Essay: This Holocaust will be different
Benny Morris, THE JERUSALEM POST Jan. 18, 2007
The second holocaust will not be like the first. The Nazis, of course,
industrialized mass murder. But still, the perpetrators had one-on-one
contact with the victims. They may have dehumanized them over months and
years of appalling debasement and in their minds, before the actual killing.
But, still, they were in eye and ear contact, sometimes in tactile contact,
with their victims.
The Germans, along with their non-German helpers, had to round up the men,
women and children from their houses and drag and beat them through the
streets and mow them down in nearby woods or push and pack them into cattle
cars and transport them to the camps, where "Work makes free," separate the
able-bodied from the completely useless and lure them into "shower" halls
and pour in the gas and then take out, or oversee the extraction of, the
bodies and prepare the "showers" for the next batch.
The second holocaust will be quite different. One bright morning, in five or
10 years, perhaps during a regional crisis, perhaps out of the blue, a day
or a year or five years after Iran's acquisition of the Bomb, the mullahs in
Qom will convene in secret session, under a portrait of the steely-eyed
Ayatollah Khomeini, and give President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by then in his
second or third term, the go-ahead.
The orders will go out and the Shihab III and IV missiles will take off for
Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Haifa and Jerusalem, and probably some military sites,
including Israel's half dozen air and (reported) nuclear missile bases. Some
of the Shihabs will be nuclear-tipped, perhaps even with multiple warheads.
Others will be dupes, packed merely with biological or chemical agents, or
old newspapers, to draw off or confuse Israel's anti-missile batteries and
Home Front Command units.
With a country the size and shape of Israel (an elongated 20,000 square
kilometers), probably four or five hits will suffice: No more Israel. A
million or more Israelis in the greater Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem areas
will die immediately. Millions will be seriously irradiated. Israel has
about seven million inhabitants. No Iranian will see or touch an Israeli. It
will be quite impersonal.
Some of the dead will inevitably be Arab - 1.3 million of Israel's citizens
are Arab and another 3.5 million Arabs live in the semi-occupied West Bank
and Gaza Strip. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Haifa have substantial Arab
minorities. And there are large Arab concentrations immediately around
Jerusalem (in Ramallah-Al Bireh, Bir Zeit, Bethlehem) and outside Haifa.
Here, too, many will die, immediately or by and by.
It is doubtful whether such a mass killing of fellow Muslims will trouble
Ahmadinejad and the mullahs. The Iranians don't especially like Arabs,
especially Sunni Arabs, with whom they have intermittently warred for
centuries. And they have a special contempt for the (Sunni) Palestinians
who, after all, though initially outnumbering the Jews by more than 10 to 1,
failed during the long conflict to prevent them from establishing their
state or taking over all of Palestine.
Besides, the Iranian leadership sees the destruction of Israel as a supreme
divine command, as a herald of the second coming, and the Muslims dispatched
collaterally as so many martyrs in the noble cause. Anyway, the
Palestinians, many of them dispersed around the globe, will survive as a
people, as will the greater Arab nation of which they are part. And surely,
to be rid of the Jewish state, the Arabs should be willing to make some
sacrifices. In the cosmic balance sheet, it will be worth the candle.
