Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

What Israel Needs Now: Not ‘Events,’ Governance

Two weeks ago, Jerusalem was the scene of a major event marking the 75th anniversary of the arrival of Red Army troops at Auschwitz, in January, 1945, after the SS abandoned the camp and led off any ambulatory inmates in death marches. Auschwitz’s very delayed “liberation.”

Hundreds of heads of state and other dignitaries arrived for two days of high profile events–  mostly, speeches– televised live. A few of which, notably, that of the renowned Shoah historian, Yehuda Bauer, and of the President of Germany, Frank Walter Steinmeier, were worth hearing.

The rest tried patience, on top of the travails of city’s lockdown, with even pedestrian traffic blocked for two days.

We heard the usual proclamations, “Never Again,” prominent among them, even as many genocides have been perpetrated since World War II to little or no international intervention: the ongoing Chinese genocide in Tibet; Assad, the “butcher of Damascus,” ensconced in power again after Russian and Iranian intervention and US abdication; the US having abetted Turkish massacres of Kurds –to name a few current atrocities that raise serious questions about any meaningful content to that cry.

Yad Vashem, at which the main commemoration was staged, today apologized for the remarkable failure during the event to mention the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23, 1939 (formally, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the USSR) —announced just one week before Nazi Germany invaded Poland and set off World War II. In this pact, the two countries agreed to let one another invade Poland and take what each wished. Crucially, it provided Hitler quiet on the eastern front; the timing of the Pact’s signing and the war’s launch a week later was no coincidence. The Pact gave Germany the inestimable military benefit of a one, rather than a two-front war, and allowed it not only to pursue its aims in Poland but to proceed with conquests in the west—of Belgium, Holland, France—and with the roundup, ghettoization, and deportation of Jews there to death in the east. With the Shoah.

President Putin of Russia has been sparring with President Duda of Poland about the nature and relative gravity of the respective transgressions by their countries during the Shoah, Duda pursuing a policy that historian Bauer terms, “Shoah distortion.” That policy downplays Polish collusion with Nazi actions against the Jews, playing number and other games with the statistics of those murdered at Auschwitz and with such claims as “six million Poles murdered” during the war. True, and horrific. The cited figure of course, is meant to piggyback on/ appropriate the number of Jews murdered during the Shoah and, it would seem, willfully to mislead an international public already woefully ignorant of the history of the period. Duda fails to mention that half of that six million number were Jews, who were but 10% of Poland’s pre-war population; and that this number represented 93% of the country’s Jews, a mortality rate bearing no resemblance to that of non-Jewish Poles or any other nationality. That the policy of Nazi Germany to Poland was to subjugate and enslave, not to murder off its non-Jewish population. Nice that he now counts wartime Jews as Poles, something his political forbears did not, including those who refused Jews begging for weapons and ammunition for desperate actions against the Nazis that help. Can he not communicate the horrors that Poland endured during the war without distorting Jewish history? Apparently, not.

Ah, but Duda did not speak at the event here. Because, so we were told, with a straight face, the speakers were representatives of the wartime Allies. Except that the President of—Germany—was among the speakers. So was the President of Israel. Duda boycotted the event to protest Putin speaking while he would not, and held his own, alternative event a week later, at Auschwitz.

From the speakers, we heard eloquent denunciations of “anti-Semitism.” But not a word of actual measures these heads of state intended to implement against the upsurge of Jew-hatred, including armed, murderous, attacks on Jews, in their countries.

Instead, we got highly selective, self-serving, hypocritical accounts and platitudinous declarations.

So many ways to lie.

US Vice President Pence said nothing about US policies aimed at keeping fleeing Jews out of the US; e.g., the SS St. Louis, the boat loaded with nearly 1,000 frantic German Jews six months after Kristallnacht, turned away from US shores and told to return to–  Germany; or US visa policy that put a quota on Jews and then, at the direction of the State Department, did not even fill that quota.

Prince Charles of Britain conveniently told the story of his grandmother, who saved a Jewish family, but failed to mention British policy to the Jews during or after the war; the fact that even a plan to bring survivor children to Britain after the war was approved only after Jews undertook to pay for it all, and because its PR benefits to the government were made clear. His uncle, the abdicated King, was an overt Nazi sympathizer. That too, somehow eluded mention.

President Emanuel Macron of France did not mention the word, “Vichy,” once.

None of the representatives of the former Allies mentioned frantic Jewish pleas to have RAF and US bombers bomb Auschwitz or the railways leading to it, when they were flying missions nearby anyway. Before Hungarian Jewry was added to the list of the mass-murdered. When what Auschwitz meant was known, photos showing the gas chambers and crematoria and even prisoners being marched to them, having been produced by those same aircraft, flying overhead.

So many ways to lie, of which omission of the  USSR’s  collusion with Nazi Germany and their joint divvying up of Poland is just one.

The only exception to the sorry spectacle of leaders’ speeches was that of Frank Walter Steinmeier of Germany. Who omitted or minimized nothing, shifted no responsibility, and made no excuses.

All this is an excellent and compelling reason not to hold another such spectacle– in which there was insufficient room for– Shoah survivors– here again. Poland wants it, and can have it. Duda and Putin can duke it out there or where ever else they may stage their respective acts.

Nigh on the heels of this event was the unveiling of Trump’s deal, trumpeted in an extraordinary display at the White House and of course, also broadcast live here. Announcement of which just happened to coincide with Trump’s trial and possible removal from office and news that Netanyahu’s criminal cases had been referred to Court for trial.

But Netanyahu, apparently, just can’t get enough; after all, the news, however grand, is ephemeral so more “hits” need to keep coming. Today, he is off to Uganda (last week, after Washington, it was Moscow and the staged rescue of a wrongly imprisoned Israeli), hoping some new event will pre-empt the evening news and provide him yet another photo op for his campaign, with the next election, our third in under a year, less than a month away.

This country has not had a functioning government in a year, though MKs continue to receive full salaries and even voted themselves a raise. The country has a huge and growing budget deficit, increased by the billions that repeat elections cost, in desperate need of competent fiscal attention and difficult decisions. It has a woefully underfunded health care system with impossibly stressed hospital staffs, as we contemplate the possible addition of the corona virus to an already untenable situation. The country received disgraceful results on the recent OECD’s PISA educational tests, which showed Israeli students as a whole consistently underperforming in reading, math, and science, and a growing, scandalous gap between Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking students. This, in supposed, “start-up nation,” only 10% of whose population is in high tech (the dismal test results would have been even worse had students in haredi school systems that don’t offer secular studies been included).

We have not had a permanent appointment to head the police since Netanyahu refused to extend the term of his own appointee to the office after the man performed his duty and followed the evidence in the investigations into the Prime Minister’s behavior. We have a temporary Minister of Justice who is Netanyahu’s lackey, bent on using his office for crass political purposes, not least, in unceasing attacks on the justice system he heads and in which his boss is mired in trials. Five ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition, including him, are either under indictment or undergoing investigations for serious criminal offenses.

The army cannot implement strategic planning its head says is urgent. There is no permanent government to address Trump’s plan; to devise, much less implement, a strategy for the country’s most pressing foreign and domestic policy priority, the nature of our society and our relationship to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu makes much of his diplomatic successes in expanding Israel’s international presence, and these are real, if they also carry a price. But these are shows while the world outside the theater threatens to burn.

What this country needs is an end to spectacles; less international prominence and posturing, and serious attention to serious problems.

Distraction is not what we need. A real government and attention within are.





About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history and an award-winning author of books on Jewish modernity and on Jewish women's history.
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