Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at Holocaust memorial ceremony.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
In his Holocaust Remembrance Day speech at Yad Vashem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted the radical transformation the Jewish people has undergone since the dark days of World War II.
“Even if we are forced to stand along against Iran, we will not fear,” he declared. “In every circumstance we will preserve our right and our ability to defend ourselves.”
Recalling a meeting he held earlier in the day in his office with a Holocaust survivor, Netanyahu said he was told that it was his job to “prevent another Holocaust.”
But then the prime minister went on to commit an error common among Jews. He made the mistake of conflating present-day anti-Semites with those of the past. The Iranians, said Netanyahu, were no different from the Nazis.
“The Nazis sought to crush civilization and have a master race rule the Earth while destroying the Jewish people. In that same way, Iran seeks to dominate the region and to spread outward from there, with the declared intention of destroying the Jewish state,” he said.
We Jews have a tendency to see in present-day expressions of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews a reflection of a recurring, immutable theme. In this formulation, Hamas is compared to the biblical Amalek; the Iranian mullahs are compared to Haman; 2015 is compared to 1938; US President Barack Obama is compared to Neville Chamberlain, or, according to one prominent rabbi, to Haman. The Nazis are Amalek. The terrorist massacre on Passover Eve 2002 at the Park Hotel in Netanya is compared to Kristallnacht.
Comparing the present Iranian regime to the Nazis by politicians and preachers is clearly an effective rhetorical device for arousing crowds from complacency. Oversimplifications are highly effective in emotional appeals.
And some historians have made similar comparisons. In his book A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, Robert Wistrich notes that “Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, as in contemporary Iran, was powerfully influenced by conspiracy theories conceived in the spirit of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which project onto the Jews and/or Israel the Nazi and Islamist drive for world domination.”
Wistrich compares the Nazi push to make Europe judenrein with Islamist Iran’s wishes to cleanse the Middle East of the Jewish state and how ethnic cleansing is linked to a mystical sense of national destiny and bloody visions of the apocalypse that are shared by Nazism and Iran’s mullahs.
But use of these comparisons is problematic.
Part of the problem with conflating Nazism with the Islamic Republic’s fundamentalist version of Shi’ism is that doing so obscures and even obliterates distinctions that are important to make if we are to understand our world and react to it in a way that maximizes our ability to influence it.
Iran is hardly the economic and military powerhouse that Germany had become by the late 1930s. Iran is more isolated than Germany was in the 1930s. Besides being outnumbered by a Sunni majority in the region, the Iranians, unlike the Nazis in their day, lack any significant military allies. In contrast, the entire Western world is aligned against Iran.
Also, comparing present-day Iran to Nazi Germany does an injustice to the memory of the Holocaust by denying its uniqueness. Nothing we have known since the rise of Nazism quite compares in terms of sheer evilness.
Germany’s decent into Nazism was nothing less than the moral failure of one of the pillars of European culture.
The Holocaust was so horrible in part because it was perpetrated by a people considered to be the epitome of enlightened Western civilization. The Nazi regime’s Final Solution involved one-on-one contact with the victims and a complicated and drawn-out industrialization of mass murder.
In contrast, Iran’s leadership is composed of religious fundamentalists. The dangers of Islamist extremism are well known. Expectations for moral excellence are nonexistent.
And while Iran is a more advanced country than many of the surrounding Arab states, its cultural and scientific achievements are those of a developing country. And the sort of “Holocaust” with which Iran threatens Israel would be impersonal. Iranian Shihab missiles armed with nuclear warheads would target major Israelis cities.
Comparing Iran’s regime to World War II Germany might be an effective rhetorical device. But conflating the two obscures important differences and, ultimately, makes Nazism appear to be less evil than it really was. And this does an injustice to the memory of the Holocaust.