A QUESTION may nevertheless arise in the Iranian councils: What about
Jerusalem? After all, the city contains Islam's third holiest shrines (after
Mecca and Medina), Al Aksa Mosque and the Mosque of Omar. But Ali Khamenei,
the supreme spiritual leader, and Ahmadinejad most likely would reply much
as they would to the wider question regarding the destruction and
radioactive pollution of Palestine as a whole: The city, like the land, by
God's grace, in 20 or 50 years' time, will recover. And it will be restored
to Islam (and the Arabs). And the deeper pollution will have been
To judge from Ahmadinejad's continuous reference to Palestine and the need
to destroy Israel, and his denial of the first Holocaust, he is a man
obsessed. He shares this with the mullahs: All were brought up on the
teachings of Khomeini, a prolific anti-Semite who often fulminated against
"the Little Satan." To judge from Ahmadinejad's organization of the
Holocaust cartoon competition and the Holocaust denial conference, the
Iranian president's hatreds are deep (and, of course,
He is willing to gamble the future of Iran or even of the whole Muslim
Middle East in exchange for Israel's destruction. No doubt he believes that
Allah, somehow, will protect Iran from an Israeli nuclear response or an
American counterstrike. Allah aside, he may well believe that his missiles
will so pulverize the Jewish state, knock out its leadership and its
land-based nuclear bases, and demoralize or confuse its nuclear-armed
submarine commanders that it will be unable to respond. And, with his deep
contempt for the weak-kneed West, he is unlikely to take seriously the
threat of American nuclear retaliation.
Or he may well take into account a counterstrike and simply, irrationally
(to our way of thinking), be willing to pay the price. As his mentor,
Khomeini, put it in a speech in Qom in 1980: "We do not worship Iran, we
worship Allah... I say, let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up
in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant..."
For these worshipers at the cult of death, even the sacrifice of the
homeland is acceptable if the outcome is the demise of Israel.
DEPUTY DEFENSE Minister Ephraim Sneh has suggested that Iran doesn't even
have to use the Bomb to destroy Israel. Simply, the nuclearization of Iran
will so overawe and depress Israelis that they will lose hope and gradually
emigrate, and potential foreign investors and immigrants will shy away from
the mortally threatened Jewish state. These, together, will bring about its
But my feeling is that Ahmadinejad and his allies lack the patience for such
a drawn-out denouement; they seek Israel's annihilation in the here and now,
in the immediate future, in their lifetime. They won't want to leave
anything up to the vagaries of history.
As with the first, the second holocaust will have been preceded by decades
of preparation of hearts and minds, by Iranian and Arab leaders, Western
intellectuals and media outlets. Different messages have gone out to
different audiences, but all have (objectively) served the same goal, the
demonization of Israel. Muslims the world over have been taught: "The
Zionists/Jews are the embodiment of evil" and "Israel must be destroyed."
And Westeners, more subtly, were instructed: "Israel is a racist oppressor
state" and "Israel, in this age of multiculturalism, is an anachronism and
superfluous." Generations of Muslims and at least a generation of Westerners
have been brought up on these catechisms.
THE BUILD-UP to the second holocaust (which, incidentally, in the end, will
probably claim roughly the same number of lives as the first) has seen an
international community fragmented and driven by separate, selfish
appetites - Russia and China obsessed with Muslim markets; France with Arab
oil - and the United States driven by the debacle in Iraq into a deep
isolationism. Iran has been left free to pursue its nuclear destiny and
Israel and Iran to face off alone.
But an ultimately isolated Israel will prove unequal to the task, like a
rabbit caught in the headlights of an onrushing car. Last summer, led by a
party hack of a prime minister and a small-time trade unionist as defense
minister, and deploying an army trained for quelling incompetent and poorly
armed Palestinian gangs in the occupied territories and overly concerned
about both sustaining and inflicting casualties, Israel failed in a 34-day
mini-war against a small Iran-backed guerrilla army of Lebanese
fundamentalists (albeit highly motivated, well-trained and well-armed). That
mini-war thoroughly demoralized the Israeli political and military
Since then, the ministers and generals, like their counterparts in the West,
have looked on glumly as Hizbullah's patrons have been arming with doomsday
weapons. Perversely, the Israeli leaders may even have been happy with
Western pressures urging restraint. Most likely they deeply wished to
believe Western assurances that somebody, somehow - the UN, G-8 - would pull
the radioactive chestnuts out of the fire. There are even those who fell for
the outlandish idea that a regime change in Teheran, driven by a reputedly
secular middle class, would ultimately stymie the mad mullahs.
