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Israel and Germany: Moving Beyond the Holocaust?

Some in Israel Say Holocaust Invoked Too Often

A photo of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Angela Merkel has gone viral on social media. Taken at their joint press conference on Monday, the photo shows Netanyahu pointing at a reporter. His arm makes a shadow across Merkel’s upper lip, that closely resembles the small mustache made famous by Adolph Hitler.

The photo was taken by Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem. It appeared briefly on his Facebook page and the Facebook page of the Hebrew edition of the Post.  An editor at the Post told The Media Line they decided not to run the photo. Yet it became an immediate viral sensation on Facebook and Twitter and was reprinted hundreds of times..

“When I saw the photo on my computer, I thought that it was unique and funny. It was not my intention to insult Merkel in any way or to make any kind of Nazi connotation with the photo,” Sellem wrote in the Jerusalem Post Tuesday.

The uproar though, showed just how central the Holocaust still is to both Israel’s identity and to the Israel-German relationship. Israel was formed from the ashes of the Holocaust, and its special relationship with Germany has its roots in the Holocaust. Merkel often uses the Hebrew term, shoah, when she is in Israel.

But at least some in Israel feel that Israeli officials over-use the Holocaust.

“Israel uses the Holocaust as an instrument against anything that is opposed to government policy,” Moshe Zimmerman, a professor at Hebrew University and one of Israel’s leading Holocaust scholars told The Media Line. “Whenever you are out of arguments you bring up the Holocaust and it’s a very effective way of shutting your opponents up.”

Netanyahu often invokes the Holocaust when talking about the danger that an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose to Israel. Zimmerman says it runs the risk of trivializing the Holocaust.

“If you use this weapon again and again, people are going to fight back,” he said. “It is not only going to backfire against Israel’s policy, but also against the effective memory of the Holocaust.”

Although the number of Holocaust survivors is steadily declining, the Holocaust plays an important role in Israel’s identity. Yad Vashem, Israel’s large Holocaust memorial museum, hosts millions of visitors, including every Israeli soldier. On Holocaust Memorial Day, the entire country comes to a halt during a two-minute siren.

Hundreds of thousands of Israeli teens visit the concentration camps each year and take part in the “march of the living.” Israel’s Education Minister has introduced a bill that would make Holocaust education obligatory from kindergarten. The only other country that mandates teaching the subject is Germany, although many US states include it in their curriculum.

Israel still has an unofficial ban on playing music by Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer. Some say it is time to drop the ban.

That ban still remains the one and only symbol,” Jonathan Livny, the president of Israel’s Wagner society and a Jerusalem attorney told The Media Line. “As long as you don’t touch their Volkswagens and Mercedes and washing machines and dryers made in Germany, it’s easy to identify with someone whose music you don’t listen to anyway.”

Germany is perhaps Israel’s closest ally in Europe, and some 30,000 Israelis today live in Berlin.

“It is clear that Germans feel responsibility for the past and there is special relationship with Israel because of that,” Ofer Ashkenazi, a professor of history at Hebrew University told The Media Line. “It influences everything that has to do with this relationship both officially and unofficially.”