Michael Totten

The Oral Historian of Israel's Terror War

Encounter Books recently published Italian journalist Giulio Meotti’s gut wrenching book A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism. At first glance I thought his title might be over-the-top. Orders of magnitude more people were murdered in the Shoah—the Nazi Holocaust—than by terrorists in Israel, but that isn’t the point. What Israel’s victims of terrorism have in common with the victims of the Nazi genocide is that they were Jews who were murdered for being Jews.

Why else, after all, would a suicide bomber explode himself at Café Hillel in Jerusalem rather than at a military checkpoint in the West Bank or Gaza? Why else would Hamas fire rockets at kindergartens in Sderot instead of at army bases? And why else would Hezbollah lionize Samir Kuntar, a man who murdered a four year old girl by placing her head on a rock and smashing her skull with the butt of his rifle? And why would Hezbollah go all the way to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to blow up a Jewish community center with a truck bomb?

Meotti’s book is grim, but somebody needed to write it, and he’s the person who did. He and I spoke a few days ago.

MJT: So tell us why you wrote this book.

Giulio Meotti: What’s the difference between a Western democracy, such as France or the United States, and Israel’s democracy? It’s not the start-up nation, the job opportunities, the scientific progress, or the number of Nobel laureates. The most important difference between Israel and the other Western countries lies in the young men and women killed for what they are: Israelis living as free human beings in their historical homeland.

The Jewish state is the only member of the United Nations condemned to death. Its existence is the only one widely considered temporary by a large number of countries in the world. In 2003 I decided to investigate the great black hole that in the last fifteen years has snuffed out thousands of lives, Jews killed because they are Jews.

The book is the result of many years of research inside the painful heart and soul of Israel. There were no books devoted to this single dramatic question. I give a voice to dozens of families and survivors of terrorism who have been neglected by an arrogant media industry. I think the blood spilled by terrorism is the most precious and fragile story that Israel has today, a story that even Israeli writers have neglected.

MJT: Let’s talk about your title. Some potential readers might think comparing Israel’s victims of terrorism to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is a bit much, not least because the scale is so different in size. I thought so myself at first, though that feeling went away by about page 8 or 9. Perhaps you could say something about it for those who haven’t read to page 8 or 9.

Giulio Meotti: First of all let me say that I will never accept lessons about the use of the word Shoah by those who are undermining the Jewish state every day with their rhetoric. In Europe the memory of the Holocaust has become a perfect stage for the bashers of Israel. There is a direct connection between the Nazi ideology and the Islamist agenda–I am thinking of the mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husseini, who fought with Hitler against the Jews, and also the genocidal Hamas charter. The Holocaust survivors killed in Israel by suicide bombings, rockets, and terror shootings are the living proof of this terrible link.

With this title I wanted to address something the chattering classes refuse to recognize: that the monstrous morality of anti-Semitism continues as an immortal beast behind the politically correct mask of anti-Zionism. A distorted notion of remembering and history separates the Holocaust–a pure symbol of evil–from Israel’s sixty year struggle for survival under war and terrorism. There is also the question of living under the pre-nuclear threat from Iran. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the truth of the Shoah in order to weaken Israel’s existence and to prepare the world for a new massacre by Hezbollah, Hamas, and possibly even a nuclear attack. The question of the Shoah, and that Jewish identity is again under massive attack, defines the world after the 9/11 attacks.

MJT: Do you see any difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or would you say they are one and the same?

Giulio Meotti

Giulio Meotti: Israel’s centrality for the future of the Jews is more than just a question of demography or religion. Israel represents Jewish survival. Before World War II there was a great debate in the Jewish world over Zionism. The Holocaust resolved that debate. Zionism became the solution to Jewish powerlessness and vulnerability. The Jewish future lay in self-defense, sovereign territory, and the ingathering of the exiles.

In my opinion a great problem today is that Israel’s legitimacy is questioned again by a huge number of Jewish intellectuals and writers: Tony Judt, George Steiner, Jacqueline Rose, Ilan Pappe, Norman Finkelstein, Tony Kushner, Eric Hobsbawm, Noam Chomsky, etc. They would like to resolve the Jewish dilemma by assimilation and the disappearance of the Jewish difference.

