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Red Rag column: Holocaust memorial day, Col. Eisner, Günter Grass, Vanunu
By: Gideon Spiro
22 April 2012

The lesson has still not been learned

Israel recently marked Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. I am a native of Germany, where my parents and grandparents were born as well as several previous generations. The dictatorial regime of Germany forced me and my family to emigrate at the last minute, in March 1939, five months before the outbreak of the Second World War, and we found shelter in Mandate Palestine under British rule. Therefore this is a meaningful day for me. It is just unfortunate that the leadership of the State of Israel and I do not broadcast on the same frequency. The Remembrance Day ceremonies are repeated in the same format every year, as is my criticism, which is to a great extent a repetition of the main points of what I have written in past years.

Remembrance Day opened with a mass gathering at the plaza of Yad Vashem,[1] attended by the all the major figures in the leadership of Israel: the President, the Prime Minister, ministers, military and police commanders, the judges of the Supreme Court, Members of the Knesset and the Chief Rabbis. There were also a small number of Holocaust survivors, who had been meticulously screened by the Israel Security Agency and the police to ensure that they would not spoil the show by heckling.

The assembly was divided into two parts. First there was the talking, including speeches by the President and the Prime Minister. The second part was the lighting of six beacons by six survivors in memory of the six million who were murdered (the experts disagree over that number, but it has taken hold in the national and international consciousness). The opening of the Memorial Day opening ceremony was broadcast live by all the radio and television channels.

The President of the State, and even more, the Prime Minister, fully exploited the unique opportunity they were given to press the Holocaust into the service of their political agenda. Binyamin Netanyahu dedicated most of his speech to the Iranian Bomb, scaring us all with the prospect of a new Holocaust. His lesson from the Holocaust is that now there is a State of Israel that is strong and well-equipped, a hint that Israel can cause holocaust to the Iranians. One could conclude from Netanyahu’s words that Israeli aircraft are ready to take off to bomb Iran. And indeed the Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, confirmed a few days later in an interview with the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (22 April 2012) that the IDF is fully prepared to strike Iran, and is just waiting for the order. There was no one in the audience to interrupt by yelling, “Hey, Netanyahu, Israel has nuclear weapons and Iran has none (yet), so who’s the dangerous one?”

There is nothing new about pressing the Holocaust into service in support of political positions. It is done all over the political map. The important question is: to what end is it being used? Governments of Israel have enlisted the Holocaust for immoral ends like justifying the Occupation and denying the human rights of millions Palestinians, to silence voices critical of Israel, to set up a complex system for the creation of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, biological and chemical, to promote the cult of military force, hatred of foreigners and racist policies to acquire generous financial aid from abroad (a recent example: German financing of nuclear-missile-carrying submarines) and to justify unnecessary wars, war crimes and other such things. Under the protection of the Holocaust, Israel is permitted to do what is forbidden to others.

I too make use of the Holocaust as an anchor for my positions. The difference between me and the government and its supporters is that I do it for in support of appropriate objectives that are at the heart of the lessons that should have been learned from the Holocaust, such as the struggle against racism, meticulous preservation of a democratic regime, equality and respect for human rights for all who are made in the image of God, opposition to the control of one people over another, uncompromising struggle against all the violations of human rights caused by the Israeli Occupation, giving shelter to refugees as a sign that I have not forgotten that I too am a refugee and a son of a nation of refugees, banning the export of weapons to tyrannical regimes, divesting Israel of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the framework of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and other such decent principles that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed at the UN in 1948 as one of the lessons of the Holocaust.

On the stage throughout the ceremony stood a unit of armed paratroopers, who almost certainly had been taken from the mission of oppression and occupation in the Occupied Territories. No one in the governmental Establishment, not even anybody from Yad Vashem, found it in poor taste that an army of occupation should play such a central role in a ceremony in memory of those who had suffered under another army of occupation. Regardless of all the differences between one army of occupation and another, there is one common denominator they all share: the violation of human rights.

