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Op-eds

Are we friends and comrades if I look the other way?

  • Geoff
Remember the Hebrew writing on South African weapons during apartheid’s war against its enemies in the 1970s? Israel needed whatever friends it could get; so did South Africa. Together, they became a leading weapons developer and force in the international arms trade. That was realpolitik.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jul 12, 2018

Realpolitik has again guided Israel recently, on an issue with roots that go back to the Holocaust and the ground-breaking 1985 film, Shoah. This was a nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust made by Claude Lanzmann, who died last week.

The film contains interviews with survivors, witnesses and perpetrators conducted during visits to German Holocaust sites across Poland, including extermination camps. Its approach was radical in that it included no archival footage, but relied on first-person engagement. French writer Simone de Beauvoir hailed it as a “sheer masterpiece”.

However, the film was badly received in Poland, which said the film accused that country of complicity in Nazi genocide. This view still simmers among Poles, and six months ago the government passed a law intended to stifle discussions of Poland’s role in the Holocaust. Anyone suggesting that it participated in the Jewish genocide could be charged with libel and imprisoned. Outrage emanated from Holocaust survivors, intellectuals and governments worldwide, who demanded the law be revoked.

For Israel, the situation was difficult because Poland is a strong ally. The two governments entered into discussions, and on 27 June announced an agreement to amend the law. Poland removed the aspect of the law that criminalises anyone who says Poland had a role in Holocaust guilt. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had protected the “historic truth of the Holocaust”. It was realpolitik in action.

Where should the diplomatic line be drawn? Others slammed Netanyahu, saying the agreement gave Israel’s stamp of approval to a cover-up about Poland’s Holocaust role.

Diplomats defend realpolitik because in this dangerous world, a country must balance moral values against pragmatic interests, which constantly change.

Lord Palmerston of Great Britain is credited with putting it thus: “In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” Most world leaders have faced this dilemma. Israeli leaders say that since Israel’s security is constantly endangered, its fundamental interest must be its security – whatever the demands of realpolitik.

It is seven decades since the Holocaust. For many, it is a vague memory, not reality, which allows Israel more diplomatic flexibility. Nevertheless, it boggles the mind that the Jewish State’s prime minister stands accused by scholars of aiding Holocaust revisionism, which is only expected to come from rabid Jew-haters.

Israel is criticised for other recent examples of realpolitik, of turning a blind eye to both immoral regimes and anti-Semitism for other interests. On 4 June, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, praised Hungary, saying it was Israel’s friend and had a “zero-tolerance policy” towards anti-Semitism. But Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, is regarded as one of the new crop of populist European neo-fascists.

European Union monitors of his campaign in Hungary’s recent elections reported “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric” against migrants and others. His politicians use time-worn anti-Semitic tropes and blame Jewish philanthropist George Soros for Hungary’s problems.

Realpolitik has long tentacles. Netanyahu’s warmth towards US President Donald Trump, with his “America first” mindset and attack on liberal internationalism, is hazardous. It seems convenient in the short term, but in the long run, Israel will pay for this.

Israel justified embracing racist South Africa during apartheid, including large-scale military co-operation, as realpolitik, while the Palestine Liberation Organisation supported South Africa’s liberation movements.

How does history judge it? Some South African Jews say this was correct at the time. Others are ashamed. Today’s dilemmas question again where the red lines are.

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