WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the Holocaust in his March 5 speech at AIPAC for the same reason that President Shimon Peres referred to it in his speech the day before and President Obama alluded to it in his news conference the day after: Because in the debate over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Auschwitz is relevant.
Peres, in his remarks about the Iran problem, described how the Nazis "forced my grandfather, together with the remaining Jews [in his village], into the wooden synagoguge and set it on fire. No one survived. Not one."
The next day, Netanyahu in his AIPAC speech said that some opponents of Israeli action against Tehran’s nuclear sites claim "that it would provoke an even more vindictive response by Iran." He recalled that similar claims were advanced by Roosevelt administration officials in 1944, when they rejected requests to bomb Auschwitz.
Netanyahu read from a letter by Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, who claimed it was impossible for U.S. planes to reach Auschwitz and that attacking the mass-murder camp "might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans."
What, the prime minister asked, could possibly have been more "vindictive" than Auschwitz?
Obama evidently had those comments in mind at his news conference when he said, "I am deeply mindful of the historical precedents that weigh on any prime minister of Israel when they think about the potential threats to Israel and the Jewish homeland."
Some of Netanyahu’s political rivals in Israel challenged his reference to the Holocaust.
"Not every enemy is Hitler, and not every problem is Auschwitz," one asserted.
That’s true. But even if two people or situations are not absolutely identical, there may still be some points of comparison. That is why many previous Israeli leaders cited lessons from the Holocaust era in their remarks on policy matters.
Golda Meir when she was foreign minister, explaining to the United Nations in 1956 why Israel felt compelled to strike at Egypt, called Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser a "disciple" of Adolf Hitler. She said the fact that the international community ignored Nasser’s military buildup was comparable to the world’s meek response when Hitler "informed the world in advance of his bloodthirsty plans."
Meir’s successor, Abba Eban, told the 1972 World Zionist Congress that Arab propaganda against Israel "would have done justice to the loathesome Goebbels and Streicher." According to Eban, the Arab media’s depictions of the Jewish state "as a caricature, hook-nosed with tails, horns and monstrous attributes" demonstrated that "Nazism is deeply embedded in the style and content of the Arab war against Israel."
When Knesset member Shevah Weiss of the Labor Party used the term "Gestapo 1985" to characterize the killers of Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly American tourist in a wheelchair, or when many Israelis made similar comparisons concerning the Arab terrorist who murdered 4-year-old Einat Harav on the Nahariya beach in 1979 by smashing her head against the rocks, they were not saying the terrorists were identical to the Nazis in every respect. They were pointing out, legitimately, that Nazis sometimes used similar methods against Jews.
For Netanyahu and many Israelis, the failure to bomb Auschwitz is particularly relevant because they fear that if they depended on the international community to aid Israel against Iran, they might find themselves abandoned as the Jews were in 1944.
Recall Eban’s description of the tense days preceding the 1967 war: "As we looked around us, we saw the world divided between those who were seeking our destruction and those who would do nothing to prevent it." Those words bring to mind Chaim Weizmann’s statement in 1937: "There are in [Europe) 6 million people for whom the world is divided into places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter."
Netanyahu, the son of a renowned Jewish historian, has a keen sense of history. So does Barack Obama. He invited 43 members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black units of World War II pilots, to attend his presidential inauguration. The juxtaposition of 1940s segregation and the election of an African-American president in 2008 was striking.
Perhaps Netanyahu should have invited those pilots to his AIPAC speech because on Aug. 20, 1944, just days after that War Department letter claiming U.S. planes could not reach Auschwitz, a group of 127 U.S. bombers approached Auschwitz escorted by 100 Mustang fighter planes piloted by — Tuskegee Airmen. They dropped more than 1,000 bombs on German oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers. Those targets were regarded by the Roosevelt administration as worth hitting. The mass-murder machinery was not.
To what extent Israel should risk seeing history repeated is for Israelis to decide. But surely the historical record should be part of that conversation.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and co-author, with Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the forthcoming book ‘Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.")