Wednesday 21 March 2012

The Secrets of "Ivan the Terrible" Go to the Grave

It was announced on Saturday that John Demjanjuk, the man variously accused as being “Ivan the Terrible” and an evil guard at the Sobibor concentration camp, died at the ripe old age of 91 years old.  He died a free man at a nursing home in southern Germany, awaiting the appeal of his recent conviction of being accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews at the Sobibor death camp in Poland.  His death has brought to an end a most extraordinary sequence of events which has raised significant doubts about the value of hunting down Nazi murderers and their collaborators.

It is almost certain that Demjanjuk was involved in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.  He admitted that the scar under his armpit was an SS tattoo which he removed after the war.  There continue to be accusations that he was, in fact, the feared “Ivan the Terrible” who operated the diesel engines of the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp, and who tortured and tormented prisoners in his spare time.  A special tribunal at the Jerusalem District Court found Demjanjuk guilty of this charge in 1988, and sentenced him to death as a result (the death sentence is available in Israel only for those found guilty of Nazi war crimes).  It was the Israeli Supreme Court that overturned this conviction in July 1993 on the basis that there was reasonable doubt as to whether the person on trial had been correctly identified as Ivan the Terrible.  The judges agreed that Demjanjuk was probably a Nazi guard at Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenb├╝rg camps.  But this was not the charge that the court had been called upon to adjudicate, and the judges were forced to set him free on the grounds of reasonable doubt on the charge of being Ivan the Terrible.

Demjanjuk returned to his adopted home in Cleveland, Ohio.  The American government, that had previously withdrawn his US citizenship, was forced to reinstate him as a citizen.  Demjanjuk was tried again earlier this year in Munich, accused of being a guard at Sobibor extermination camp.  A total of 27,900 charges of being an accessory to murder were brought against him, one for each man, woman and child who were brutally murdered at the camp.  The trial was something of a spectacle, with the accused being brought into the courtroom each day in a wheelchair and refusing to take any part in the trial.  He was eventually found guilty, and sentenced to 5 years in prison!  He was, however, immediately released having spent two years in prison awaiting trial, and many more years in prison during his trial in Israel.  His defense team had appealed the conviction, and the appeal was in the process of being prepared when he died.

There are many who have questioned the logic of spending years and millions of dollars prosecuting somebody who was a fairly low rung in the Nazi ladder.  It seems as though he was a lowly guard at a death camp, and not one of the key decision-makers driving the “Final Solution”.  Even though he was clearly evil and caused a great deal of suffering and torment for thousands of innocent people, is this enough to justify the enormous effort when there were much bigger fish to fry?  The prosecution of Demjanjuk cannot, for example, be compared to the Eichmann trial.  It did not come close to the spectacle and the importance of the Eichmann trial, largely due to the very senior position that Eichmann held in the Nazi death machine.  There were so many other senior Nazis, who were in the decision-making ranks, and who were never held to account for their appalling behaviour.  So why was this low-level individual pursued for so long, and at such great cost?

I think it was to do with the fact that there was such a substantial failure to bring many of the key Nazi figures to justice.  Except for the Nuremberg trials and Eichmann’s trial, there was little international justice meted out to the architects and operatives of the greatest genocide known to man.  This was despite the untiring efforts of Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal and others.  They played an important role in bring to the public’s attention how easily some of the big fish had evaded identification and justice.  When the accusation arose that Demjanjuk could have been the feared “Ivan the Terrible”, he was pursued relentlessly as something of an example to try to show some justice.  Even these attempts ultimately failed, although it did succeed in raising the issue of justice for Nazi war criminals into the public domain again.

One of the reasons that the prosecution of Nazi war criminals was not more widespread, was because the Israeli government decided not to pursue this following the execution of Eichmann.  He was the example that was used to publicly demonstrate some of the atrocities that took place, but the Israeli government chose not to pursue this avenue further.  Instead, the Israeli government decided to use its scarce resources, both financial and intelligence, in the building and the protection of the State of Israel.  In retrospect, this was probably the right decision even though we would have liked to see all war criminals brought to justice.  A choice had to be made, and I believe that the right one was made.

