An interesting thing happened the other day when Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders vastly overstated the number of Palestinian fatalities in the 2014 mini-war between Israel and Hamas.
Though Sanders quickly corrected himself, this did not stop former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, now a member of the Knesset, from denouncing Sanders’ words as a “blood libel,” immediately evoking horrific images and associations from our tragic history.
A similar thing happened last year when Israelis, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, denounced the international agreement to halt the Iranian nuclear program as “another Munich,” referring to the infamous 1938 deal in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain attempted to appease Hitler, sacrificing Czechoslovakia in the process.
As the Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev has written, the Munich precedent has consistently featured as a staple of Netanyahu’s core beliefs. In his book ‘A Place Among the Nations’, written in 1995, Netanyahu compares Israel to pre-1939 Czechoslovakia and the Arab states surrounding Israel to Nazi Germany.
We saw it again when Netanyahu last year suddenly, in a speech to the World Zionist Congress, came up with the bizarre notion that the idea to annihilate the Jews in World War Two was suggested to Hitler by the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini. His statement was universally ridiculed and condemned.
Netanyahu has also used the “blood libel” charge against Palestinians, a reference to the many times in history where Jews were unjustly accused of killing Jesus, killing Christian children, spreading plague and other heinous, unfounded charges. These accusations were used to provoke and justify massacres and pogroms.
Netanyahu is following the trail blazed by the founder of his Likud Party. In 1982, during the Israeli siege of Beirut, then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced that Israeli troops had the “Nazis surrounded in their bunker”, even though it was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his forces that were trapped.
Later that year, after the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Christian militias in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, under the noses of Israeli forces, Begin famously complained that “goyim are killing goyim and they blame the Jews.”
It seems as if Israeli leaders and citizens as well as many Jews around the world who support Israel unquestioningly are still most comfortable in the assumed role of historic victim. This is understandable. For significant portions of the past 2,000 years, Jews were indeed victims – of religious and racial hatred, marginalization, humiliation, discrimination, mass expulsions, pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust. We are the heirs, we believe, of generations of martyrs – and that in a sense makes us morally pure.
This mindset explains the constant attempts to maintain our Jewish status as victims in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Although Israel is a military and economic powerhouse in the Middle East, it remains in this worldview the eternal victims – of Palestinian incitement and terrorism, of Arab and global anti-Semitism, of double standards at the United Nations and in other international organizations and of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement – which many of us regard as another anti-Semitic plot to marginalize, ghettoize and ultimately annihilate us.
We don’t want even to entertain the possibility that in the conflict with the Palestinians, we are the ones with the power. We are the ones subjecting them to military rule and occupation against their will. We are the ones making their lives difficult and miserable and denying them their rights. But the source of the conflict, Netanyahu constantly preaches, is their hatred of us and their refusal to recognize our national existence.
In his 1961 novel, “Dawn”, Elie Wiesel presents us with the dilemma of an 18 year-old Holocaust survivor, Elisha, who has joined a terrorist group fighting for Israel’s independence and has been ordered to kill a British officer in reprisal for the execution of a Jewish leader. He does so, knowing that he in a deeper moral sense he is killing himself.
Constantly invoking the Holocaust or medieval blood libels to justify Israeli policies and actions is a coward’s way out. Like Elisha, we are the ones holding the guns now. We need to take responsibility.
As Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has eloquently written, the story of humanity, starting with Adam and Eve, “has been for the most part a flight from responsibility. The culprits change. Only the sense of victimhood remains. It wasn’t us. It was the politicians. Or the media. Or the bankers. Or our genes. Or our parents. Or the system, be it capitalism, communism or anything between. Most of all, it is the fault of the others, the ones not like us, infidels, sons of Satan, children of darkness, the unredeemed.”
We need to stop blaming the medieval Church, the Crusaders, the Spanish Inquisition, the people who put Dreyfus on trial, the Tsarist police, the Cossacks – and indeed the Nazis – for our troubles. Their actions don’t justify our actions. We need to start seeing the world the way it is. We need to take responsibility.