The second part of the ceremony, the lighting of the six beacons by six Holocaust survivors, moved me to tears. Every one of those six bears the burden of the sufferings and tribulations of those who survived the hell of the death camps, lived long, raised families and contributed to society in their fields.
At the same time I cannot forget the government of Israel’s neglectful treatment of the 40 thousand Holocaust survivors who are living under conditions of hardship, sometimes on the brink of hunger. The government of Israel has received billions in the names of the victims, but it has been stingy when it comes to helping survivors who have been left behind economically.


The Occupation Colonel

Colonel Shalom Eisner, Deputy Commander of the IDF’s Jordan Valley Brigade, has been seen by the whole world brutally striking with his rifle the face of a young Dane, a member of the International Solidarity Movement, who fell to the ground with the force of the blow and required several stitches on his face.

Eisner did not take into account that there was a camcorder that was filming the incident. The video proved that there was no justification for his criminal action. The young Dane was standing in a relaxed posture, his hands at his sides, he was unarmed and he represented no threat to the life of the Israeli officer.

In light of the brutality of this attack on a harmless civilian, the leaders of the army had no choice but to dissociate themselves from the act and take moderate punitive measures against the violent officer. He was not dismissed from the army. The IDF Spokesman, the Chief of Staff and the Defence Minister repeated the mantra that “the officer’s behavior is atypical and runs counter to the spirit and values of the IDF.” To which one may say, “bullshit”. What Eisner did, Occupation soldiers do to Palestinians every day, but in most cases there is are no cameras around. Eisner’s uncivilized behavior expresses the spirit of the army of Occupation. The presumption of the IDF Spokesman and his army of correspondents in the Establishment press that this is an occupation army with a “moral code” is a self-deception and misleading to the readers and the viewers.

Moreover, the behaviour of the officer also is consistent with the camp from which he came. He is a knitted-kippa-wearing officer, a graduate of the Merkaz Harav yeshiva, the central institution of religious Zionism, the leading producer and exporter of racism and nationalism. It is no coincidence that writers from the settlers’ camp justified Eisner and condemned the Chief of Staff for dissociating himself from him. They rejoice when the army and the settlers abuse and beat leftists. And there are some settlers for whom Eisner’s act of violence is not enough, who demand the use of firearms to kill left-wing demonstrators. The army cooperates and demonstrators against the Occupation have paid with their lives.


A few more words about Günter Grass

My last column included a section about the German author and Nobel laureate Günter Grass. I did not join in the national chorus that Grass had turned into an anti-Semite and Nazi because of one critique of Israel. Of course they also pulled out of the naphthalene his having been a soldier in the Waffen SS. All at once his nearly 70 years of anti-fascist and anti-Nazi activism were forgotten.

As I pointed out in my column, he enlisted at age 17, near the end of the war, when Germany was already on the verge of surrender, and his military service, during which by his account he did not fire even one shot, ended in a few months. But let us forget all this for a moment, and dedicate a few words to the Waffen SS.

It was an elite unit of the German army. Young Germans in Nazi Germany were subjected to brainwashing, in the Hitler Youth movement, in school and at home, and exposed to the media, all of which were under the strict control of the regime and which constantly emphasized the importance of service in the armed forces and above all in the elite units, and respect for the uniform. All those influences created in young people the desire to be counted among the best. The young Günter Grass experienced all that.

Here in Israel we know the phenomenon of young people who will expend any effort to be accepted into elite units like the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal), Flotilla 13 (Shayetet 13), the paratroopers and other such units. The phenomenon of young Israelis in high school, who are willing to pay thousands of shekels in a preparatory course in order to pass the entry tests for the elite units, is typical of a state in the administration of which the army plays a central role.

Günter Grass underwent a change in consciousness in the transition between the youth who joined the army and a citizen in a democratic state. Hence his membership in the Social Democratic party and opposition to any attempt by the fascist Right to return to political life. Few remember that Günter Grass opposed the reunification of Germany after the collapse of the Communist regime in East Germany, preferring two democratic German states, because of his fear that a large and unified Germany might pose a danger to Europe once again.


