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Israeli general causes controversy with comments

Dana RegevMay 9, 2016

In an unusual speech during a ceremony commemorating the Holocaust, Israel's deputy army chief compared processes happening today in Israeli society to events that unfolded in Europe prior to World War II.

Israel Gedenken an den Holocaust Schweigeminute
Image: Reuters/A. Cohen

The 54-year-old General Yair Golan said that "If there is something that frightens me about the remembrance of the Holocaust it's the recognition of processes that occurred in Europe in general, and in Germany in particular, back then - 70, 80 and 90 years ago - and finding signs of them here among us, today, in 2016."

Golan - himself a descendant of Holocaust survivors from Germany - was harshly criticized for his statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as other politicians, mainly from the right side of the political spectrum.

"The deputy chief was wrong, and he should immediately repair [his statements] before Holocaust deniers turn these words into their flag; before our soldiers are compared to Nazis with validation from above," Naftali Bennett, head of the right wing religious Jewish Home party, tweeted.

"How was he wrong?" One user was quick to respond to the MK's tweet, adding that "he [Golan] has said that Israeli society should learn not to degenerate into a slippery slope. Are we immune to racism and beastliness?" Another user further criticized Bennett, tweeting that "in the meantime Golan is risking his life for the country, while you are gibbering on Twitter."

This is not the first time prominent figures in Israel have compared the country's current government and society to Nazi Germany; however, the criticism usually comes from columnists, artists and activists.

Golan's words have created such a stir because he is the second-highest ranked officer in the Israeli military, a position which usually prohibits one from expressing such sharp and direct criticism, especially towards the IDF itself.

"The Holocaust, in my opinion, must lead us to deeper reflections on the nature of man, even when this man is ourselves," Golan said, opening his speech on the eve of Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"It must lead us to deeper reflections on the responsibilities of a leadership and on the quality of society, and it must lead us to think thoroughly about how we - here and now - treat the gentiles, the widows, the orphans and their ilk," he continued, relying on the biblical concept of treating foreigners equally and respectfully.

"The Holocaust must also lead us to think about our public life, and even more so, it must lead all those who can - not just those who want - to bear public responsibility."

Israel Gedenken an den Holocaust Schweigeminute
People stand still as a two-minute siren marking Holocaust Remembrance Day is sounded in JerusalemImage: Reuters/A. Awad

'Ourageous comparison'

At the beginning of Sunday's cabinet meeting, Netanyahu stated that Golan's remarks were "infuriating and unacceptable" and "belittled the Holocaust." The Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, even called for his resignation.

"The implicit comparison to Nazi Germany is outrageous," Netanyahu said. "These were groundless statements that shouldn't have been said at any time, let alone at that specific time. They do injustice to Israeli society as a whole and are degrading to the memory of the Holocaust."

However, many users found Netanyahu's comment ironic, as only a couple of months ago he claimed that the Mufti of Jerusalem, Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, was indirectly responsible for Hitler's decision to carry out the genocide, rather than the Nazi regime itself.

In a speech before the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in October 2015, Netanyahu described the meeting between the two leaders, arguing that "Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews at the time - he wanted to expel them," adding that "Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said: 'If you expel them, they'll all come here.'"

"'So what should I do with them?'" Netanyahu described Hitler as asking, claiming that Husseini said in response 'burn them,' and that's what planted the idea in Hitler's mind.

The Israeli PM was quickly ridiculed for this scenario, with Chancellor Angela Merkel responding to the claims, saying that Germans are pretty "clear in their minds" that no one else but the Nazis was responsible for the Holocaust.

"Who is degrading the memory of the Holocaust if not Netanyahu himself?" users commented on Twitter, many of them also claimed Golan had never made a comparison, but just pointed out to worrying processes Israeli society is undergoing. "He is a soldier himself," one user tweeted in response to Bennett's tweet, "and he was referring to you and other despicable politicians."

Praised by survivors

Even Holocaust survivors now living in Israel have backed Golan, sending their letters of support to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

One reader wrote that she "salutes Golan for his brave words" and that she is "happy that he shares the same worries." Another survivor mentioned that "xenophobia, occupation and the non-acceptance of different views are the foundations of fascism," adding that Golan was obliged to say these things as "the one who's responsible for the future of all of our children."

Despite the many supportive comments, Golan later claimed that he did not mean to compare the two societies.

Israelis observe two minutes of silence

A statement issued by the IDF spokesperson following Golan's speech noted that he "had no intention whatsoever to compare the IDF and the state of Israel to the horrors that occurred in Germany 70 years ago."

"The comparison is absurd and baseless. The IDF is a moral army guarding human dignity and there was no intention to create such parallels or to criticize the political leadership."

Yet Golan's message was heard loud and clear, and is still the topic of many articles and comments on Israeli social media. "After all, there is nothing easier than hating the stranger," he concluded in his speech, "nothing easier and simpler than arousing fears and intimidating, nothing easier than brutalization, gregariousness and self-righteousness."