Things That Aren't Genocide: The Iran Deal and the Occupation

AP Photo/Dan Balilty, File

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman walks under a screen showing him and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the inauguration of their election campaign in Jerusalem in December 2012.  

What possible foreign policy purpose could that serve?” That, more or less, was the first tweeted response I saw to the statement issued by Israel's Defense Ministry, which means by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. It equated the year-old Iran nuclear deal to the 1938 Munich pact, which, it said, “did not prevent the Second World War and the Holocaust, precisely because [the] basic assumption, that Nazi Germany could be a partner to any kind of agreement, was wrong.”

Yes, folks, it's 1938 again.

The statement was a response to a comment by President Barack Obama. It served no foreign policy purpose whatsoever. But it does serve another, unintended purpose: It spotlights an irrational, maddening, misleading motif in how people—from government leaders to radical critics—talk about Israel: very quickly, the conversation is about genocide. In this respect, Lieberman is on the same page as the authors of the foreign policy chapter of the new Movement for Black Lives platform. The wrong page.

The blast from Israel's Defense Ministry came after Obama said at a press conference late last week that the “Israeli military and security community” now recognizes that the Iran agreement “has been a game changer.” It seems that Obama committed truth. In January, for instance, the Israeli military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, gave a survey of threats to Israel in which he said that accord was “a strategic turning point" that presents risks, “but also … many opportunities.”

But that's not Lieberman's view, and he wanted to make sure the world knew. As a move in foreign relations, the timing was impeccably bad: Israel is trying to tie up a 10-year military aid deal with Washington. If there was a rationale for publicly sparring with Obama, it had to be domestic—as a warning to the generals to keep their mouths shut, or as part of the competition for votes between Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leaders of rival right-wing parties.

The reference to Munich and the Holocaust sounded like classic Netanyahu, but it fit Lieberman just as well. Like the prime minister, the Moldovan-born defense minister sees himself as the new Winston Churchill, mocked for warning of a Nazi threat that no one else acknowledges. Lieberman once told me that his second-favorite book was Churchill's World War II memoirs. (The first was a Stalin-era Russian novel, Peter the First, which lionizes the cruel, autocratic czar.)

The megalomania is a thin facade. Behind it lies post-traumatic stress that is the tribal inheritance of Jews today. I say this from the inside, from the guts. I, too, grew up with the photos of murdered relatives, and the inexpressible childhood horror of learning what the world could do to us for no imaginable reason.  

But PTSD is a bad guide to the present. In 1938, Germany had the most war-ready military in the world. Jews were stateless and powerless. In 2016, Iran is a regional player that was pushed to negotiate by world sanctions. Israel, by all foreign reports, is a nuclear power, with a submarine-based second-strike capability. Iran does, in fact, pose all sorts of dangers to Israel—but danger isn't the same as an impending Holocaust.

The memory of genocide overwhelms and warps internal Israeli debate as well. This summer provided a case study. In June, the Education Ministry published the Biton Report, named for the head of the committee that produced it, prominent Algerian-born poet Erez Biton. It's a set of recommendations for reforming the country's Ashkenazi-centered schooling. Ashkenazi Jews have their roots in Germany and Eastern Europe. The report aims at including the history and culture of Mizrahi Jews—those from Muslim countries—and of Sephardim, whose ancestors were expelled from Spain.

Reform is long overdue. It's a failure of the Israeli left that the issue was left for a right-wing government to champion. The report produced furious opposition from portions of the Ashkenazi-dominated cultural elite and commentariat. Absolutely the strangest part of the reaction was a chorus of accusations that Biton was trying to create a story of an “alternative Mizrahi Holocaust,” as poetess Agi Mishol put it, or was claiming that Mizrahi Jews were just as much the Nazis' victims as Ashkenazim were.

I'd like to think that the fuss was mainly a result of people reading badly reported news items rather than checking the 360-page report itself, where the Holocaust is a minor element. The key paragraph devoted to the topic states clearly that “in studying the Shoa, the description ... must focus on Ashkenazi Jewry.” But, it says, students should also learn about what happened in North Africa and Greece. This makes sense. Over 80 percent of Greece's Jews, mostly Sephardim, were murdered by the Nazis. Jews in Axis-ruled North Africa were subjected to deportations, imprisonment in labor camps, and executions. A small number of Libyan Jews were sent to Bergen-Belsen. The rest were saved by Allied victories.

The first thing that the controversy over this says is that the Nazi genocide has become too large in what young Israelis learn. Yes, it's really, really important. But it's not all or even most of Jewish history. The second thing the overreaction says is that for a piece of Israel's Ashkenazi culture-makers, Holocaust victimhood is essential to the claim to be the real Israel. Or, to restate this: The people who regularly claim to represent Western enlightenment in Israel's culture wars don't want to share being victims of the West's cruelest ideology. This is illogical. But in arguments over identity and history, the logic is usually that of dreams, the kind of dreams that wake you up shaking in the middle of the night.

Stranger yet, though, is a reflex among critics of Israel to accuse it of genocide. Such talk played a major role in the British Labour Party's anti-Semitism crisis last spring. It shows up again in the Movement for Black Lives platform, which states that America's alliance with Israel makes it “complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”

In case it's necessary to state the obvious, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its siege of Gaza oppress Palestinians. Israel should be devoting every effort to reaching a two-state agreement. The current government is doing the opposite.

But the occupation is not genocide. Nor was the Nakba, the flight and expulsion of Palestinian Arabs in 1948. Genocide is not any oppressive policy, or any crime committed by a state. It is the deliberate murder of a whole ethnic or religious population.

You could claim that the accusation is the fault of those of Israel's leaders and defenders who constantly refer to the Holocaust. They've created an immediate association between Israel and genocide, which critics inadvertently latch on to.

That's too facile an explanation. The deeper problem, as I've written before, is some rigid categories of political thinking: assuming that the victims of oppression are necessarily righteous, or that racism is necessarily aimed at people of color. The recent history of the Jews scrambles all that. The greatest racist crime of the 20th century was committed by white Europeans against Jews, nearly all of them white Europeans. That crime was one factor in the creation of a Jewish state. Israel, like other states born of oppression, sometimes oppresses other people. So does it belong to the (oppressed) children of light or the (oppressive) children of darkness? Rather than revise their categories, some critics place it in the latter category by accusing it of a crime equal to the one committed against the Jews.

If the point of politics is to get things done, that line in the Movement for Black Lives platform is a serious error because it alienates people who should be partners in fighting racism in America. As political analysis, it's simply false.

It's possible, and necessary, to talk about things done to Jews, or by Jews, without talking about genocide. I regret that in the process of making that argument, I've violated it myself.

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