The Holocaust Remembrance Day Speech of Major General Yair Golan
There are many reasons to lose sleep over the kind of leadership that has risen to the surface in almost every important sovereign state, and this dark generalization pertains as much to democracies as to authoritarian polities. As an American confronting the almost certain presidential choice in November between Clinton and Trump, the issue has assumed an immediacy that is not limited to what happens to the country after Americans voters choose between evils. This election affects the entire world. It should not be overlooked that the United States is the first global state in history. As such, it projects military, diplomatic, cultural, and political power globally, and yet the people impacted, sometimes protected but often victimized, have no vote. Those several billion foreign residents are disenfranchised from an election that may be as important as votes cast within their homeland, and thus if America goes badly wrong in coming years the price will be paid globally.
The problem posed extends beyond the morbidity of declining empire, and beyond the alarming prospects of further global warming and even the nuclear catastrophe that has waited decades to happen. This global embrace of disastrous governmental leadership exhibits the unleashing of self-destructive passions of peoples throughout the world in the form of wild-eyed support for demagogues and aspiring autocrats. We seem to be experiencing a global nihilistic mood that is engulfing politics in our time, causing widespread despair and alarm. This political trend is abetted by massive displacements brought about by masses of people fleeing from war torn and drought-stricken countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa. For this reason alone when voices shout bravely into the winds of disorder and depravity, we should listen intently, and respond with expressions of solidarity and gratitude.
The anti-democratic trends and leadership failures cannot be associated with the United States alone. Similar negative tendencies toward the militarism, corruption, and the autocratic consolidation of power are evident in Russia, China, Brazil, India, Japan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and elsewhere. In effect, there is a looming crisis of legitimacy pertaining to governance throughout the entire world, as particularized by crises of legitimate political leadership and of democratic governance.
I write these words as background for an expression of appreciation for the Holocaust Remembrance Day Speech earlier this month of Major General Yair Golan, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Speaking at Tel Yitzak Kibbutz, where the Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies is located, General Golan urged that this very special day of observance in Israel be treated as an occasion for soul-searching. He placed this call in an extraordinary context by suggesting that conditions in Israel were disturbing in ways relevant to the Holocaust, horror of horrors. In Golan’s words, “[i]t is scary to see horrifying developments that took place in Europe as a whole, and in Germany in particular, some 70, 80 and 90 years ago and finding evidence of those trends here among us, in 2016.” With obvious reference to the abuse of Palestinians the general observed: “It must bring us to some soul-searching as to responsibility of leadership and the quality of our society. It must lead us to fundamentally rethink how we, here and now, behave toward the other.” This barbed thought is reinforced with the observation, “[t]here is nothing easier than hating the stranger, nothing easier than to stir fears and intimidate.”
Golan concretized these abstractions calling for self-scrutiny through a reference to the recent incident in Hebron involving an IDF soldier, Elor Azarya, who shot in the head at point blank range a young Palestinian, Abd al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif, who was lying helpless on the ground after having been already shot, allegedly in reaction to have attempted a stabbing. Even more disturbing than this extra-judicial execution itself, has been the upsurge of grassroots support for Azarya in Israel based on the claim that he did the right thing.
General Golan made clear in his speech that he was speaking as a loyal Israeli who was intent on reviving a sense of higher national purpose that he felt to be in jeapardy. As he put it, “[w]e believe in the justice of our cause but not everything we do is just.” And more grandiosely, “[m]ost of all, we should ask how is that we are to realize our purpose as a light unto the nations and a model for our own people.”
Despite these closing assertions General Golan was immediately slammed by prominent leaders and in the mainstream media, including by Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, a rightest party leader and Minister of Education who was in the audience. Netanyahu called the remarks of General Yalon ‘outrageous’ with an effect that ‘cheapened’ the Holocaust. Miri Regev, Minister of Culture and Sport, insisted that Golan should resign his commission as it was unthinkable to have the “deputy chief of staff, a uniform-wearing officer, be a part of the delegitimation against Israel.”
It is important to acknowledge that up until now Israel remains enough of a democracy that a prominent military leader like Golan can raise serious concerns about deeply distressing national trends, specifically a failure to treat Palestinians with due regard for law and their dignity, and the uncomfortable reminder to the Jews of Israel that this was how the Nazis treated Jews in the period leading up to the Holocaust. Of course, such a comparison is obviously meant to be provocative, especially so I would suppose on the day of solemn remembrance set aside to recall Jewish suffering and victimization, as well as given the still raw memories of the grotesque behavior of Nazi Germany. General Golan’s basic ‘wrong’ was to invoke the wider resonance of such a past in the context of Israel’s own disregard of law and morality with respect to the Palestinian people, with particular emphasis on the victimization of those who have endured the draconian occupation for almost 50 years or have led wasted lives in refugee camps in neighboring countries.
