Commentary Magazine

Israel: Guilt & Politics

On one of his condolence calls to Arab communities after the massacre by Dr. Baruch Goldstein of 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, visited the town of Nazareth. Responding to Weizman’s expressions of sympathy, Nazareth’s mayor, Toufik Ziad (who is also a member of the Israeli Knesset), called the massacre “Israel’s Kristallnacht.” Though Weizman had repeatedly begged forgiveness for Goldstein’s deed, he resented this analogy and said so. So indeed he should. Not only was the comparison of Israel with Nazi Germany outrageous in itself; invoking Kristallnacht was doubly offensive in suggesting that (as in Nazi Germany in 1938) the government had been behind Goldstein—and this at the very moment when the President of Israel’s presence and his words were giving the lie to any such idea.

Nevertheless, Ziad’s charge was taken in stride and hardly noticed in the Israeli press. For his allusion to Kristallnacht was but a pale echo of what was generally being said in those days by writers, columnists, and politicians on the Israeli Left.

Portraying Israel as a latter-day Nazi Germany is, of course, a favorite Arab propaganda line. From Edward Said at Columbia University to the Nablus man-in-the-street interviewed on CNN, the refrain has always been that the Israelis are doing to the Arabs what the Nazis did to the Jews. The purpose is not only the obvious one of identifying the Jewish enemy with the ultimate evildoers of all time; nor is it merely to hit Jews with what they naturally consider the most devastating insult imaginable. The subtler use of the Israel-equals-Nazis slogan is to reinforce the standard Arab portrayal of Zionism as a colonialist invasion of the Middle East by European Jews, supported by a Western world eager to expiate the guilt of the Holocaust.

It is a measure of the success of Arab propaganda that many Western journalists and pundits have accepted this version of history. That Zionism began 50 years before Hitler, or that the majority of Jews in Israel hail from Arab countries, are facts which—like many aspects of Israel’s history—have been erased from general consciousness and memory.

It may seem surprising that so many Israeli leftists now subscribe to the “Judeo-Nazi” line.1 But there is a certain logic in their embrace of it. In order to persuade themselves that Israel could live in peace and security with a Palestinian state abutting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, they have to believe that it is only Israeli rule over Judea, Samaria, and Gaza that has made the Palestinians dangerous. And to believe this, it is a great help to see the Palestinians as innocent victims and the 130,000 Israelis who live in those territories as racist haters and potential murderers of Arabs.



But it is not the settlers alone who are excoriated by the Left. On the Friday following the massacre, Amnon Dankner—a popular writer, television personality, and professional enfant terrible—published a piece mocking the breast-beating that had been going on all over Israel:

It’s been a long time since we witnessed so disgusting and revolting a phenomenon as the so-called “soul-searching” undertaken by politicians, intellectuals, rabbis, and many other writers in the wake of the Hebron massacre. It’s a display of self-prettification and self-deception, an embarrassing, sticky, chauvinist, ethnocentric spectacle, drawing from the same muddy source from which the murderer and his followers drew their own words and deeds. Under the cover of deep shock and a desire to distance themselves from the deed, all have condemned the act as so un-Jewish, so un-Israeli, so unlike us, and so unrepresentative of what we stand for, of what we have thought and done in all the thousands of years of our history, so alien and so exceptional, that our delicate souls cannot perceive how such a horrible thing emerged from our midst.

We are so beautiful, so just and blond, that it is nothing short of astonishing that this man is a Jew like us, an Israeli like us. . . . Ah, how wonderful we are. What other nation would have done such soul-searching. How beautiful we are, how wonderful.