It’s both a naive and a violent idea. Every other people that has been conquered and exiled and annihilated as the Jews has in time disappeared. Only the Jews defied the norm. Twice. But never, I fear, again. Anti-Zionism is a sophisticated intellectual movement and it’s paving the way for a new anti-Semitic tragedy. That’s why I think it was important to write a history book that tells the stories of Israeli civilians killed by terrorism; fathers and mothers, kids and the elderly, soldiers and doctors. Their families tell us who these people were, their ideals, their faces, their names. The book is the incarnation of Israel’s trauma and future at a time when the Iranian ayatollahs and the Saudi Wahhabis have a large audience in Western newspapers, universities, and parliaments.

But Israel is fine. It demonstrates this with its booming economy, its medical sciences, and its children who are capable of sacrifice and a complex life between war and their love for peace. On Israel’s side there is life. Its enemies preach death.

MJT: You’re Italian. What’s the prevailing attitude toward Israel in Italy? I have this vague sense that Italy is less hostile than many countries in Europe, but I’m not sure if that’s right.

Giulio Meotti: Italy has always been diplomatically pro-Arab. During the Cold War the Italian politicians followed an appeasement agenda. There was an untold deal between the Italian government and the Arab terrorist groups: you don’t attack Italy and we’ll close our eyes to your attacks on Jewish targets. There are many tragic examples, from the attack in the Jewish ghetto in Rome to the Achille Lauro incident. In the last ten years the Berlusconi government has shifted Italy to a pro-Israel policy. Italy, though, is a Catholic country with many financial and political relations with the Arab regimes, so I have no illusions about the future of our friendship with Israel.

MJT: Why do you suppose the Western media, especially European media, are so biased against Israel? And why are you different?

Giulio Meotti: Europe is an anti-Semitic continent. The wave of hatred from the European and American ruling classes, the “mainstream” international press with its headlines that repeat diabolical condemnations without appeal, and the satisfied hate of academics is like a pile of straw that waits only for the match to be struck before it will burst into flames.

In Italy the National Order of Journalists, which is a state funded institution, is hosting the presentation of the “Freedom Flotilla 2,” the so-called “humanitarian” ship that will be sent to break the Israeli siege of Hamas in Gaza. Among the speakers are Turkish militants of the IHH group, which is now on Germany’s black list of terrorist organizations. A few weeks ago hundreds of writers and personalities from Norway promoted a massive boycott of Israel. Spain decided to ban the homosexual Israeli movement. Israeli politicians are afraid to land in London’s airports because they might be arrested for “war crimes.” In Sweden the popular newspaper Aftonbladet wrote that Israeli soldiers ripped out the organs of Palestinians in order to sell them.

In the Netherlands the former European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein just invited the Dutch Jews to emigrate to Israel or the United States. There is no future for them in Netherlands due to Islamic anti-Semitism. The Netherlands is hosting the United Nations International Court of Justice. Its condemnation of the Israeli security barrier in 2004 and the Goldstone Report against Israel in 2009 simply forbids Israel to defend itself. The most important Dutch writer, Leon de Winter, who is also of Jewish descent, recently explained in a magnificent essay for Standpoint magazine why he decided to move to the United States. It’s much better to live in California, a place without history, than in a country where the synagogues are protected by the police and Jews can not wear their religious symbols in public. The beautiful Holland of Galileo, Spinoza, and Descartes, the shelter of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition, is dying. In its place there is fear, intimidation, and subjugation. There is so much darkness in Europe and in its newspapers and books.

MJT: Is European anti-Semitism primarily an Islamic phenomenon, or do non-Israeli Jews there have problems with the native population, as well? From a distance it appears—and maybe I’m wrong—that this problem is mostly one of enmity between the Jewish and Muslim minorities with the majority siding, at least in some ways, with the Muslims. Yet the average European doesn’t seem to think much of Muslims either.

