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Historian Yehuda Bauer: Israel’s own politicians add to global Holocaust distortion

At 97, Israel’s preeminent Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer is keeping busy in his home in Jerusalem’s tranquil Beit HaKerem neighborhood. Shouldering the workload of a much younger man, he’s translating documents for Yad Vashem while working on a new book he expects to be out by next year.

By his side when The Times of Israel comes to visit is a little “light reading” — that day’s opinion page from a left-wing Hebrew daily and a novel he is in the middle of reading, “Memoirs of an Antisemite,” which details the Nazi rise to power through the eyes of an aloof, vaguely antisemitic narrator.

Over the course of his lengthy career, Bauer has published over 40 books on the Holocaust and antisemitism, and Jewish reactions to it. His earlier research focused on Jewish organized resistance to the Nazi regime, but his more recent work addresses larger themes of antisemitism and the Holocaust’s historical significance.

The looming question of whether the Holocaust will be remembered by future generations, a concern of the organized Jewish community for decades, doesn’t seem to bother Bauer. He’s more worried about its misrepresentation. In a wide-ranging July interview, he discussed, among other topics, the dangers of extreme nationalism, defining antisemitism and his new book-in-progress.

The numbers back up Bauer’s concerns over historical misrepresentation: Polling in the United States and Europe has shown that a large chunk of the general public lacks basic knowledge about the Holocaust, and though not engaging in outright denial, often echoes myths about the genocide. According to Bauer, Israelis are not immune to falling for these falsehoods, either.

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“The memory of the Holocaust is being preserved, very often in a bad way, with misunderstandings, wrong conclusions and wrong analyses. But it’s always there,” he said.

To blame for these faulty analyses, asserted Bauer, are Israel’s politicians, “whatever their color, but especially of the right-wing.”

Yehuda Bauer in his apartment in the Beit HaKerem neighborhood of Jerusalem on July 3, 2023. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

“They interpret it in a nationalistic way. They use the Holocaust as a tool for politics,” he said. “This is especially true of the prime minister. He’s got no clue, simply has no idea what happened. He deals with Iran, he knows something about Iran; he doesn’t know anything about the Holocaust.”

In the past, Bauer has criticized Netanyahu for his statements regarding the Holocaust, including his infamous assertion that Hitler only got the idea for the genocide of European Jewry after his meeting with the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini. Bauer corrected the record, noting that Germans had begun annihilating the Jews half a year before Hitler and the mufti met.

Irked by “nationalist speeches” at Yad Vashem’s annual Holocaust memorial service on Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance day, Bauer made the decision to boycott the event.

“The speeches that were delivered there were so stupid, I couldn’t stand it anymore,” he said. “They always started with a testimony that someone provided them with, and then the speakers went to Iran, and the Palestinians and so on and so forth. As if this has anything to do with the Holocaust.”

Political disillusionment

Bauer was born in 1926 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and immigrated to British Mandate Palestine in 1939. In his young adulthood before Israel’s independence, Bauer was a member of the socialist Mapam party and before 1948, he aligned himself with the party’s left flank, opposing its more nationalist elements embodied by former Palmach commander Yigal Allon, who later split from the party to form his own.

“I thought at first there was a possibility of a binational state [during the Mandate], an agreement with what I saw as the progressive parts of Arab society. I hoped that there would be a kind of binational agreement, but I realized that was impossible. I became a theoretical supporter of a two-state solution — I say theoretical because in practice it doesn’t work,” he said.

President Reuven Rivlin, center, is greeted by Prof. Yehuda Bauer (left) and Prof. Ruth Arnon, October 19, 2014. (photo credit: Michal Fattal)

Bauer is even more cynical about the prospect of peace today, particularly under the current government, whose politicians he derided as “fascists, violent nationalistic religious fundamentalists and criminals.”

When speaking about National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Bauer drew a sharp line between the description “fascist” and “Judeo-Nazi,” a term coined by his late colleague Yeshayahu Leibowitz to describe far-right Israeli nationalists.

Leibowitz  “went to an extreme I don’t think is correct,” he said. “You can’t accuse Israelis, even nationalist religious fanatics, of neo-Nazism.”

You can’t accuse Israelis, even nationalist religious fanatics, of neo-Nazism

He does, however, concur with Leibowitz on the dire consequences of Israel’s continued military occupation in the West Bank.

“We are occupying people who hate us, and that’s not a good thing. As long as the kind of nationalist government that we have is in power, there’s no possibility of a solution,” he said.

“Anybody of 18 years of age, female or male, armed from top to bottom, can come into any Palestinian home at three o’clock in the morning and pick out somebody, causing trauma to the rest of the family, to the children especially,” he said. “That, of course, creates opposition. It’s a recipe for terror attacks against Jews.”

How to define ineffable Jew-hatred

Although Bauer carries much disdain for nationalism in the extreme, he is subject to a similar critique himself, from academics to his left for his role in shaping policy regarding what is and isn’t antisemitism.

Having advised the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance since its inception in 1998, Bauer was involved in formulating the organization’s Working Definition of Antisemitism, which has become increasingly entangled in politics surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those who oppose the definition argue that the definition aims to silence harsh criticism of Israel, but Bauer wholeheartedly disagrees.

“The definition states quite clearly that an opposition to the Israeli government’s policy is not antisemitic,” he said, remaining vague as to which part of the document he was referring to.

The historian downplayed his involvement in drafting the definition, mentioning only that he partook in discussions preceding its publication. He nonetheless defended it against criticism.

“Of course, it could have been better. Anything could be always better. That’s what came out, and I thought it was better than nothing,” he said. “This was a certain development, and I was part of it, that’s it.”

A contemporary image of Holocaust scholar Prof. Yehuda Bauer. (YouTube screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

He commented that the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, an alternate definition signed and supported by left-wing academics, was “contradictory in its wording,” and remarked that it fell into obscurity soon after its publication.

The IHRA definition has been adopted by governments of the vast majority of European countries and many states in the US.

Work in progress

Bauer doesn’t view antisemitism as simply a Jewish issue, but one that impacts the society in which it thrives. The effect that antisemitism has on larger societies, notably Nazi Germany, is the focus of his book-in-progress.

Although he kept the specifics hazy, he mentioned that the book will narrow in on a 1936 memo written by Hitler, pushing for Germany to go to war.

“The reason was their enmity to ‘Bolshevism.’ Hitler said that the only purpose of Bolshevism was to ‘enthrone the Jews over the world.’ That’s why Germany ‘had’ to go to war. So antisemitism was a major element in general history, as well,” said Bauer.

The scholar has given similar speeches in the past, warning world leaders that antisemitism “is not a Jewish illness, but a non-Jewish one” with the potential to “destroy [their] nations” in addition to Jewish communities.

Bauer said he is planning to finish the book in a year, adding that he hopes to live long enough to see it through to completion.