Friday, May 06, 2016

Iran: heirs of the Nazis

From Dore Gold, Director General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel
Some seventy years ago, Bergen-Belsen emerged as one of the key concentration camps established by the Nazi regime for the purpose of exterminating the Jews of Europe. Bergen-Belsen had no gas chambers like the Nazi-run death camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka in Poland. Yet thousands died in Bergen-Belsen – from disease, starvation, exposure, and sheer exhaustion, especially after the death marches in the winter of 1944-45 from the evacuated camps in the East. Typhus and typhoid fever were rampant.

Thus, Bergen-Belsen's role grew as a central hub of the concentration camp system after the Red Army crushed the Wehrmacht along the Eastern Front and the Germans transferred their surviving Jewish prisoners to camps within the borders of the German state.

Jews from all over the Nazi Empire were forced into Bergen-Belsen – from Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, France, as well as North African states, like Libya and Tunisia. The commandant of Bergen-Belsen at the end of 1944, Josef Kramer, was an SS officer who previously had been in charge of the main killing center at Auschwitz.

On a personal note, my own mother-in-law, Dina Sherman, was also relocated from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen along with her sister, Esther, who died in her arms in this place. This was also where Anne Frank died with her sister, Margot, after they were moved from Auschwitz, along with tens of thousands of others.

Five days after the British army liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, a BBC reporter, Richard Dimbleby, entered the camp and made a tape recording of the former Jewish prisoners congregating on a Friday night, rising up with their frail bodies, and breaking into a Hebrew song, "Hatikvah," which means "the Hope." It was to become Israel's national anthem. 

That very moment in time forged a link between the horrors of the concentration camps and the restoration of Israel just a few years later. By choosing Hatikva, the Jews at Bergen-Belsen were also reminding the world that theirs was a 2,000-year-old hope that dated back to when the Jews lived as a free people in their own land. They were also saying that it was time to go back home. 

What has the modern state of Israel learned from the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, and the Holocaust, more generally?
Chaim Herzog served as an officer in the British forces that entered Bergen-Belsen in 1945. In April 1987, he went back, as Israel's sixth president, and directed his words to the victims in their graves. He declared that they bequeathed a responsibility to later generations to ensure that the Jewish people would never again be helpless. That meant, first, that we will never allow anyone to do this to us again. 

In present times, there is a new antisemitic wind blowing across Europe, reviving memories of what transpired on this continent decades ago. And even the physical threat to the Jewish people remains, emanating most recently from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nearly every year, it parades a missile in Tehran, called the Shahab-3, and fastens to its launcher the words, "Israel must be wiped off the map."
Iran's leaders do not leave a shred to doubt as to what their missiles are intended. The reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 2011 have added that Iran aspires to remove the conventional warhead from the very same Shahab-3 and replace it with a "spherical nuclear payload." 

Iranian intentions have not changed. The same slogan calling for wiping Israel out was also brazenly written in Farsi and in Hebrew on a more advanced Qadr-H missile, when it was test-fired this year on March 9, 2016.  This despite the agreement recently signed between Iran and the Western powers. It is, therefore, no wonder that Israel feels it must do everything in its power to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. This is not an obsession, but a sacred trust handed to us by the people buried here. 

The legacy for Israel and the Jewish people from Bergen-Belsen is not only a particularistic imperative. Since the end of the Second World War, Jewish judges and lawyers have stood at the forefront of the international struggle against genocide in any form, in any context. It was a Jewish jurist named Raphael Lemkin who in fact invented the term. It was another scholar, René Cassin, who had a pivotal role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Shabtai Rosenne fought for the creation of an International Criminal Court (ICC), though it became, tragically, corrupted by states that sought to politicize it shortly after it was founded.

Despite these and similar legal efforts, genocide has persisted since the Second World War: in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and across the Middle East. Israel is a small state. But Israeli diplomacy must do everything in its power to recognize the warning signs and the threats of genocide and then to mobilize and press states to prevent it. That is an enormous responsibility, but as the survivors of the greatest crime in human history, we must bear that burden and undertake to banish this threat from the family of nations. 

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