says

    What “Moral Imagination” in this context means to me, is to bring into existence by will power a time when every Israeli and Palestinian can grasp the following story equally in their Jewish or Palestinian consciousness equally and understand the great power and need for Compassion to obliterate the hate and evil which is propagated and used by a few as it feeds on itself and grows like a cancer:

    Some years ago, an elderly monk arrived in India after fleeing from prison in Tibet. Meeting with the Dalai Lama, he recounted the many years he had been imprisoned, the hardship and beatings he had endured, the hunger and loneliness he had lived with, and the torture he had faced.

    At one point the Dalai Lama asked him, “Was there ever a time you felt your life was truly in danger?”

    The old monk answered, “In truth, the only time I truly felt at risk was when I felt in danger of losing compassion for my jailers.”

    This truth cannot be repeated often enough.

  9. DE Teodoru says

    Mr. Arbuckle, many Israelis I know– especially from Romania, survivors of the double Holocaust (Hitler’s and Stalin’s), have felt the compassion expressed by the Buddhist Master towards the Palestinians. And though totally ethno-racially distinct from the Palestinians, went among them and devoted themselves to providing them a modern education. They found the Palestinians willing learners and also found themselves adopted as honored members of the families of the Palestinians they educated. On the whole, East Euro Jews proved to be exquisite teachers and Arabs proved to be exquisite students. The ties of pride in their students and affection for their teachers have proven to be life long in both cases. The real problem is that Israelis don’t trust their Western “friends”– understandable given how the West was manipulated by the Zionists over the last century; and many Arabs don’t even trust each other. If Americans were more mature and less predatory they could, over time, bridge that gulf of distrust between the two peoples. Alas, cash support from billionaire Zionists who never lived nor would ever live in Israel (they go there only trumpeted as if visiting royalty) are making hard-ass Zionism a profitable venture for American politicians. In fact, because Americans want to extort from Arabs oil at lower price and higher volume than OPEC offers, corporate America likes to play both sides against each other. Soon Israel will realize that developing American anti-Zionism because of the “strategic liability” that has become Israel for the US will turn into domestic anti-Semitism in America. Americans rarely get aroused, but when they note that Zionists are scheming to deny them their Constitutional freedom of speech and sovereignty to facilitate Israeli crimes against Palestinian humanity– especially when Americans discovered that they were considered “dumb goyim” because of their tolerance– they will not become anti-Zionist but anti-Semitic. Liability for such a tragic conversion lies totally at the feet of the men who got rich in America and are now using their wealth to America’s detriment, using the neocons as their PAID agents. This will arouse a beastly anti-Semitism like none ever seen before. So neither the potential anti-Semites nor the potential instigators realize what they are doing because they are blinded to the consequences by a mix of insolent pride and profit. The American Krystalnacht will be product of the chutzpah and latent disdain of goyim on the part of a few inflicted on the many who feel no such thing; and those goyim aroused to blinding rage devoid of compassion over being characterized as “dumb” dupes will not be able to see beyond their bruised dignity. We can’t say, like the Buddhist Master, that no one has died so far given how many American soldiers died in the “World War IV” against Islam promulgated by the neocons based on fraudulent intelligence provided by the Israeli secret services. But we can say that once the American Krystalnacht starts it will spread like a wild fire unimpeded by human compassion. That some mad men in Israel dream of that day in order to force the stampede in fear to Israel with all their assets of the 75% of World Jewry that chose loyalty to their native countries over commitment to Israel may be the hidden dirty little secret behind the current effort to impose the notion that anti-Zionism=anti-Semitism, especially as Israel becomes increasing rapacious in its expansionism. Compassion is very Jewish. But non-compassion characterized the Zionists from their early days as they found that hate pays, liberating their theoretical “NEW JEW” from Jewish Ethics religion. The doom of Israel will come if its current masters do not realize that compassion begets compassion, especially for a country whose existence is TOTALLY beholding to the compassion of goyim.