The death of Demjanjuk probably brings this chapter to an end.  It is difficult for me to see the possibility of finding any war criminals still alive, and who could face justice.  Even if such individuals are found, so much time has passed since the crimes were committed that the realistic prospects of a prosecution must be extremely low.  Interest groups have long called for the money that was channelled into searching for war criminals, to be redirected towards providing assistance for the survivors.  For them, this would be money better spent.

Some feel that some sort of revenge was achieved because Demjanjuk was kept on the run for the last 25 years of his life as prosecutors tried, and failed to bring justice for those who suffered by his hands.  I don’t really feel this. The fact that he was able to enjoy such a good life in America in the years following the war, and that he ultimately died a free man, is indication to me that justice was not ultimately served.  I do feel, however, that some revenge was extracted by him living long enough to see how the Jewish people have survived, grown and flourished despite his efforts and those of his collaborators.  I love the fact that he was brought to the State of Israel to stand trial, so that he could see the failure of his endeavours.  This was surely real justice.  I also feel sure that 27,900 souls were waiting for him when his time was up to extract the ultimate justice.

Sunday 11 March 2012

A Modern-Day Purim Story

Last week we celebrated the Jewish festival of Purim.  It is a classic Jewish festival which involves bad guys who wanted to murder the Jews.  Somehow, we managed to survive against the odds and a festival was created to celebrate this fact with the addition of delicious food.  As a child growing up, I remember thinking how unrealistic these stories sounded.  Could it really have been the case that the evil Haman was trying to influence the king of Persia to annihilate the Jews?  What reason could he have had for wishing to do this?  After all, most of the Jews that I knew were decent upstanding citizens and quite nice people as well.  So why would somebody have wanted to kill them?

For those of my parents' and grandparents' generation, this story would have been a very real one.  They were unfortunate enough to have witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust.  This was a repeat of the Purim story except, in this story, millions of innocent people were slaughtered.  Only now, 60 years later, can the State of Israel boast a population that equals the number that were murdered during the most barbaric human-cleansing exercise in history.  Despite the fact that the Jews have survived and made a strong comeback, we have not quite decided upon a festival with delicious food to celebrate Hitler's failure.  Perhaps we will have one in the future.  This should, however, not allow our eyes to be taken off the ball.  The Haggadah that we read on Pesach tells us that, "In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And The Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands."  We are also instructed to remember how Amalek attacked the Israelites soon after the crossing of the Red Sea following the exodus from Egypt.  Each year, we read the portion known as "Zachor" (remember) on the Shabbat preceding Purim to be reminded of the evil of Amalek, who is traditionally believed to be a descendant of the evil Haman from the Purim story.  The need to read this each year and remember, arises from the fact that we are required to be vigilant to prevent it from happening again.  Now, in 2012, there are strong indications that it is happening again.

The irony of the Purim story cannot be lost on us as we hurtle headlong into an inevitable conflict with Iran.  The Purim story took place in Persia, and we now return to the scene of the crime approximately 2,400 years later to confront Ahmadinejad, the modern-day Iranian Haman.  As far as I can make out, the Jews and Israel have caused no damage nor present any threat to Iran or Ahmadinejad.  Despite this fact, Ahmadinejad has made Israel-bashing the cornerstone of his foreign policy platform.  He has not missed an opportunity to threaten Israel or to predict her demise whenever he has had the ears and eyes of the world trained on him.  He has been good to his word in practice as well, channelling millions of dollars into terror organisations like Hezbollah and Hamas which have indiscriminately attacked Jewish and Israeli targets.  When adding his duplicitous dealings with the Iranian nuclear program, it is clear that this situation cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.  This is the reincarnation of Amalek, of Haman and of Hitler.  This is exactly the sort of person that we are warned against.

Experience that the Jewish people have accumulated over the years, shows that they cannot rely on others to do the right thing to protect them.  Whether it was the failure to bomb Auschwitz, or the criticism over the destruction of nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, the international community has shown itself unwilling or unable to take action at the required moment in order to prevent a disaster.  Viewing things with the benefit of hindsight is too late, and the lessons are somehow never learned.  The Jewish nation have been forced to ensure that they can take care of themselves.

Fortunately, one important thing has changed since the days of Haman and Hitler.  We now have a Jewish army.  This is probably the most substantial element of the equation in the current scenario with Ahmadinejad.  The fact that thousands of Iranians missiles are trained on Israel, and waiting for the first strike on Iran, does not intimidate the Israeli army.  This is simply another danger to be considered, alongside the others, when taking on the significant threat that Iran poses under Ahmadinejad's leadership.  The fight will be ugly and there will be casualties, but there is no choice for the Israeli army in the imperative to put a stop to this threat as soon as possible.

For parents like myself whose children are the soldiers who will be called upon to fight this fight, the prospects are chilling.  We would certainly prefer not to be in this situation, and we would not choose for our children to be placed in harm's way as they battle to protect Israel and the Jewish people.  Ultimately, however, we realise the importance of having an army like the IDF, and we are forced to stand helplessly by as our children willingly fulfil their obligation to protect their land and their people.  This is the only way that we can be assured that the likes of Haman, Hitler and Ahmadinejad will never be allowed to carry out their evil plans to destroy our state and our nation.  These soldiers, our children, are the heroes of this part of the story of survival.

As the situation escalates and the prospects of an armed conflict with Iran grow with each passing day, it is our prayer that our army and our children will succeed in doing their job safely and securely.  We pray that they will return to their families, sound in body and mind, having completed their task that they have been called upon to do.  We stand behind them, fearful for their well-being, but immensely proud of their sacrifice.  May Hashem protect them in all that they do.

Image by Deputado Bruno Covas

Monday 5 March 2012

Netanyahu's Gamble

Picture courtesy The London Evening Post
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has travelled to the United States to address the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  This is probably the largest and highest profile event on the US Jewish calendar, and it is no surprise that Bibi makes a special point of attending each year.  Continued support, both financially and politically, of the American Jews is key to Bibi.  One of the other keynote speakers at the event will be US President Barack Obama.  It is handy that the conference is being held in Washington DC this year, only a hop and a skip from the White House.  In this, an election year for Obama, he will not be missing out on the opportunity to pander to the highly influential “Jewish vote”.

On the fringes of the AIPAC conference, Obama and Netanyahu have scheduled a meeting.  This will be the 9th time that the two leaders have met since Obama came to office almost four years ago, despite the fact that Obama has yet to pay a visit to Israel during this time.  Even though this meeting is taking place as a secondary event around the AIPAC conference, the importance of this meeting should not be underestimated.   There is really only one topic on the agenda, and this is the huge issue of Iran and its nuclear activities.  Netanyahu has decided to go to the USA, and enter into a gamble with Obama.
Although both the USA and Israel agree that the Iranian nuclear program is building the capability of producing a bomb, it seems also to be agreed that a bomb has yet to be constructed.  This fact appears to make the issue less pressing for the US president and his men.  The Israeli team is far less relaxed about this situation and, for them, the fact that Iran is able to build a bomb is the equivalent of Iran having a bomb.   This is why Netanyahu has been pressing the international community for so long to take action against Ahmadinejad, and the dangers that are presented by the Iranian nuclear program.  Until now, the international community has been prepared only to impose economic sanctions on Iran and not take a stronger military stand as Netanyahu would have preferred.  While the sanctions do seem to be biting into the Iranian economy, the construction of the nuclear program appears to proceed without slowing down at all.