Dankner then proceeds to compare Israelis unfavorably with today’s Germans, who conduct “giant demonstrations” against racist attacks on foreigners. Reciting the litany of Israeli sins in the manner of the Yom Kippur prayers, he writes:

We beautiful Jews have bombed homes, broken arms and legs, shot children—hundreds of children killed!—humiliated, harassed, burst into homes, broken furniture, trampled human dignity, tortured when it was necessary and when it was not. For so many years we Jews, who have robbed houses and fields, confiscated property, treated with contempt and racism those under our rule, called ourselves “enlightened occupiers,” and busied ourselves with masturbatory, self-deceiving palaver, like “if the British or Americans were the rulers in the territories they would have done much worse things.” We the wise, we the just and blond Jews, who sank ourselves in the swamp of the occupation, vanquished another nation, hated it, harassed it, and settled on its land and stuck maniacs in its towns, we are so wonderful that it is simply a wonder that one such Goldstein could come out of us. He is just not one of us, he’s just some bum from Brooklyn who due to some regrettable bureaucratic error received a weapon and the rank of captain.

In the end, Dankner despairs of the ability of these Jewish “blond” Aryans, who consider themselves a superior race, to do, even now, the right thing:

We will not save our souls by getting out at once from the territories, we won’t expel the maniacs from the heart of Hebron and the madmen from the tomb of Joseph in Nablus. We shall show everyone that we are not only just and beautiful but resolute and adamant about what’s ours. For He has chosen us and sanctified us above all nations of the earth. Give us a mirror and we shall lustfully kiss our image. And we shall never say that we are sad and ashamed as human beings. No. Only as Jews and Israelis, which is far superior to just human beings. Long live us, forever and ever.

A similar article by the columnist Haim Baram (whose brother Uzi is Minister of Tourism in the Rabin government) was illustrated with a caricature of a settler which fit Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’s description of residents of the territories as “gun-toting bearded men with yarmulkes.” Except that in this drawing the settler was goose-stepping and had his arm raised in a Nazi salute.

In his article, Baram calls the Declaration of Principles signed last September on the White House lawn a shameful document of surrender by the PLO, unimplementable because of its gross unfairness to the Palestinians. And in condemning Goldstein, he rejects any “symmetry between Jewish and Arab murders”:

Morally, I consider all spillers of blood loathsome. But politically there is a difference between the oppressor-killer, who murders to perpetuate the occupation (like Goldstein) and a freedom fighter, who struggles for his own and his people’s liberation. What this is about is not just abstract ideals like independence or self-determination. The violence against the occupation is intended to liberate the Palestinian people from humiliating everyday life. The freedom fighters fight against those who rob their lands, exile their sons, arrest and detain thousands of human beings, humiliate and pressure people to make them traitors and collaborators, shoot and kill them incessantly, discriminate against them economically, starve them with closures, and contemn them as human beings. I don’t justify acts of murder, but I feel free to assert that the depravity of those who hide behind an army of occupation and oppression to beat up on the oppressed nation is immeasurably greater than that of the Palestinians who spill blood.



It would be easy to dismiss these rantings as flaky, marginal, and irrelevant. But the likes of Baram and Dankner have become the tone-setters and the cutting edge of the Labor government. In fact, when Baram writes that he and his fellow leftists intend to “persuade the majority of the public” to accept a PLO-Hamas state on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, cutting through Jerusalem, he can point as a precedent to their prior success “on the issue of contacts with and recognition of the PLO.” What they say today, Peres’s Deputy Yossi Beilin will be saying tomorrow, and is likely to become government policy the day after that. (Already, for example, Beilin has proposed skipping the interim period of Palestinian autonomy prescribed by the Declaration of Principles and ceding part of Jerusalem to PLO rule right away.)

