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Israel’s Greatest Loss Is Its Moral Imagination, Says Henry Siegman, Former Leader of American Jewish Congress

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
December 2010

“If a people who so recently experienced such unspeakable inhumanities cannot understand the injustice and suffering its territorial ambitions are inflicting, what hope is there for the rest of us?” asks Henry Siegman, director of the US/Middle East Project who, from 1978 to 1994, was national director of the American Jewish Congress.  
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Siegman reports that, “Following Israel’s bloody interdiction of the Gaza Flotilla, I called a life-long friend in Israel to inquire about the mood of the country. My friend, an intellectual and a kind and generous man, has nevertheless long sided with Israeli hardliners. Still, I was entirely unprepared for his response. He told me — in a voice trembling with emotion — that the world’s outpouring of condemnation of Israel is reminiscent of the dark period of the Hitler era. He told me that most everyone in Israel felt that way, with the exception of Meretz, a small Israel pro-peace party. ‘But for all practical purposes,’ he said, ‘they are Arabs.’”  
Both Siegman and his friend, writes Siegman, “experienced those dark Hitler years, having lived under Nazi occupation, as did so many of Israel’s Jewish citizens. I was therefore stunned by the analogy. ... It struck me that the invocation of the Hitler era was actually a frighteningly and apt and searing analogy, although not the one my friend intended. A million and a half civilians have been forced to live in an open-air prison in inhuman conditions for over three years now, but unlike the Hitler years, they are not Jews but Palestinians. Their jailers, incredibly, are survivors of the Holocaust, or their descendants. Of course, the inmates of Gaza are not destined for gas chambers, as the Jews were, but they have been reduced to a debased and hopeless existence.”  
In Siegman’s view, “Of course, even the most objectionable Israeli policies do not begin to compare with Hitler’s Germany. But the essential moral issues are the same. How would Jews have reacted to their tormentors had they been consigned to the kind of existence Israel has imposed on Gaza’s population. Would they not have seen human rights activists prepared to risk their lives to call their plight to the world’s attention as heroic, even if they had beaten up commandos trying to prevent their efforts? Did Jews admire British commandos who boarded and diverted ships carrying illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the aftermath of World War II, as most Israelis now admire Israel’s naval commandos?”  
Siegman concludes: “Who would have believed that an Israeli government and its Jewish citizens would seek to demonize and shut down Israeli human rights organizations for their lack of ‘patriotism,’ and dismiss fellow Jews who criticized the assault on the Gaza Flotilla as ‘Arabs,’ pregnant with all the hateful connotations that word has acquired in Israel, not unlike Germans who branded fellow citizens who spoke up for Jews as ‘Juden?’ The German White Rose activists, mostly students from the University of Munch, who dared to condemn the German persecution of the Jews (well before the concentration camp exterminations began), were also considered ‘traitors’ by their fellow Germans who did not mourn the beheading of these activists by the Gestapo ... If a people who so recently experienced on its own flesh such unspeakable inhumanities cannot muster the moral imagination to understand the injustice and suffering its territorial ambitions — and even its legitimate security concerns — are inflicting on another people, what hope is there for the rest of us?” •

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.