The critic Leon Wieseltier once warned that nationalist politics grounded in collective memory can “destroy the empirical attitude that is necessary for the responsible use of power”. It is an insight that events in the Middle East – that proving ground for the irresponsible use of power – seem to confirm every day. To take only one example, when Israeli forces encircled Beirut in 1982, Israel’s then prime minister, Menachem Begin, announced that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) had the “Nazis surrounded in their bunker”, even though it was Yasser Arafat and Fatah that were trapped in the Lebanese capital. It was a paradigmatic example of what happens when collective memory born of trauma finds political and, above all, military expression.
First of all, the exact text of that August 2, 1982 thank-you message to American President Ronald Regan (thanks to MP):
The image emphasized the attack on civilians, rather than Arafat as a Hitler and no "Nazis" is there. And Begin is relating to the historical achievement of a Jewish leader being able, finally and fully empowered, to defend innocent Jewish lives. Not that Arafat was a "Hitler" but that unlike in World War II when no Prime Minister, President or other free world leader cared enough to defend Jews, Begin had that power.
And if the link to Nazis bother David Rieff, the author of the oped whose new book, In Praise of Forgetting, is to appear soon, almost eight years ago, we wrote on the matter:
Menachem Begin viewed, correctly, that Arafat had inherited the Mufti's identification with racial antisemitic hatred of the Jew as a Jew and therefore, it is not the Holocaust that Begin was promoting as a symbol but the very real physical deaths that Arafat was promoting at the time.
The material here was used by Melanie Phillips in her JPost column Friday, March 4: