A sign found outside a University of Virgina dorm after protests in Charlottesville.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The self-identified “Grumpy Old Man,” in this case Lawrence Rifkin, apparently loves to vent and take out his frustrations on unsuspecting victims.
As the target of one of his most recent articles (“What’s that, Dr. Zuroff?” August 25), I found myself harshly criticized for suggesting that our prime minister did not have to join the chorus of denunciations of US President Donald Trump’s deeply flawed reaction to the events in Charlottesville.
While I understand why Rifkin was justifiably infuriated, as I was, by the false moral equivalence of Trump’s reaction, the issue that I was trying to address was the nature of Israel’s relations with the Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
In that respect, our political leaders and government walk a thin line between serious responsibility and hollow empathy. On the one hand, there are the pompous declarations about our commitment to Diaspora Jewry. On the other hand, we often abandon ship when opportunities present themselves to fulfill our ostensible obligations.
Israel’s attitude toward various Holocaust- related issues can provide several important examples. Take the very current issue of Holocaust distortion in post-Communist Eastern Europe.
Despite the most lofty pronouncements regarding our determination to preserve the memory of the Shoah and its victims, Israel has studiously refrained from criticizing the ongoing systematic efforts by Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Croatia and Romania to hide, or at least minimize, the role of local Nazi collaborators in the murder of Jews. Nor has Israel ever objected when these countries promote the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes, measures which both seriously threaten the accuracy of the historical narrative and harm Holocaust education and commemoration.
The prosecution of Nazi war criminals is another example. On the one hand, Israel has a law which enables the prosecution here of Holocaust perpetrators.
What most people don’t know, however, is that it was initiated in 1950 – not in the hopes of convicting the likes of Adolf Eichmann, but rather to deal with the cases of Jewish kapos who emigrated to Israel.
Indeed, far more kapos were tried here than the two Nazi war criminals brought to justice in Israel. In more recent years, and especially following the Demjanjuk case, Israel has refrained from playing any role in this issue, even though its political support for continued prosecution could have been helpful. The issue of restitution in Eastern Europe is also a subject which is very low on Israel’s priority list.
Then there is the issue of contemporary antisemitism, which poses difficult dilemmas for Israeli leaders and government officials. On the one hand, the Law of Return offers automatic Israeli citizenship and a physical haven to all Jews, and even many people of partial Jewish origin, who face persecution; but Israel has responded very selectively and the reasons why are very rarely explained.
It’s obvious that, as far as Israel is concerned, regardless of which party is in power, that security, diplomatic, and economic interests trump (no pun intended) those ostensibly dictated by Jewish history.
Thus the bottom line is that a country like Israel, which has faced existential external threats since its establishment, must proceed with caution when criticizing foreign governments and keep in mind that the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the Jews in the Diaspora remains in the hands of the host governments, until such time as those Jews opt for Israel.
SO WHEN should Israel actively seek to get involved on behalf of a Diaspora community? In my opinion, it should be done in three cases: when the antisemitism is government-sponsored or supported, when the threat posed to the local community is dangerous, and when the community is incapable of responding effectively by itself.
None of those three conditions was the case in Charlottesville, which explains why I believe that our prime minister was not at fault when he didn’t rush to condemn the events in Virginia. Obviously, the sight of armed neo-Nazis marching through any American city is disgusting and shocking, but the United States government is fully willing and capable of dealing with the threat that they might pose.
In the final analysis, Israel must pick and choose its battles when it comes to antisemitism and concentrate on those places and situations where our involvement will prove most beneficial and successful. Charlottesville was not one of those places, but there are plenty of others around the globe that fit that description, and I can promise Lawrence Rifkin that I will do my best to encourage our government to do so, and utilize the “moral weight” he attributed to me in the service of the Jewish people.
The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the center’s Israel office and Eastern European affairs.