What on earth could have possessed the second-in-command of Israel’s armed forces to kick off Yom Hashoah, the national Holocaust remembrance day, with a May 4 speech likening Israel today to Germany on the eve of World War II?
There are two possible answers. As it happens, one is correct and the other isn’t.
On one hand, we could say that the general, deputy chief of staff Yair Golan, didn’t actually say that, or that he expressed himself poorly or wasn’t thinking clearly or was taken out of context, or that his timing was wrong.
That’s the tone taken by the army’s General Staff in a statement put out the next morning, after cabinet ministers, politicians and others accused Golan of aiding Israel’s enemies by labeling Israeli soldiers as Nazis: The general “had no intention to compare IDF and the State of Israel to processes that took place in Germany 70 years ago. The comparison is absurd and has no basis, and I had no intention to create such parallels or criticize the political leadership. The IDF is a moral army that protects the purity of arms and human dignity.”
That seems clear enough. But it doesn’t quite square with the general’s actual words. Take this one example from his speech: “The Holocaust in my eyes must bring us to deep contemplation of the nature of man, even when that man is myself. The Holocaust must bring us to deep contemplation on the matter of the responsibility of leadership, on the matter of the quality of a society.” No intention to criticize the political leadership? Really?
And this: “If there’s anything that frightens me in the remembrance of the Holocaust, it is identifying some horrifying processes that took place in Europe in general and in particularly Germany up to 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and finding evidence of their repetition here in our society today in 2016. It is easier and simpler to hate a person. It is easy and simple to arouse fear, to scare-monger. It is easy to become dehumanized, callous, sanctimonious.” (My translation.)
Boiled down to its essence, the army’s “clarification” is essentially an extended version of one of Yogi Berra’s most trenchant epigrams: “I really didn’t say all the things I said.”
On the other hand, you could say that Major General Golan knew exactly what he was saying and when and where he was saying it. You’d go on to say that this was the latest and most eye-popping in a string of critiques voiced by the heads of Israel’s security forces against the country’s current political leadership and the direction in which it’s leading Israel. You’d note that the deputy chief of staff was not winging it but reading from a prepared text (watch the video here), and that it’s inconceivable that he’d give a major speech without running it past his boss. There was no gaffe.
If our second explanation is correct, then his timing was correct and even necessary. Taken as a whole, we’d say, his speech was a public call for a fundamental change in the way Israel relates to the Holocaust, and to itself.
In this view, the Holocaust was not only the mass murder that snuffed out the lives of 6 million Jews. It was that, and that must never be forgotten. But it was also the process by which a great nation lost its moral bearings and slid into collective madness.
Looked at that way, Golan’s reference to “70, 80 and 90 years” makes sense. Ninety years ago, 1926, was the beginning of Germany’s descent, with mobs of fascist bullies roaming the streets, attacking socialists, liberals, journalists and Jews while the nation looked on, defeated, frustrated, angry and yearning to become great again. Eighty years ago, in 1936, Germans watched and cheered as their tough new government enforced the just-enacted Nuremberg race laws and marched troops into the demilitarized Rhineland. Seventy years ago, in 1946, Germans were again defeated and again denying responsibility.
With his “70, 80 and 90 years” Golan isn’t groping for the right number. He’s presenting a cautionary timeline.
No, Israel is not Nazi Germany and its soldiers are not Nazis. They’re not rounding up every Palestinian they can find and stuffing them into ovens. That notion is indeed absurd. On the contrary, Israelis are under attack and doing their best to defend themselves and their nation. But in the background, Golan detects what he called “early signs” — nitzanim in Hebrew — and they worry him.
As he made clear, he wants Israel and Israelis to recognize how their place as Jews in the world has changed. They are still beset by enemies. But they are also a powerful nation that can affect its own circumstances and those of others around them by the decisions they make. They must stop thinking of themselves only as victims and begin to understand themselves also as actors. If they don’t, they’re in danger of sliding down that same slippery slope and becoming perpetrators.
In his most radical assertion, Golan called for a dramatic transformation in the nature of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. At present it is a day to contemplate what Nazi Germany did to Jews. Analogies may be drawn, but only when they extend to the evils others have done to Jews, other ways in which Jews have been victimized. Now, three generations after the Holocaust, when Jews have achieved their own power in their own nation-state, Golan wants the day to become an opportunity for Israelis to think further, to consider what they themselves might do to others. He called for Yom Hashoah to become a national day of “soul-searching.”
“On Yom Hashoah,” Golan said, “we will talk about our ability to uproot from our midst the early signs of intolerance, of self-destruction on the path toward moral deterioration. In effect, Yom Hashoah is an opportunity for soul-searching. Yom Kippur is a day of individual soul-searching. It is fitting and even essential that Yom Hashoah be, in addition, a day of national soul-searching.”
Major General Yair Golan was born in 1962 in Rishon Letzion, son of a career soldier. Drafted in 1980, he volunteered for the paratroops and was rapidly promoted and tagged as a future leader. The outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 found him commanding the Nachal infantry brigade, deployed in the West Bank. He was one of a group of young colonels pushing for the general command to adopt a strategy of urban warfare, going after terrorists in their nests rather than waiting for them to strike.
In 2006, now a brigadier general commanding the Judea-Samaria Division, he was assigned the job of evacuated the illegal Amona settlement, and began by opening unauthorized negotiations with the settlers rather than simply moving in. That won him a reprimand from then-chief of staff Dan Halutz. Later that year he was reprimanded again by chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi for initiating the “neighbor procedure,” a euphemism for using Palestinians as human shields during a showdown. He had already been tagged as a promising leader, but an expected promotion was delayed as punishment.
In 2008 he was promoted to major general but put in charge of the Home Front Command, up to then a dead-end job. He turned it into an acclaimed unit, and in 2011 he was made chief of the crucial Northern Command, succeeding Gadi Eisenkot, the current chief of staff.
Among his acts as chief of the Northern Command, Golan instituted the practice of treating Syrians wounded in the civil war there in Israeli hospitals. He also gave an interview to Maariv military correspondent (and now Yesh Atid Knesset member) Ofer Shelah. Notable for his insistence that the massive missile stockpile Hezbollah had accumulated along Israel’s northern border was a “serious threat,” but “not an existential threat.” London, he recalled, survived bombardment during World War II that was far more severe than anything Israel had experienced or might expect.
Thus his latest warning against “scare-mongering” is nothing new. It’s a theme that’s been sounded repeatedly by Israel’s top commanders. It goes back to December 2010, when then-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo told a gathering of Israeli diplomats that Iran did not constitute an existential threat. It continued the next May, when his predecessor Meir Dagan derided the Netanyahu government’s saber-rattling against Iran.
It continued this past January, when chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot told a think tank that President Obama’s Iran deal presented “opportunities” as well as threats, and again a month later when he told a group of high school students that he didn’t want Israeli soldiers “emptying their ammunition clips into a 13-year-old girl armed with scissors.”
Why are Israel’s generals being so noisy? Quite simple. In their near-unanimous professional estimation, stretching from a proven hawk like Yair Golan across the spectrum to the 200 ex-generals of Commanders for Israel’s Security, they see Israel facing an opportunity now, given the current Palestinian leadership, the weakness of the neighboring Arab states and the openness of the Saudi-led Arab League, to make deals that can secure Israel’s future. Instead they see a political leadership that’s letting the opportunities slip by for ideological reasons.
For several years now they’ve tried explaining why from a security viewpoint the possible deals could be advantageous to Israel. But’s it’s been falling on deaf ears. Now they’re going after the false ideology.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).