Moreover, far from being a phenomenon confined to the lunatic fringe, self-flagellation (more temperate in rhetoric, to be sure) was the order of the day in the mainstream as well. A case in point was Amos Oz, one of Israel’s better-known writers and an establishment darling entrenched in what has become the political Center, who did an article for the London Observer immediately after the massacre. Since, he wrote, “The murderer, a well-known supporter of Rabbi Meir Kahane, was armed with ammunition supplied to him by Israel, which has armed dozens of other Kahane supporters,” Oz offered the following advice:

The government of Israel should immediately outlaw all of Kahane’s supporters, see to it that known inciters are placed under arrest and brought to trial, instigate house searches in Qiryat Arba and other possible terrorist strongholds, and suggest that, as a result of the massacre, it will consider incorporating armed Palestinian police in the peacekeeping forces guarding trouble spots outside of the Gaza and Jericho regions.

Uncannily, these were almost exactly the demands the PLO would make the following week and which the Israel government would meet.

Nor did generalizations about the whole community of settlers—the vast majority of whom are ordinary Israeli citizens quietly raising their families and commuting to their jobs in Tel Aviv and Jersualem—give Oz liberal qualms:

. . . these are the same inciters who, unlike Islamic fundamentalist agitators, were not deported, nor will they be deported over the order and their homes will not be destroyed or sealed up. But I see no difference between this Jewish murderer and these Jewish inciters and the Hamas and Islamic Jihad murderers and inciters: they do all in their power to prevent the Israel/Arab war from being resolved through compromise; they do all they can to turn it into a religious war between Judaism and Islam, between Adonai and Allah—till the very last drop of blood has been shed.

Oz, Baram, and Dankner were merely the more articulate among the numberless commentators and politicians who provided the kind of background music which made the government’s acts of atonement seem, if anything, pale and inadequate. Not that the government did not try hard. In addition to President Weizman’s visits to Hebron and other Palestinian communities, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the whole Israeli establishment profusely apologized for the massacre as if it had been committed by an arm of the state (thereby, ironically, lending an unintentional plausibility to the Kristallnacht comparison). A commission of inquiry was appointed by the government to investigate the security forces’ failure to forestall the tragedy. And the victims’ families were awarded substantial compensation. There can be no precedent in history for such an assumption of responsibility by a government for the acts of a private individual.

Beyond taking guilt upon itself, the government also took action as well, specifically in order to placate the PLO and persuade it to return to the peace talks. One thousand convicted Palestinian terrorists were released. The two fanatic Kahanist movements associated with Goldstein were outlawed. Other suspected Jewish extremists were harassed, interrogated, deprived of arms, arrested, and detained without trial under the emergency laws applied to terrorists. Israel agreed to enlarge the projected Palestinian police—a euphemism for a military force—and to having armed Palestinian police in Hebron and a foreign inspection force in Gaza, Jericho, and Hebron.

But perhaps the most important concession was made in the government’s decision not to oppose a UN resolution describing the territories as “occupied Palestinian land”—thus implying that they belonged to a sovereign Palestine—and including Jerusalem as part of these occupied territories. True, the offensive language was used only in the preamble to the resolution, not its operative part; and the United States agreed to abstain in the vote on the preamble. Yet never before has an Israeli government acquiesced in a UN Security Council resolution treating the territories, let alone Jerusalem, as belonging to a Palestinian state.

And the government did more than just acquiesce. Warned that the PLO would consider returning to the negotiating table only if a tough resolution were passed (one also calling for stationing foreign troops in the territories to protect the Palestinian population), the Israeli government actually discouraged efforts to get the U.S. to veto it. Thus, when members of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), wanted to demand that the Clinton administration adhere to its own commitments on Jerusalem and to avoid prejudicing the Israel-PLO negotiations, they were bluntly advised by the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Itamar Rabinovich, to lay off. UN resolutions were not important, they were told; the main thing was to pacify the PLO and get the talks back on track.



Even more perverse was the disappointment in Israel’s Foreign Ministry with American reluctance to pressure Israel for more concessions. It is difficult to determine if the Clinton administration sincerely believed in its dictum that only the Israelis and Arabs could make peace with each other, and that Washington could only serve as an honest broker at the request of both sides; or if Clinton was simply wary of appearing to pressure Israel, since the only voters showing no erosion of support for him were American Jews. Perhaps both factors played a role. But in any event, Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s unwillingness to twist Rabin’s arm was viewed with alarm by Peres and Beilin, as was clear from a scathing attack on Christopher in Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading paper, by its Washington correspondent, Akiva Eldar, known for his closeness to the Foreign Minister and his Deputy.

