Jacob Heilbrunn

George Will and Israel, Continued

 Today Paul R. Pillar observes on his National Interest blog, "The one subject on which [George F.] Will has had a big blind spot for years is Israel.  I have no idea why that is the case."

I do.

Today's Los Angeles Times features a fascinating obituary about Martin Ernest Dannenberg, whom I had never heard of before. In 1945, Dannenberg, a young American army sergeant stationed in Germany, led a special counterintelligence team. In the town of Eichstatt, Germany, he and a military translator named Frank Perls, who was also Jewish, discovered a manila folder covered with swastikas in a bank. It was the document of the 1935 Nuremberg Racial laws, which laid the legal basis for the ostracism and destruction of German--and, eventually, European--Jewry. The Times reports, "`I had a most peculiar feeling when I had this in my hand, that I should be the one who should uncover this,' Dannenberg said. `Because here is this thing that [begins] the persecution of the Jews. And a Jewish person has found it.' Dannenberg carefully slit the top of the envelope and withdrew the typescript documents. The first thing he saw was Adolf Hitler's signature." Perls wept. The two men had discovered the first official step leading to the Holocaust.

The Holocaust, as Jeffrey Goldberg reminded us in his recent Atlantic piece on the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, looms larger than ever in the consciousness of Israelis and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Will has a keen sense of that history as well. Which is partly why he is such a vociferous defender of the Jewish state.

Pillar coolly dissects Will's claim that Israel has always been the victim of Arab attacks. It's useful to examine the mythology that has accreted around Israel's history. And Will does have a romantic, Churchillian view of Israel, as I've argued on this site previously. But to fully understand the reasons for that attachment, it's necessary to leave the antiseptic realm of military and political strategy for the more emotional one of the Holocaust, when Jews were mercilessly slaughtered by the Nazis. This is at the bottom of the current debates about virulent Arab anti-Semitism as well with Paul Berman alleging that American liberals are eager to appease the Islamic world.

You can argue, as the historian Tony Judt powerfully did, that it is a misuse of history to transform the Holocaust into such a powerful reference point for Israel's self-identity. There are numerous reasons to believe that Israel is pursuing self-defeating policies. But then take a look at its neighbors. And as today's obituary of the discoverer of the Nuremberg Laws reminds us, the past continues to exert a powerful pull on the present. If Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really means what he says--and Hitler's threats against the Jews were dismissed at the time as well--then has Will really got it so wrong?