But even more to the point, the Iranian program presented an infinitely
complex challenge for a country with limited conventional military
resources. Taking their cue from the successful IAF destruction of Iraq's
Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, the Iranians duplicated and dispersed their
facilities and buried them deep underground (and the Iranian targets are
about twice as far from Israel as was Baghdad). Taking out the known Iranian
facilities with conventional weapons would take an American-size air force
working round-the-clock for more than a month.
At best, Israel's air force, commandos and navy could hope to hit only some
of the components of the Iranian project. But, in the end, it would remain
substantially intact - and the Iranians even more determined (if that were
possible) to attain the Bomb as soon as possible. It would also, without
doubt, immediately result in a world-embracing Islamist terrorist campaign
against Israel (and possibly its Western allies) and, of course,
near-universal vilification. Orchestrated by Ahmadinejad, all would clamor
that the Iranian program had been geared to peaceful purposes. At best, an
Israeli conventional strike could delay the Iranians by a year or two.
IN SHORT order, therefore, the incompetent leadership in Jerusalem would
soon confront a doomsday scenario, either after launching their marginally
effective conventional offensive or in its stead, of launching a preemptive
nuclear strike against the Iranian nuclear program, some of whose components
are in or near major cities. Would they have the stomach for this? Would
their determination to save Israel extend to preemptively killing millions
of Iranians and, in effect, destroying Iran?
This dilemma had long ago been accurately defined by a wise general:
Israel's nuclear armory is unusable. It can only be used too early or too
late. There will never be a "right" time. Use it "too early," meaning before
Iran acquires similar weapons, and Israel will be cast in the role of
international pariah, a target of universal Muslim assault, without a friend
in the world; "too late" means after the Iranians have struck. What purpose
would that serve?
So Israel's leaders will grit their teeth and hope that somehow things will
turn out for the best. Perhaps, after acquiring the Bomb, the Iranians will
BUT THE Iranians are driven by a higher logic. And they will launch their
rockets. And, as with the first Holocaust, the international community will
do nothing. It will all be over, for Israel, in a few minutes - not like in
the 1940s, when the world had five long years in which to wring its hands
and do nothing. After the Shihabs fall, the world will send rescue ships and
medical aid for the lightly charred. It will not nuke Iran. For what purpose
and at what cost? An American nuclear response would lastingly alienate the
whole Muslim world, deepening and universalizing the ongoing clash of
civilizations. And, of course, it would not bring Israel back. (Would
hanging a serial murderer bring back his victims?)
So what would be the point?
Still, the second holocaust will be different in the sense that Ahmadinejad
will not actually see and touch those he so wishes dead (and, one may
speculate, this might cause him disappointment as, in his years of service
in Iranian death squads in Europe, he may have acquired a taste for actual
blood). And, indeed, there will be no scenes like the following, quoted in
Daniel Mendelsohn's recent The Lost, A Search for Six of Six Million, in
which is described the second Nazi action in Bolechow, Poland, in September
A terrible episode happened with Mrs. Grynberg. The Ukrainians and Germans,
who had broken into her house, found her giving birth. The weeping and
entreaties of bystanders didn't help and she was taken from her home in a
nightshirt and dragged into the square in front of the town hall.
There... she was dragged onto a dumpster in the yard of the town hall with a
crowd of Ukrainians present, who cracked jokes and jeered and watched the
pain of childbirth and she gave birth to a child. The child was immediately
torn from her arms along with its umbilical cord and thrown - It was
trampled by the crowd and she was stood on her feet as blood poured out of
her with bleeding bits hanging and she stood that way for a few hours by the
wall of the town hall, afterwards she went with all the others to the train
station where they loaded her into a carriage in a train to Belzec.
In the next holocaust there will be no such heart-rending scenes, of
perpetrators and victims mired in blood (though, to judge from pictures of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the physical effects of nuclear explosions can be
But it will be a holocaust nonetheless.
The writer is a professor of Middle Eastern history at Ben-Gurion