An American friend just sent me an e-mail containing an article that appeared yesterday, in the November 29 British daily the Guardian. Written by the Guardian's Israel correspondent Chris McGreal, the article deals with an incident that took place on November 9 and was widely reported last week in the Israeli and international press. In this incident, Israeli soldiers at a West Bank check post near Nablus made a Palestinian violinist play his instrument in front of them before giving him permission to pass.
Of all the recent revelations of the "routine dehumanizing treatment" of Palestinians by the Israeli military, Mr. McGreal wrote, including an Israeli officer's "pumping the body of a 13-year-old girl with bullets" in the Gaza Strip, "none so disturbed" Israelis as this one, because of its associations with the Holocaust. As an example, the Guardian cited the Hebrew writer Yoram Kaniuk, the author of a novel about a Jewish violinist forced by the Nazis to play marches in Auschwitz as Jews were taken to the gas chambers. Mr. Kaniuk was quoted as saying:
"This story....negates the possibility of the existence of a Jewish state. If the military does not put these soldiers on trial, we will have no moral right to speak of ourselves as a state that rose from the Holocaust."
My concerned friend asked for my opinion.
It's a bit complicated, my opinion. It's actually several opinions.
There is no doubt that the phenomenon of Israeli soldiers brutalizing and humiliating Palestinian civilians, let alone killing them without justification, is shameful. What is even more shameful, as Mr. McGreal rightly points out, is that in the vast majority of these cases the perpetrators have either been lightly punished or have gone scot-free Although, in the situation of extreme animosity that currently exists between Israeli and Palestinian societies it is impossible to avoid such incidents entirely, they could certainly be decreased if the higher echelons of the Israeli army were determined to prevent them. It is reprehensible that they do not seem to be.
At the same time, not every incident that is reported as a case of brutality or humiliation is one, as we know from the infamous story of Mohammed Durra, the Palestinian child whose supposed martyrdom at the hands an Israeli sniper in the year 2000 turned him into an international icon even after clear evidence showed that he was killed by Palestinians. In itself, after all, there is nothing wrong with Israel soldiers at a checkpoint asking a young Palestinian to play his violin as a way of making sure it is not stuffed with explosives. Palestinians have been caught in the past with explosives in bags, in belts, in knapsacks, briefcases, in underwear, in what appeared to be the pregnant stomachs of women. What makes a violin above suspicion?
Nor, studying the photograph of the incident published in the Israeli press, can one identify any would-be humiliators. Neither of the two soldiers directly in front of the violinist, one talking on a cell phone and the other checking documents, is even looking at him, much less taking pleasure in the situation. Whoever it was who ordered the young man to play his instrument certainly didn't do it as a show for their benefit.
Yet the facts of this specific case are perhaps beside the point. Are Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints often treated badly? The answer is yes. Should everything possible be done to stop this? Yes, again. Are the checkpoints nevertheless necessary? Yes, once more. (They have saved many Israeli lives, and Israelis will have to be excused for thinking that a humiliated Palestinian is better than a dead Israeli.) Is it legitimate to compare such incidents, or any other aspect of the Israeli presence in the occupied territories, to the Holocaust? Absolutely not. Under no conceivable circumstances.
Imagine, if you will, the following dispatch in The Guardian in 1943:
"As the German dehumanization of Eastern-European Jews grows worse, a new height of sadism has been reached: Jewish violinists have been forced to play their violins in front of jeering German soldiers."
Would that the Holocaust had been a matter of humiliated violinists. Would that it had been a matter of humiliated Jews. Would that it had been a matter of the occasional killing of innocent Jews by German soldiers.
But of course, it was none of these things. It was the successfully systematic murder of the Jewish people. Which is why, whenever anyone, Jew or Gentile, Israeli author or English journalist, compares Israeli actions in the occupied territories to those of the Germans or their allies in the Holocaust, something vile and intolerable has been done. The descendants of the victims of the Holocaust have been turned into the perpetrators of another one.
In order to make such a comparison, one has to be either (1) totally ignorant of what happened in the Holocaust; (2) totally ignorant of what is happening in the occupied territories; (3) totally indifferent, in one's eagerness to bash Israel and Jews, to the historical facts in either case. Compare Israeli actions, if you will, to those of the French in Algeria. (The French were in reality a hundred times worse.) Compare them, if you must, to those of the Americans in Vietnam. (The Americans were incredibly more brutal.) Compare them to anything you want - except the Holocaust.
This isn't because the Holocaust isn't comparable to other things. It is. But it is comparable only to other mass exterminations: That of the Armenians by the Turks in World War I, that of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, that of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in 1995. It is not comparable, ever, to anything Israel has done or is doing in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Any such an analogy should automatically be beyond the pale of acceptable human discourse.
That's my opinion.
Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.