What’s Up With The Nazis in Israel?

Parody of Itamar Ben Gvir on Eretz Nehederet.

Last weekend, Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country), Israel’s version of Saturday Night Live, broadcast a skit lampooning newly elected Member of Knesset Itamar Ben Gvir. In response to the skit, MK Ben Gvir tweeted, “Until today, Eretz Nehederet caused me to chuckle… Today a red line was crossed: comparing me to Nazis and dressing me up with an armband as if I was a Nazi harms first and foremost the six million Jews who were slaughtered and cremated. For shame.”

In the skit, Eretz Nehederet parodies the Israeli Independence Day celebration with an actor portraying Ben Gvir wearing an armband showing the fist and Jewish star emblem of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party, which has been banned in Israel for its racist and violent platform since the 1990’s. In the skit, Ben Gvir takes over the Independence Day celebration, and after checking to ensure there are no Arabs or gays in attendance and directing that the fireworks be aimed at an Arab neighborhood, he has the marching soldiers make a Jewish star, which shapeshifts into characters reading “death to Arabs.”

Who is this man? As a child, Itamar Ben Gvir became the youth coordinator for Kach. While Ben Gvir never met Kahane, he is a strong Kahanist. Because of his affiliations with movements which advocate violence as a political tool, the IDF would not draft Ben Gvir, despite near national conscription in Israel. By his own count, Ben Gvir has been indicted 53 times for extremism incitement. He is a founder of the Jewish Power Party, which he now heads. The platform of the party states that “war against the enemies of Israel will be total, without negotiations, without concessions and without compromises.” Ben Gvir has advocated for annexing the occupied territories without extending voting rights to any Palestinians living in those annexed lands and encouraging or forcing the emigration of Palestinians unwilling to swear loyalty to Israel. He calls for a “Jewish democracy,” but rejects “universalist values.” What he means by this is hard to know because he’s usually quite evasive in interviews, but in his living room, Ben Gvir hung a photo of Baruch Goldstein, the American-Israeli physician who gunned down 29 Muslim Palestinians while they were praying in 1994.

Many scholars and public intellectuals usually side with MK Ben Gvir on one point, warning against ever invoking the Third Reich, both because it can trivialize the memory of the victims and because it indicates a laziness on the part of the invoker. How can anyone defend Hitler? It’s impossible, so instead of coming up with a thoughtful argument, simply paint a tiny square mustache on your opponents face and your work is over… either your opponent has to defend Hitler or concede. Game, set, match.

The Eretz Nehederet skit never actually called MK Ben Gvir a Nazi, but the implication was clear. The arm bands, marching, and, not unimportantly, the threats and violence, clearly evoke Nazi Germany. As a Holocaust educator, I often find myself discouraging lazy or overly simplistic comparisons between, well, nearly everything and the Holocaust. The Holocaust does make the strangest of bedfellows: what do anti-abortion, pro-vegan, and anti-gun legislation activists have in common with the California venture capital billionaire Tom Perkins? They’ve all called their opponents Nazis. (In a letter to The Wall Street Journal, Perkins compared “the progressive war on the American one percent” to Kristallnacht.) Strange bedfellows, indeed.

It should follow, logically, that a prime-time sketch comedy show should fall squarely into that same category of those abusing, or at least misusing, the memory of the Holocaust, but not so for Eretz Nehederet. Or, more accurately, not so for Itamar Ben Gvir. Defending Hitler is impossible because Hitler is indefensible, but if your actions and rhetoric are so easily compared to the Führer’s, the problem isn’t the comparison, it’s the actions and rhetoric.

Auschwitz survivor Henry Appel said, “There is only one thing worse than Auschwitz itself… and that is if the world forgets there was such a place.” Appel was not asking only for memory, but also action in light of that memory. We remember Auschwitz and the Holocaust not only to memorialize the experience of the victims, but also to prevent the next generation of victims.

