Are we reliving the 1930s?
Elie Wiesel noted that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the recent United Nations General Assembly calling for the destruction of Israel demonstrates that the world has learned nothing from the Holocaust. The upcoming 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht on November 9 and 10 provides an occasion to grapple with the question of whether, in the current decade, the Jewish people are reliving the 1930s. To answer that one has to look at issues such as genocide and hate promotion, appeasement of totalitarians, Western leadership and so on. The correct answer must then be: “Yes, but only in certain aspects.” The existence of the State of Israel is the main difference between the two decades. In the 1930s the Jews were an incoherent, leaderless group, with no tools to defend itself against enemies. Today there is a Jewish state, which is threatened by substantial parts of the Muslim world and others, but is not helpless. There is furthermore no country today like Nazi Germany with systematic state-promoted anti-Semitism and state-sponsored violence against its Jewish citizens. There is, however, an explicitly genocidal anti-Semitic power – Iran, which proclaims that it is out to annihilate the Jewish state and is developing an atom bomb to do so. Extermination policies have mutated as a result of technological development. There are few Jews within the borders of Iran. Its allies and the countries it might invade have even fewer. Iran aims mainly at Israelis. It instrumentalizes its own Jews for political purposes and was at the origin of the attack against Jews in Buenos Aires. In the 1930s Germany, ruled by Hitler, together with its future allies and the countries it would invade, had many millions of Jews within their borders, and they were an easy target. Today Israel can probably prevent attacks and certainly retaliate. Israel also has an ally in the United States, and other states are willing to support it to varying degrees. This is radically different from the structural disarray of the Jews in the 1930s and the unwillingness of any nation to help them. That became fully clear at the 1938 Evian Conference, where no major country was willing to commit to receiving Jewish refugees. While widespread anti-Semitism – disguised as anti-Israelism – has made a major comeback in this decade, it has not been turned anywhere into discriminatory legislation. Another major departure from the 1930s is that the radical improvement in international communications impacts on societies in so many ways that it is difficult to analyze which one is most important. YET OMINOUS similarities between the 1930s and now do exist. First of all, there is totalitarianism. Leading Holocaust scholar Prof. Yehuda Bauer has said, “In Islam there are major forces which are mentally prepared – given the power – to carry out genocide against all others… Islamic radicalism is the desire for a global utopia, to be achieved through violent means, which aims at global dominance. This is equally true for National Socialism and communism. Every universal utopia is murderous and every radical universal utopia produces radical murderers.” As in the 1930s, Western leadership is weak and little aware of looming dangers. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain was reviled for his appeasement of Nazi Germany for decades. Nowadays a rehabilitation of Chamberlain is indirectly on its way, as more and more revisionist historians claim that World War II could have been avoided and that Churchill was a warmonger. Today, many in the West favor both external and internal appeasement of radical Muslims. In foreign policy, Europe is pushed toward appeasement because it possesses little military force. Domestically, it seeks to placate its resident Muslim extremists through proposals that Shari’a be allowed to operate within the framework of national legal systems. Some appeasement movements and motifs are the same as in the 1930s. Pacifists have frequently been of use to totalitarians. Moral relativists, fearing to be judgmental, are another type of appeasers. There is also a parallel between those in the 1930s in Western Europe who felt guilty about the severe conditions of the Versailles peace treaty regarding Germany and those who nowadays feel guilty toward the Third World for the sins of colonialism. Similarities also abound between those who were willing to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for an illusionary peace and those who want to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians on the false assumption that once this conflict is solved, Western relations with the Islamic world will improve permanently. ONE PHENOMENON that may be unique to our time is what can best be called “humanitarian racists.” One finds many of these in NGOs, whose number has exploded in recent decades. Left-wing politics, the media and the academic world are also hotbeds of this poorly recognized form of racism. Humanitarian racists believe, to varying degrees, that only whites must be held accountable for their acts, whereas Third Worlders or non-whites are mainly victims. By diminishing non-whites’ responsibility for their criminal deeds, one is in effect ranking them somewhere between “real” humans and animals, which live by their urges. The behavior of the NGO gathering at the 2001 UN Durban Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia made humanitarian racism visible internationally. Humanitarian racism can often be discerned in the debate on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where it consists of systematically ignoring the criminal character of large parts of Palestinian society, such as its many promoters of genocide and its education of children to become “martyrs” through murdering Jews. In a globalized society, the forces of radical Islam, genocide promotion and appeasement of totalitarians are increasing – as are those in opposition to them. Their relative strengths will determine whether the similarity of our world to that of the 1930s will grow or decline. The writer is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.