The last time this situation presented itself was less than 5 short years ago when the issue of the Syrian nuclear reactor came up for discussion between then Prime Minister Olmert and former President George W. Bush.  Acting on strong advice from his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Bush decided that the right approach would be to make a public announcement about construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria, and harness the support of the international community to impose sanctions to make Syria toe the line.  In his book, Bush reveals that Olmert neither sought nor received US approval to bomb the Syrian reactor.  Instead, he instructed the Israeli Air Force to destroy the reactor after reacting to Bush’s recommendation by saying that he would be forced to do what is in the best interests of the security of the State of Israel.  With the benefit of hindsight, we have a few more pieces of information on this incident which may be guiding Netanyahu in the way that he wishes to deal with Ahmadinejad.  Firstly, we know that Assad was either unable or unwilling to respond militarily to this strike on his sovereign territory, which resulted in Olmert’s gamble paying off handsomely.  As such, the regional conflagration that was predicted would arise as a result of an Israeli strike never materialized.  Thanks to the current uprising in Syria, we now also know how Assad responds to pressure from the international community – with contempt.  Without the bold decision and unilateral action taken by Olmert 5 years ago, the international community may be viewing the uprising in Syria today in a completely different way.

Netanyahu is hoping to convince Obama to publicly state that the US is willing to consider the possibility of taking military action against Iran.  Although other US representatives, most notably military senior brass, have made statements along these lines, it has never come from the president himself.  Netanyahu regards a statement of preparedness to act militarily as a significant position from the US administration even if the Americans are not the ones who ultimately strike at Iran.  It will show that the military force is justified in dealing with this problem in the event that other actions are not effective, and it will also indicate a willingness on the part of the US administration to commit forces to the cause possibly as a back-up to Israel.  Netanyahu will be gambling on the fact that the AIPAC audience will want to hear this from Obama, and that Obama will be under huge election pressure to tell AIPAC what they wish to hear.  Even if the statement is made in their White House meeting which is due after Obama’s address to AIPAC, it will certainly be enough for Netanyahu.

The real problem for Netanyahu is that he is also in the midst of gearing up for an election of his own.  Israel will go to the polls within the next 12 months to choose a new government, and Netanyahu will wish to have the Iran problem safely behind him by then.  Any success that he achieves on this front will almost certainly guarantee him re-election.  Netanyahu would, of course, prefer for the US military to take care of the problem.  This seems highly unlikely as Obama will be looking for every excuse not to commit his military to action in Iran during the lead-up to the US election.

Behind all of this is Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who is playing things as cool as a cucumber.  His authority in Iran may be weakened as a result of this weekend’s elections which showed a substantial swing away from him.  He may be at loggerheads with Supreme Leader Khameini, and he may be persona non grata in much of the international community.  None of this, however, prevents him from bashing Israel at every opportunity in a way that is reminiscent of the public shows of anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust.  It also does not prevent him from continuing to build his nuclear capability, causing further instability to an already highly volatile region.

Netanyahu is often presented as being prepared to take decisions which fly in the face of the international community.  His ability to act boldly and smartly will be severely tested over the coming months as he battles with the correct course of action to bring the Iranian threat to a sensible conclusion.  He needs to be able to achieve this without bringing undue risk or harm to the citizens of Israel.  This will be a huge challenge when we know that the Iranian military has hundreds of Shihab missiles targeted at Israel, and would not hesitate to use them if the situation demanded it.  Netanyahu’s first step in achieving this is to bring off his gamble with Obama this week.

All the time that the Iranian saga drags on, oil prices are bound to increase exponentially.  Neither Obama nor Netanyahu will get any thanks for that, which makes their window of opportunity for action much tighter.   Netanyahu’s political and diplomatic skills will be tested to their maximum over the next few months as he makes critical decisions as to each action to be taken against Iran.  The stakes are high.  Success could elevate him to the upper echelons of international statesmanship. Failure could risk the very existence of the State of Israel.