Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has ignited a controversy with his statement
comparing European attitudes toward Israel to most Europeans’ abandonment of
their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust.
One of his strongest critics
is Labor Knesset member Isaac Herzog, who charged that the foreign minister is
spreading “fear and anguish among Israelis by establishing a link between the
current situation and the Holocaust.”
MK Herzog’s criticism deserves
serious consideration, not least because his own family was so intimately
connected to the events of the Nazi era.
His grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak
Halevi Herzog (1888- 1959), the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Mandatory Palestine,
labored valiantly for the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust. He led rallies in
Jerusalem to call attention to the Jews’ plight.
He tried to persuade the
Vatican to excommunicate all Catholics who collaborated with the Nazis. He
traveled to Washington in 1941 to personally ask president Franklin Roosevelt to
help the Jews. He publicly endorsed a controversial congressional resolution
(initiated by the Bergson Group activists) pressing FDR to create a refugee
rescue agency. He and his son Ya’akov (MK Herzog’s uncle) traveled to England
and Turkey to assist in rescue efforts.
Would Rabbi Herzog have agreed
with his grandson, that it is wrong to establish a link between the Holocaust
and contemporary threats to Israel? There’s no way to know. But we do know what
MK Herzog’s father thought about the issue.
Chaim Herzog (1918-1997), was
one of the British soldiers who took part in the liberation of Nazi
concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen. He later described how he was
“shattered by the horrifying evidence of starvation, torture, and disease.... To
one who has seen anything of the Holocaust even marginally, it ceases to be an
abstract concept and becomes a searing actuality never to be
Not only did Herzog not forget what he saw, but, again and
again, he compared it to the threats and issues of our own times.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1975, it fell to Herzog to deliver
Israel’s response to the Zionism-isracism resolution. He began his address by
reminding the UN delegates that the date – November 10 – was the anniversary of
the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom. Herzog said it was “befitting” that the debate
over the resolution, “born of a deep pervading feeling of anti-Semitism, should
take place on the anniversary of this day.”
The UN, he said, was “on its
way to becoming the world center of anti-Semitism. Hitler would have felt at
home on a number of occasions during the past year, listening to the proceedings
in this forum, and above all to the proceedings during the debate on
Sounding perhaps a bit like Foreign Minister Liberman,
ambassador Herzog specifically cited “the fact that no Western European state
[was] able to ensure the defense of the elementary rights of the Jewish people
and to safeguard it against the violence of the fascist executioners” as proof
that a strong Jewish state is necessary.
It was not just the emotion of
the Zionism-is-racism uproar that moved Herzog to compare the Holocaust and
modern Israel’s situation. By 1983, Herzog was the president of Israel. That
November, speaking to an assembly of Jewish leaders in Atlanta, Herzog said the
purpose of Soviet missiles on the Golan is “to kill Jews and to create the
conditions for a new Holocaust. I would ask my fellow Jews to...apply
the lesson that we have learned from bitter experience, namely that there can be
no truck or compromise with these forces of evil.”
1984 Rosh Hashana message to world Jewry likewise linked the Holocaust with
“Forty years after the defeat of the Nazis, we are
witness to rising anti-Semitism,” he asserted.
“We are called upon to
combat it... [and to] examine with absolute honesty whether we have fully learnt
the lessons” of the most “savage episode in history.”
was one of the featured speakers at the opening of the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993.
Speaking two years after US forces
fought Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, he saw a parallel to the Holocaust: “The United
States of America...led the free world in demolishing and eradicating the
wicked Nazi and Fascist regimes. It has always been in the forefront of the
struggle against wickedness and tyranny as it was, indeed, but two years ago in
Operation Desert Storm.”
Most of all, Herzog emphasized, it was the
abandonment of the Jews during the Holocaust that necessitated maintaining a
strong Israel: “Sadly recalling that there were those who knew and didn’t act,
we are determined to maintain a strong, viable and independent country based on
the memories of the past, the hopes for the future, the dignity of man and the
equality of all before God, a tower of strength, a haven when needed.... [O]ne
of the major lessons [of the Holocaust] has been that it is not sufficient to
have justice on your side, it is essential to be strong enough to defend it. We
learnt that there is only one answer to dictatorship and tyranny and that is to
stand up and fight and meet challenges head on.”
Of course, not every
threat to Israel is comparable to the Holocaust, and not every enemy of the Jews
is a Hitler.
But to suggest that there is no link between the Jewish past
and the Israeli present is to ignore the powerful lessons to which president
Herzog alluded.The writer is founding director of The David S. Wyman
Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org.