JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli prime minister's linking of Iran to Nazi Germany evoked ringing applause this week at a gathering of a pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington. Back home, though, it drew some heavy criticism.
The Nazi Holocaust of World War II is a delicate and charged topic in Israel, and many felt Benjamin Netanyahu's repeated equating of the Nazis with the possible modern-day threat of a nuclear-armed Iran went too far.
In his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Monday, Netanyahu introduced a Holocaust survivor Israeli Cabinet minister who traveled with him to Washington. He also held up Holocaust-era documents that he said he keeps in his office desk: An 1944 exchange of letters between the World Jewish Congress, imploring the United States to bomb Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp, and the U.S. reply that it would not do so.
"As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation," Netanyahu declared.
"Today we have a state of our own. And the purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish future," Netanyahu said to waves of applause. "Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again."
His parallels were clear: Just as the Nazis tried to exterminate European Jewry during World War II, Netanyahu implied that Iran's apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons is part of a plot to wipe Israel off the map. "Never again" is the signature phrase of the Jewish pledge that the Holocaust must not be repeated.
Critics accused Netanyahu of both cheapening the memory of the Holocaust and unnecessarily escalating tensions at a time when the U.S. was urging restraint.
In debates on Israeli radio and TV stations and in newspapers, many pointed to the obvious difference — Israel as a sovereign Jewish nation with its own army did not exist during World War II, when Europe's Jews were defenseless.
"Israel is not a ghetto," said Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief of staff and defense minister, now an opposition lawmaker, rejecting the comparison on Israel Radio.
Dan Halutz, another former military chief, told Channel 2 TV that the Holocaust comparison was "out of place."
Six million Jews were murdered in the systematic Nazi effort to kill all the Jews of Europe. Created in 1948 in the shadow of the war, Israel provided a haven for hundreds of thousands of refugees freshly liberated from Nazi death camps. Today Israel is home to about 200,000 aging survivors.
References to the Holocaust evoke a visceral response, often negative, but many Israeli public figures make them even so.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish demonstrators have donned yellow Nazi-style Star of David patches to protest government policy. Jewish settlers have worn the patches as Israeli soldiers removed them from settlements to be evacuated. Liberal activists insist the legacy of the Holocaust obligates Israel to care for African asylum-seekers.
For years Netanyahu, son of a Jewish history scholar and himself a history buff, has drawn a straight line from the murder of Jews in World War II to the dangers of Iran's nuclear development program. Iran insists the program is for peaceful purposes, a claim that is rejected by Israel and much of the international community, citing evidence that Iran is moving toward building nuclear weapons.
In 2006, before his current term as prime minister, Netanyahu told a conference of American Jewish activists that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has hosted a conference of Holocaust deniers and himself questioned whether the Holocaust happened at all, was "preparing another Holocaust" for Israel.
"It's 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs," he said.
Yehuda Bauer, a Holocaust scholar at Israel's national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, said Netanyahu's Auschwitz analogy in Washington this week was "sheer nonsense."
While acknowledging the dangers of a nuclear Iran, Bauer said, "to bring up Auschwitz is a cheap way of gaining public attention."
The uproar caused some discomfort even among Netanyahu's supporters.
Danny Danon, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud Party, said he respected those who were upset at the Holocaust language but insisted it was legitimate. "We learn from our past that we cannot depend on anyone," he said.