Holocaust-Related Demagoguery Didn't Start With Netanyahu

When Netanyahu invoked the Holocaust at the recent AIPAC summit in Washington, he wasn’t blazing a new trail, writes Nahum Barnea. Begin, among others was there before him.

al-monitor Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks in front of a poster of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin upon his arrival at the Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem May 17, 2010. Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.

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Mar 19, 2012

In 1976, the United States celebrated its 200th Independence Day. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was the first foreign head of state to join the festivities. His coast-to-coast tour took him from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. One of his two soirées in the City of Angels was held at the Beverley Hilton, the hotel where American singer Whitney Houston was recently found dead. The United Jewish Appeal (UJA) was playing host and Rabin was the chief speaker of the evening.

Rabin was waiting for his turn to deliver his speech at his hotel suite. In the hall downstairs, the fund-raising event was taking place. A speaker on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal, an ex-Israeli who had immigrated to the United States, was excitedly recounting the plights besetting the State of Israel, criticizing in the same breath the American Administration – in that case, the Nixon and Ford Administrations and Secretary of State Kissinger – for standing aloof, the way it had done during the Holocaust. He was interrupted now and again by members of the audience who announced how many dollars they were going to donate that year for the State of Israel. Each such announcement was met with a standing ovation – the larger the amounts pledged by the donors the longer the applause. As the evening drew on, the State of Israel was looking more miserable by the minute and the United Jewish Appeal was getting ever happier. Rabin was updated on the goings on. He was infuriated. In his address, later on in the evening, he tore to pieces, one by one, the arguments made by his predecessor on the podium. The State of Israel was not miserable and the American Administration was not depriving it of anything, Rabin contended passionately. It was one of the best speeches Rabin had ever made. He was speaking from the gut and his words entered hearts. The UJA audience was stunned. They had been used to another kind of Israel.

In 1977, Menachem Begin arrived for his first visit to the United States as Prime Minister. The United Jewish Appeal arranged an event in his honor in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The guests, who paid $500 each for an entry ticket, received full value for their money. Begin delivered a long speech, drenched in blood and tears, on the Holocaust of the past and on the one that was awaiting the Jewish People, on the innocent victims who had been led to the gas chambers in Auschwitz and on those who were destined to be led to the Auschwitz the enemies of Israel were preparing for them. Some of the guests were actually weeping, their tears dropping into the bowls of chicken soup, onto the half eaten kneidlach [small dumplings that are a tradition in Jewish cuisine]. Others kept munching on their quarter chickens, clicking their tongues in agreement. Begin was no doubt one of them.

In March 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was invited to address the AIPAC Policy Conference convened in Washington. He was interrupted no less than 49 times by ecstatic applause – a display of sympathy and support not even Obama or Peres managed to arouse. The leading motif was the Holocaust.

At the pinnacle of his speech, Netanyahu waved photocopies of two telegrams dating back to 1944 – one sent by the World Jewish Congress to then-President Franklin Roosevelt, imploring him to bomb Auschwitz and the other, the reply received from the US War Office, rejecting the request on far-fetched grounds. "2012 is not 1944!" Netanyahu went on to say. However, his meaning was well understood: The current situation was not really different. The Israeli Prime Minister would not have bothered to display documents written some 70 years before only to note that they were irrelevant. The message was driven home loud and clear: Iran is Nazi Germany, Bushehr is Auschwitz, Israel is facing another Holocaust, and the American administration is still keeping aloof.

Netanyahu concluded his address to a standing ovation. Every speech on the poor, lost, attacked Israel reminds his listeners how lucky they are: Their ancestors immigrated to the right place, far away from the terror-ridden, menacing Middle East, where Auschwitz was looming around the corner. Here, in America, they were sheltered, they could live in peace. They cheered Netanyahu once again. He certainly was one of them.

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