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[Shlomo Ben-Ami] The abuse of history and the Iranian nuclear bomb

TEL AVIV -– Saturated with their often tragic history, Jews tend to pay great reverence to the past. But the past, especially when not handled with care, can be the enemy of the future and distort our reading of the challenges of the present. This is certainly the case with the analogy that Israeli leaders insist on drawing between the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust and the threat posed to the Jewish state by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem this year again saw Israeli leaders competing with each other in feeding the gloom of the national psyche and public hysteria surrounding Iran’s intentions.

President Shimon Peres, who, unlike Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is skeptical of the utility of an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, spoke of the “threat of extermination” facing Israel. Even Defense Minister Ehud Barak, usually a coolly rational thinker, chose Yad Mordechai, a Kibbutz named after Mordechai Anilewitz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, to alert world opinion against “Holocaust deniers, first and foremost the Iranian president, who calls for the destruction of the Jewish people.”

Netanyahu, not surprisingly, was especially outspoken. To him, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is another Hitler, and the world is now facing the same challenges that it faced on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power. Iran’s race to develop nuclear weapons, Netanyahu warned, can be understood only in the context of its leaders’ “repeated vows to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the earth.” Supposedly, now, as then, the world is criminally indifferent.

Netanyahu’s Holocaust analogy would have been a mere intellectual curiosity if he were not the person who would be responsible for taking the decision about whether to attack Iran’s nuclear installations and thus drive the Middle East into an apocalyptic confrontation. The career of his political mentor, Menachem Begin, demonstrated that distorted analogies between past and present can inspire irresponsible policies.

In his disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Begin perceived himself as a God-sent vindicator of the legacy of the Holocaust. He chose to portray what was a cynical alliance of convenience between Israel and the Christian Phalange as a lesson to humanity and a rebuke of that hypocritical Christian Europe which had betrayed the Jews during the Holocaust. He would show them how the Jewish state, created by Holocaust survivors and now led by one, would come to the rescue of a Christian minority threatened with destruction.

To Begin, Arafat in Beirut was Hitler in his Berlin bunker. Indeed, Abba Eban ridiculed Begin for behaving “as if Israel were a kind of disarmed Costa Rica and the PLO was Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, and Attila the Hun all wrapped into one.”

Begin was the best proof that Israel’s critics needed that the Zionist revolution, although it created a state out of the ashes of the Holocaust, had failed to eradicate the collective self-image of the Jew and the Israeli as victim. Netanyahu seals the image of Israel as a nation totally incapable of breaking out of the prison of its past.

Israel is not wrong to cast serious doubts on the efficacy of the measures that the United States pretends to take in the hope of curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Neither the planned sanctions nor the recently published U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, a far less revolutionary document than expected, will curb Iran’s nuclear appetite. Instead of believing in its capacity to stop Iran’s nuclear program, the world is preparing to live with a nuclear-armed Iran.

But this would not be Israel’s problem alone. Such a resounding collapse of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would pose a formidable challenge to the world community, particularly to the Middle East. Iran’s viciously anti-Semitic rhetoric is a transparent attempt to deceive its terrified Arab neighbors by presenting its military might as the spearhead of an all-Muslim confrontation with Israel. In fact, a nuclear Iran would launch the entire region into nuclear anarchy. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey would all seek their own “Sunni” bomb to counter the threat of a Shia nuclear empire on their doorsteps.

When he did not feel the need to exploit the solemnity of Holocaust remembrance ceremonies, Barak conveyed the right message to the rising Iranian power. A year ago, knowing full well that Iran was irreversibly on its way to getting the bomb, he soberly challenged Netanuyahu’s dangerous distortion of history.

“Israel is not European Jewry,” Barak said at the time. “We are a strong country to which the whole world attributes nuclear capabilities, and in regional terms we are a superpower.” He then expressed his dislike for comparing the Iranian threat to the Holocaust, “because it cheapens the Holocaust and stretches current challenges beyond their proper place. There is none that will dare to destroy Israel.”

History has not come full circle. Israel needs to decide whether it is a regional superpower or a Jewish ghetto waiting for an imminent pogrom to begin. History in the hands of manipulative politicians and incorrigible ideologues can be either a dangerously inebriating weapon to mobilize the masses, or, as James Joyce put it in Ulysses, “a nightmare” from which it is difficult to wake.

By obsessively filtering their conflict through the nightmare of the Holocaust and the Nakbah, Israelis and Palestinians have doomed the chances of a peaceful settlement of their dispute. Viewing the current conflict between such formidable military powers as Israel and Iran through a similar lens can only breed untold catastrophe.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace and author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.” -- Ed.

( Project Syndicate)