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Bronner writes: "Benjamin Netanyahu has actually promoted the very sort of political hysteria and rabble-rousing that helped introduce the totalitarian regime from which Jews suffered so terribly."

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo: EPA)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo: EPA)

Netanyahu's Rhetoric

By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News

06 November 15


t has often been said that truth is the first victim of politics. But, looking backward, politicians have mostly tried to hide or veil or qualify their fabrications. Lying as an end unto itself was generally relegated to totalitarians and other ideological fanatics: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. They explicitly used propaganda as forms of political education, information, and – above all – as mobilizing strategies for realizing various strategic purposes. The totalitarian monopoly on employing this kind of rhetorical consolidation seems to have reached its end. The strategy has now spread to the Western democracies, where truth is not so much irrelevant as lying has become almost acceptable (especially among insiders) as useful form of political provocation that will allow true believers and provincials to circle the wagons – and justify the lie as truth.

America has Trump and a host of rival demagogues in the Republican Party. France has Marine Le Pen, Germany has Lutz Bachmann, Greece is stuck with the fascist Golden Dawn, Jobbik’s partisans are busy in Hungary, Italy had Berlusconi, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is surely also a member of the world community of demagogues. Each has his tradition of myths, stereotypes, and prejudices to inform a political rhetoric that targets seminal issues facing the nation.

Important is that their claims and vituperations are not products of simple ignorance or misspeaking. Constantly harping on the stupidity of leaders like Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin is a mistake. Ignorance is less the issue than cynicism and the attitude of a confidence man.

Truth is not so much becoming irrelevant as simply one “opinion” among others, and there are just too many spin doctors, too much infotainment, and too many sensationalist websites to inhibit a politician on the make from saying whatever comes to mind. Netanyahu is nothing special in that regard. He is simply continuing a trend that attempts to intimately associate Palestinians with Nazis in the public mind and, by implication, Israelis with Jews murdered in the Holocaust. But it was no less troubling to hear Netanyahu claim in late October 2015 that Nazis were ready to allow Jewish emigration to Palestine, or someplace else like Madagascar, had not the Grand Mufti al-Husseini of Jerusalem convinced Hitler in a meeting on November 28, 1941, that such a plan was impractical. It would be far better to “burn” the Jews and thereby “eliminate” the problem entirely.

Now, what is the political interest being served here? How important was this conversation? European anti-Semitism in the first decades of the 20th century had its (large and small) political parties, philosophers, artists, magazines, and academic curricula. It was one (albeit not particularly respectable) worldview among other worldviews. Anti-Semitism could be found almost anywhere, but especially in Vienna, where Hitler spent so much time prior to World War I. He knew the racist arguments generated by Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s popular “Foundations of the 19th Century” and Richard Wagner’s “The Jews and Modern Music,” and he listened to the anti-Semitic theories of his “court philosopher,” Alfred Rosenberg. Hitler already considered the Jew a form of “racial tuberculosis” as early as 1919. He was also enthusiastic about the “Protocols of Zion,” with its fabricated vision of a world Jewish conspiracy, and his Nazi party endorsed the psychotic Julius Streicher, editor of the anti-Semitic rag sheet Der Stuermer, who missed no opportunity to portray Jews as vermin and the incarnation of evil. Indeed, “Mein Kampf” explicitly made the case for the genocidal elimination of Jews.

All these works and theories basically treated Jews as an alien and inherently evil presence at worst or as a misfortune or burden to be born at best. Hitler had no need of the Grand Mufti, who was undoubtedly an anti-Semite, but whom he barely knew, to develop either his views or his policies on anti-Semitism. Hitler certainly did not look to Islam for practical assistance: it was obviously not the Palestinians who ran the trains, organized the delivery of inmates, constructed the ovens, or supervised the camps. Netanyahu knew that his statement about the Grand Mufti was nothing more than a symbolic provocation and, quickly enough, in the face of public outcry all over the world – with a knowing wink – he retracted his statement and admitted that the Nazis themselves were responsible for Auschwitz.

But this only begs the question concerning why Netanyahu said what he said in the first place. Amid growing international support for the Palestinians and the moral character of their struggle, of course, exaggerating the role of the Grand Mufti might provide a bit of inspiration for the Israeli right. Then, too, making the statement and then retracting it provided Netanyahu with a hint of moderation as yet another symbolic provocation took place. His ultra-right wing deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, said that she hoped the Israeli flag would soon fly over the holy sites of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, supposedly under pressure from her boss, she also immediately qualified her statement, saying that it was a personal opinion rather than an expression of policy.

This kind of provocative rhetoric has a mobilizing purpose. In the current context, it also expresses the genuine fear (whether conscious or unconscious) of a new intifada in the making, born of frustration over stalled peace negotiations and expanded Israeli settlement activity, which has gripped the imagination especially of the young in the West Bank and which has led to violence, mostly against settlers. Having lost the moral high-ground, sensing his growing isolation, Netanyahu must have thought that making reference to the Holocaust seemed a safe and traditional way to regain it – or, at least, deflect criticism – even while calling upon Israelis to circle the wagons, prepare for further militant action, and maintain the present expansionist strategy.

Netanyahu is just another demagogue who, in this case, is trying to please the more extreme religious and Zionist elements in his coalition. More should not be made of him than he is – something that holds for every demagogue. Yet his rhetoric, like that of other demagogues, provides insight into the deeper and ultimate aims of his policies. Netanyahu’s preoccupations with the past justify exaggerated nationalism, militarism, and imperialism in the present. These mark the traditional fascist vision of politics that targets an inflated and fabricated enemy whose nefarious activities justify abandoning democracy and suspending the liberal rule of law.

Demagogic rhetoric neither argues nor engages its critics. It rests on exigency and dispenses with serious argumentation. It also exhibits its own psychological dynamic. That Palestinians had virtually nothing to do with the Holocaust leaves intact the lingering prejudice that they would have participated if only given the chance. It is roughly the same argument employed by defenders of the “Protocols of Zion” when confronted with its fabrication and empirical falsehoods. Exaggeration, paranoia, and projection underpin the authoritarian style. Netanyahu was actually promoting the very sort of political hysteria and rabble-rousing that helped introduce the totalitarian regime from which Jews suffered so terribly. The real tragedy of this pathetic affair is the manner in which Israel, obsessed with the Nazi past, is becoming defined in the present by the very values it should be opposing. That is worth remembering as yet another political provocation disappears in the dustbin of history.

Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. His writings include “The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists” (Yale University Press) and “A Rumor about the Jews: Anti-Semitism, Conspiracy and the Protocols of Zion” (Oxford University Press).

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