There are still righteous people in Israel

A few days ago I participated in a demonstration in front of the recruitment base in support of two enlistment refusers, Noam Gur and Alon Gurman, whose consciences do not permit them to be part of an army of occupation that denies the freedom of the Palestinians. Noam wrote in her refusal declaration that “I refuse to take part in the IDF, because I refuse to join an army that has been busy since its inception with controlling another people, theft and sewing terror among the civilian population and that is under its control.” Alon said in his declaration of refusal: “My refusal to serve in the Israeli army, in addition to being a refusal to take part in Occupation and apartheid, is an action of solidarity with our Palestinian friends who live under the Israeli regime and are struggling for freedom, justice and equality.” Noam is now sitting in isolation in prison because she has refuses to wear a uniform. Alon was taken to a psychiatrist who released him under Article 21 even though Alon had declared that his refusal is political and he is willing to go to jail.

What motivated the army to free him? Here is a speculation: It looks like someone in the recruitment office perceived that this was a determined young man with a strong humanistic political conscience who could provoke doubts among other soldiers, and so they took the easy way out of freeing him by means of the Mental Health Officer. Another point of convergence between Israel and Nazi Germany: treating military refusers as if they need psychiatric treatment, because after all, it is not normal not to want to serve in the army.

As long as there are youths like Alon and Noam, perhaps not all is lost, and there will be a rebirth for a democratic Israel without Occupation and apartheid.


Free Mordechai Vanunu

On 21 April Mordechai Vanunu and his friends commemorated 8 years since his release from the Ashkelon prison, which were also 8 years of restrictions forbidding him to leave Israel, meet with foreigners, especially journalists, enter the Occupied Territories and approach embassies. He was released from the small prison but he continues to be imprisoned in an open prison called Israel. As long as Mordechai cannot live in a country of his choosing, he is not a free man.

The Israel Security Agency’s claim that he still constitutes a security risk is an insult to a rational mind. Everything he knew he gave to the London Sunday Times 25 years ago. The real reason for the restrictions is that Vanunu stands behind what he did and expresses no remorse. He left prison after 18 years, of which 11 and a half were in solitary confinement, at peace with himself. The ISA could not digest that and has been renewing the restrictions on him every year in revenge for the fact that Vanunu believes even today that he did the right thing when he gave a British newspaper information about what was happening behind the walls of the reactor at Dimona. He implemented the democratic principle of the public’s right to know.

Israel is asking the US to amnesty the spy Jonathan Pollard after 25 years in prison and to permit him to live outside the US. The government of Israel is treating Vanunu with the same harshness it is asking to be rescinded in Pollard’s case. Israel can set an example and lift the restrictions on Vanunu. Then at least it can approach the US with clean hands.


I do not want Israel to be destroyed

There is a disgusting kind of claim that is directed at me by right-wing talkbackers according to which I am an enemy of the State of Israel, want it dismantled, support its destruction and want to see us ruled over by Arabs. Please take note: I am not an enemy of the State of Israel but of the government of Israel at the most. It is not I who wants it dismantled or destroyed; that is what the government and the settlers are setting out to do. What I want is something very modest: to ensure the existence of Israel by means of ending the Occupation and a peace agreement. In the student newspaper of the University of Haifa, Post Mortem, I wrote the following words: “As one who is sensitive to injustice and deprivation both socially and nationally, I believe that the founding of the State of Israel was an act of historical justice for a people that has been subject to an incomparable degree of injustice and deprivation throughout history. Those who reject justice for their own people do not have the moral right to struggle for justice for others.” (Post Mortem 14 December 1972). The article from which that excerpt is taken contains words that I would not repeat today or which I would formulate differently, but I still stand behind the quoted words today. The State of Israel within the Green Line borders is the realization of historical justice. The problem is that on the way to achieving justice for ourselves, we caused a great injustice to another people, and as long as we do not recognize that and make an honest effort to correct the injustice – it being understood that not everything can be reversed, for that would create a new injustice – the fire of the conflict will continue to burn.

Translated from Hebrew for Occupation Magazine by George Malent


Translator’s note

1. Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, museum and institute.

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