“It’s a pity that the state inquiry commission [on the Hebron massacre] lacks the mandate to go abroad,” Eldar wrote:

Had Chief Justice Meir Shamgar and his colleagues [on the commission] been permitted to go to the U.S., it is doubtful that they would have exonerated Secretary of State Christopher or even President Clinton from responsibility for the calamity. . . . The settlers’ activities appear in the current report of the [State Department’s] human-rights division. CIA agents in Israel thoroughly reported on the Brooklyn Kahanists’ evil deeds, and if reading open and secret material is too difficult for them, Christopher heard about the settlers from the leaders of the Palestinians. That is, if he did not fall asleep, as he did during Clinton’s speech in Brussels and during his last conversation with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Veterans of the State Department cannot remember a Secretary so tired, bureaucratic, and indecisive. Asked about the fate of the occupied territories, he had a ready answer: the peace process is the solution, there is no other. And what has the Secretary done for this peace process? He groveled twice a week before Jewish leaders and promised that there would not be, God forbid, any pressure on Israel. There are a few devoted officials in the American team who have stood by the cradle of the peace process and who are dying for permission to rattle it. But the Secretary has curbed those who asked to intervene in the negotiations for fear that it would be interpreted as a provocation against the Rabin government.

Eldar, obviously speaking for his friends in the Foreign Ministry, would rather see a more active Secretary. So much so that he offers what must be the first Israeli endorsement of an official known for virulent anti-Israel positions:

The [American] Jewish leadership, not yet free of the Likud’s teats, knows why it prefers Christopher and strains so hard to block Strobe Talbott on his way to the office of Secretary of State. Talbott’s articles in Time show that his opinions on the harm caused by the settlements in particular and the occupation in general are perfectly in tune with those of Peres and Yossi Beilin.

Talbott, it should be noted, did not oppose only the Likud government. He compared Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait to Israel’s “invasion” of the West Bank and Gaza, which of course took place under the Labor government. But never mind. In the Orwellian political world into which significant elements of the Foreign Ministry seem to have entered, an American Secretary of State who is hostile to Israel is preferable to one who is evenhanded.



About 20 major massacres of Jewish civilians by Arabs have occurred since 1929—from the 67 Jews slaughtered in Hebron that year to the 15 killed in a tourist bus in Egypt in 1990. There have also been 11 attacks on synagogues by Arab terrorists—including the murder of 24 worshippers in Istanbul in 1986. And unlike the 29 Arabs gunned down at prayer in Hebron, the Jewish victims of these attacks were killed not by an individual who had snapped but by organized terrorist groups sponsored by internationally recognized regimes. Nor is there any record of apologies from any such group, or, for that matter, any Arab leader, including Yasir Arafat, whose people (including members of his own wing of the PLO) have murdered more than 30 Jews since the White House handshake alone.

There are those who think that the self-recrimination in Israel after the Hebron massacre spoke well for the moral sensibilities of the country. To the extent that it expressed a universal revulsion at the wanton shedding of blood, no doubt it did. But in many of its manifestations, it also expressed a degree of self-hatred that exceeded even the depths to which this pathology once reached in the Diaspora (and which statehood was supposed to cure). For the rest, one can only be awed by the skill with which the tragedy was turned into an excuse to make concessions to the PLO which that organization had already been demanding before the massacre in Hebron and which the government of Israel was evidently eager to grant.


1 The phrase itself was coined by the scientist-theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Though he is not a leftist himself, his extreme dovishness and his virulent attacks on Israeli society have made him a hero of the Left.

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