Malvina Schwartz survived Auschwitz as a young girl. She managed to make her way to America and eventually came to Los Angeles where I published her oral history in 1977 in the Los Angeles Times. I am certain that Malvina is no longer alive. But if she had managed to survive to today, I’d like to think she would have something to say about George Bush’s misuse of the Holocaust for political gain in today’s speech to the Israeli Knesset.
Mark Klempner, in his book The Heart Has Reasons, profiles five Dutch Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews. Here is how one of them, Mieke Vermeer, speaks of historical analogies between the Holocaust and contemporary society and how the errors of one era can be repeated in another:
People say “Never Again,” but just because they say that doesn’t mean that they’re any more aware than the Germans were when Hitler was making his debut. How many people who read the newspaper can tell the difference between propaganda and fact? How many can see through bad politicians? There’s such a lot of dirty politics.
[Klempner] So you’re saying we mustn’t underestimate our capacity to be misled…
Yes, or to do the wrong thing when we think we’re doing the right thing…
Some Dutch…will call [blacks] racist names. They fall silent when I say, “I have a black son-in-law.” I tell them, “There’s no us and them–we’re all part of the same human family.
My husband suffered terribly at the hands of the Germans, but he didn’t hate all of them–he hated the people who had caused the suffering.
When we educate our children about the Holocaust, it’s not enough to tell them about the horrors–we have to tell them that it should not happen that way again. That hate doesn’t bring peace, and that you need to be strong in mind and think things over before you get a weapon to use against the one you call your enemy.
George Bush would surely benefit from reading this book. Well maybe not, but it couldn’t hurt.
I can’t pretend to know how my friend, Malvina, would react to Bush’s speech. But as a Jew who studied this era and did historical research, and prepared oral histories of survivors, I am offended that George Bush has likened the Arab states which have engaged with Israel in a territorial dispute since 1948 as Nazis. I am angry that Bush made a moral equivalence between Hitler Germany and the Palestinian national movement. On Malvina’s behalf, I am hurt that George Bush seems to believe that America and Israel are the two most righteous nations in the world while the Arab world represents little short of barbarism.
I am not arguing that it is impermissible to use the Holocaust as a historical analogy to discuss contemporary political and moral issues. I AM arguing that to do so one must be extremely careful and nuanced. It is a rhetorically easy and cheap shot to invoke the Holocaust to bolster a narrow political argument. Bibi Netanyahu and his fellow Likudniks do it regularly. In fact, Bush in his speech virtually channeled Netanyahu’s “it’s 1938 and Ahmedinejad is Hitler” rap.
The other day I wrote a tongue in cheek blog post declaring that Bush’s days as a president might not be numbered. If Bibi wins the next elections and becomes prime minister, Bush would be better than even money to win the next Israeli presidential race should he be interested. One thing’s for sure: Israelis, 66% of whom rate him favorably for his inability to find an Israeli policy he didn’t like, are a helluva lot happier with him than we are here in the U.S. (his current approval ratings are among the lowest of his presidency).
Bush’s speech lauded Israeli democracy and even went so far as to claim that our Puritan ancestors were incipient Zionists (Bush’s speechwriters lifted this from Netanyahu’s favorite pundit, Michael Oren, and his latest book about the roots of Zionism in American political thought).
Bush’s version of Israel in this speech was air-brushed to remove the moles, scars and other imperfections. Gone was the second-class Israeli Arab minority and gone too those Palestinians who seek to realize their own national vision in their own country. In their place Bush posited Israel as a model western democracy. What the president does not understand is that true democracies are states of ALL their citizens, not just a privileged majority as Israel is.
Sure, Bush acknowledged a Palestinian state as an afterthought in the speech. But clearly he saw such a state in an obedient, subservient, secondary regional role.
Of course, there is not the slightest reference to any blemish on Israel’s record. The nation is a pure miracle from its founding in 1948 till today. There is no Occupation (even Ariel Sharon could acknowledge the Occupation and call it by its proper name, kibush or “conquest”), there are no settlements, there is no expropriation of Palestinian land, and there certainly is no Nakba. I wouldn’t expect him to excoriate Israel in the well of its Knesset. But a deft politician could’ve easily included a reference to a job left undone. Anwar Sadat managed to do just that in his 1977 speech. Bush would have none of this.
One of the most offensive elements of the speech was its repeated invocation of God to justify Israel’s existence. Here Bush perfectly mirrored the settler movement, which conceived of Israel’s 1967 conquest of the Territories and subsequent return to the lands that Abraham trod, as confirmation of God’s will that Jews realize a Greater Israel.
Just as mixing religion and science in dealing with issues like abortion or stem cell research makes for bad science (cf. Terry Schiavo); so mixing religion and politics makes for bad politics. The Arab-Israeli conflict is fundamentally political in nature, not religious. It will be resolved by political compromises and not by resorting to God’s law. Those on both sides who invoke their own God to support them wreak havoc not only on their enemy but on themselves and those they hold dear.
American presidents, when they travel abroad, rarely take partisan political potshots at their domestic opponents. But this president, as in everything else to do with partisanship, breaks the mold. So he engaged in an unprecedented and distorted attack on Barack Obama’s attempt at renewing a U.S. foreign policy which adheres to a more traditional American sense of prudence and moderation:
Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.
For 200 years, the U.S. has talked to its enemies and attempted to negotiate resolution of the major conflicts facing us. In this, Obama is simply returning to a traditional, more pragmatic foreign policy. It is Bush who is the radical breaking from American diplomatic convention. He should be in the dock and called to account for wreaking havoc with our international relations. Instead, he attempts to tar his Democratic opponent with the brush of weakness and defeatism.
Bush proves in this speech that he understands nothing about the Middle East. He certainly doesn’t understand Islam. He sees it all through the narrow prism of terrorism. It is the struggle of good vs. evil; God and the devil. There is no subtlety, no nuance. His views are utterly hopeless.
It is outrageous for an American president to use the term “appeasement” in describing the policy of an opponent when speaking before the parliament of a foreign nation. Democrats have rightly reacted with deep anger to this affront. It seems that when it comes to American traditions, George Bush is content to play Samson and topple the pillars of the temple in order to smash precedents he dislikes. What he forgets is that Samson not only killed his enemy, the Philistines, but himself as well.
Bush’s interminable and self-destructive presidency will continue to be so till the bitter end. And if he can topple the campaign of his political enemy, he’s prepared to bring the walls down on himself as well. So ends one of the most shameful of American presidencies.