It is encouraging to those of us that believe that the only tolerable future for both Israelis and Palestinians is a just peace that someone of General Golan’s profession and stature can engage so deeply in this treacherous work of self-scrutiny. The hostile reaction of Israeli leaders is to be expected given their extreme rightwing outlook. I found more disappointing and somewhat surprising the totally unconvincing statement of General Golan that his remarks never intended a comparison with Nazi Germany nor did he mean to criticize the current leadership of Israel. Considering the unmistakable meaning of his remarks, elaborated in ways that left no reasonable doubt in his audience as confirmed by the immediate high-level denunciations that his speech received. It is a great pity that pressures and critical reactions apparently led him to make this retreat. It is also surprising as the Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev noted that General Golan would have spoken as he did without anticipating a hostile reaction. As Shalev put it, either Golan was “brave or stupid or possibly both.”
As often is the case, the original understanding and plain meaning of General Golan’s speech will generate debate and reflection, and his retraction will be properly discounted as backing down in the face of aggressive pushback by the powers that be In Israel. Those in Israel most angered by General Golan oppose the slightest undermining of the Israeli remembrance of the Holocaust as challenging the Zionist portrayal of the Jew as eternal victim. Any words of critical self-scrutiny are unacceptable, especially if made by the country’s second most important military officer.
The question presented is whether this kind of commentary on Israel should be viewed as some serious crack in the Israeli establishment, considering that
remarks of this nature have come from dissident Israeli intellectuals and journalists for some years, including those who have emigrated in despair such as Ilan Pappé and Daniel Levy. Other Israel military officers and retired intelligence chiefs have said harsh politically incorrect things in recent years.
And on the government side there have been many signs of rightest extremism Perhaps none is more relevant than the rise of the Ayelet Shaked to prominence by being named Minister of Justice in the Netanyahu cabinet. It was Shaked who endorsed, if not advocated, a genocidal approach to the Palesetinians in a long Facebook posting during the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza, a notorious posture that received over a thousand ‘likes’ before being withdrawn. Shaked is also a staunch advocate of moving toward the formal designation of Israel as ‘a Jewish state,’ fostering ethnocracy at the expense of democracy through its disempowering of its 20% non-Jewish minorities.
What this pattern cumulatively expresses is the outcome of Israeli settler expansionism and prolonged occupation that has become calcified as an instance of apartheid, as well as severe and lengthy reliance on collective punishment in the aftermath of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. The widely admitted collapse of Israeli-Palestine diplomacy, within the Oslo framework, is part of Israeli turn toward militarist unilateralism in addressing Palestinian claims. I would contextualize General Golan’s remarks as a desperate outburst of concern, perhaps not consciously intended, as to what has become of the Zionist project, and fright as to where Israel is heading given trends in the treatment of Palestinian and their rights. Regardless of intentions, this is a message worth heeding.
In contrast to General Golan’s call for self-scrutiny, was the display of the dominant Israeli mood conveyed by the remarks made by Netanyahu, also on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. As is his usual point of departure, Netanyahu insisting on Israeli identity as eternal victim. He went on to consider the recent rise of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe. With typical hyperbole, Netanyahu compares current European anti-Semites to “Nazis who slandered Jews before destroying them.” Not content with such a frightening arousal of fear among Jews, Netanyahu lays the blame for this development on radical Islam without even a reference to the Christian neo-fascist resurgence in Europe, mainly reflecting nativist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic sentiments. Instead, Netanyahu, without naming the offenders, blames “British parliamentarians, senior Swedish officials, and opinion-makers in France” for entering into “odd pairings” with “barbaric fundamentalists, the persecutors of gays, destroyers of cultural treasures.” This is truly inflammatory rhetoric that exhibits total refusal to recognize the degree to which anti-Semitism, to the extent that it is genuinely increasing in Europe, derives not from radical Islam but from the perceived abuse of the Palestinian people and a denial of their rights. At the core of Netanyahu’s diatribe is an effort, now common among Zionist militants around the world, to act as if any serious criticism of Israeli policies and practices should be automatically treated as an embrace of anti-Semitism. Such an outlook has practical goals, especially to demonize the BDS campaign, and even to criminalize BDS and enact punitive measures against those that take part in this nonviolent transnational movement seeking justice and sustainable peace. It is shocking that United States politicians at the state and federal level are playing Netanyahu’s game, and thereby using the muscle of state power to weaken, if not destroy, the moral impulses of people of good will and active conscience who are seeking to oppose injustice and the denial of human rights by recourse to nonviolent initiatives.
There are two intertwined domains of radical concern: (1) the worldwide trend toward autocratic government in various forms, coupled with antipathy toward strangers and ‘others’; (2) the particularization of this trend as it is unfolding in the United States and Israel. There are nationalist variations that will be considered in future commentaries, as well as systemic explanations for why at a time of unprecedented global challenges, creative and progressive political energies are mainly in retreat, and being marginalized. It would seem that the kind of political imagination that would generate hope for the future of humanity is currently on life-support.