Evildoers benefit from the status quo and are frequently the first to invoke the vital importance of memory… and nothing else. “Now is not the time…” for anything besides thoughts and prayers, they tell us when pain which may catalyze action threatens their position. What’s the point of having the memory if it never leaves the museum or textbook? Nearly a century ago, the world tried to respond to Hitler and Hitlerism through isolationism or appeasement, but that did not put an end to the Nazis; appeasement and isolationism only allowed fascism to metastasize. Hitler, too, was once a fringe politician with an explicitly racist platform and calls for violence. In 1940 one of the strongest voices of opposition to Hitler was Charlie Chaplin who produced the film The Great Dictator to satirize Hitler and the Third Reich.

So how should we respond to bigots and wannabe despots like Itamar Ben Gvir? Some have suggested by shunning him and focusing our attention and care on the targets of his ire. In the 1980s, when the progenitor of Ben Gvir’s political movement, Rabbi Meir Kahane, would take the lectern in the Knesset to speak, almost every member would get up and walk out in protest. I am in support of this tactic; demagogues feed off of attention and wilt in its absence. But I would not simply ignore Mr. Ben Gvir and focus on supporting his victims, I would continue to lampoon him, and point out the evils of his policies, and how, if enacted, they would both harm their targets and turn the country into a hypocritical pariah.

It is also worth pointing out that responding to evil with comedy is an ancient Jewish custom. From the shtetls of Czarist Russia to lodges in the Catskills, Jews have exacted revenge on their persecutors in the form of jokes. Like all satire, these jokes serve the dual purpose of providing comfort to the afflicted and making visible that which may exist around us but is otherwise not visible. Eretz Nehederet can use humor to bring light to MK Ben Gvir’s deadly serious rhetoric.

Eretz Nehederet is right to sound the klaxon. We shouldn’t be condemning them for how they rang the warning bell; instead, we should be condemning those who are silent. Every quarter of society must state emphatically that MK Ben Gvir’s rhetoric and policies are not welcome; it is not enough to merely demur and parrot Paul Ryan by saying, “I didn’t see the tweet.” Ben Gvir’s racism, misogyny, and homophobia must be denounced. Moreover, his disdain for democracy must be denounced.

After he left official public life, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was asked if he was a Zionist. He responded by saying, “I’m a democrat.” Ben-Gurion understood that, as difficult as it was to found a Jewish state, preserving a democratic one would be a longer challenge. Today in Israel, after four rounds of national elections, a corrupt demagogue is trying to form a government with odious figures like Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, a self-proclaimed “proud homophobe” who has advocated for creating segregated wards in Israeli hospitals for Arab patients.

Ignoring this will not make it go away. Ignoring problems never makes them go away. Don’t believe me? Ask someone with credit card debt. Instead, we must honor the victims of the Holocaust by invoking their memory, not merely “preserving” it.

The brilliant Yale University historian Timothy Snyder subtitled his vitally important reinterpretation of the era of the Holocaust, Black Earth, “The Holocaust as History and Warning.” History AND warning. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say the history IS the warning. The point of preserving the history is for it to be the warning; we must use the history to stop future perpetrators. Ignoring MK Ben Gvir and solely focusing on the victims is woefully insufficient in the face of a sitting member of parliament venerating mass murders, calling for population transfers, and passing laws which harm the most vulnerable in the community.

Stopping perpetrators is helping victims. A community under siege cannot rebuild until the siege stops. If you want to dishonor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, confine their memory to the past and allow modern tyrants to use victim’s pain to inoculate those tyrants against legitimate criticism. If the Holocaust is sealed in amber and confined only to memorials and the fading memory of survivors, the unprecedented slaughter invoked by Eretz Nehederet will become the precedent for the future.

Samuel J. Aronson is an Assistant Dean in the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. He studies the role of science and technology in the Holocaust.

Holocaust Historian and Georgetown University Associate Dean