Giulio Meotti: The current European anti-Semitism is a powerful mix of Islamist pressure on Europe by large Muslim communities in its midst and a leftist-progressive ideology. Today in many European cities–such as Malmo, Antwerp, and Paris– Jews can’t walk around with their religious symbols. In France we had the Ilan Halimi case, the Jewish guy who was tortured and burned to death by a Muslim gang in 2006. Since the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, there have been many opportunities to witness the resurrection of leftist anti-Semitism. The phantasm of a global Jewish-American plot is the mirror image of another that is now extinct, the Jewish-Bolshevik specter that was popular with the extreme right until the fall of the Soviet Union.

One might have thought anti-Semitic ideology would have disappeared in Europe with the revelation of the death camps. Instead we are forced to recognize that anti-Semitism is a virus resistant to history. Today in Europe, and especially among the most sophisticated classes, simply saying the name “Israel” makes many people lose their ability to reason. Just saying that name often unleashes a devastating reaction that scorches everything in its path. In fact, the destructive power of anti-Israeli hostility cannot be explained without invoking the hypothesis that it is nothing other than the manifestation of a deeper and less circumscribed hostility that, seemingly banished forever, has found an opening to exploit.

How will Europe react if the Arabs or the Iranians, with Hamas and Hezbollah, try to wipe Israel from the face of the earth, unleashing a new Holocaust? Their anti-Zionism and their ontological hatred of Israel are preparing them to accept the new martyrdom of Israel. I hope the stories I gather in my book about the massive flux of survivors and families broken by terror can help many people understand the history of Israel.

MJT: No one I know in the United States responds with revulsion just because somebody said the name “Israel.” Nor do they react that way when the name of any other country on earth is spoken. I find what you’re saying bizarre, and I wouldn’t quite believe it except that an American friend of mine who spends a lot of time in France and Belgium has experienced the same thing. He’s sometimes afraid to even admit that he’s Jewish when he’s in Europe. And he isn’t some paranoid right-wing nut. He’s a progressive American Jew who voted for Dennis Kucinich in a primary election. How many people in Europe, though, are actually this reactionary? I haven’t asked him that, so I guess I’ll ask you.

Giulio Meotti: We have an indifferent majority of people about the fate of Israel and the Jews and a very powerful minority in the newspapers, political parties, universities, televisions and public arena that is extremely hostile.

America has historical, religious, cultural, political, and economic links with Israel. It’s sad to say, but Europe is probably lost to Israel.

Think about Spain. It has a very small Jewish community and its ancient synagogues are empty monuments, but it has a virulent anti-Israel ideology. In Norway and Sweden the anti-Israel hatred has become mainstream among prime ministers and best-selling writers such as Jostein Gaardner. He is the author of the global literary phenomenon Sophie’s World and he wrote an article in the Aftenposten newspaper where he said, “We no longer recognize the State of Israel… Do not worry, Israel will go to exile again.”

For the commemoration of the Nazi’s Kristallnacht, the city of Frankfurt has just chosen as speaker the Jewish essayist Alfred Grosser, author of the violent anti-Israeli pamphlet Von Auschwitz nach Jerusalem. Grosser compared what the Nazis did to the Jews to what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians. I agree with the great American writer Cynthia Ozick when she says it would be best to abolish Holocaust memorial days in Europe.

As you can see, Michael, the anti-Israel ideology is now mainstream, fashionable, and even sexy all over Europe. Israel is overwhelmed by a tsunami of delegitimization. A group of Israeli tennis players was only allowed to play behind closed doors in a Swedish stadium. In Hanover an Israeli dance group was stoned by demonstrators shouting “Juden Raus.” The British Trade Union has called to boycott Israel. European supermarkets, even in Italy this year, have more than once decided to boycott Israeli goods. Israeli movies are ousted from international festivals, as in Edinburgh. Israeli academics are expelled from European universities and conferences.

Karel De Gucht, the European Union’s trade commissioner and a former foreign minister of Belgium, said in an interview in October that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were sure to founder on two accounts; first, because Jews are excessively influential in the U.S., and second because they are not the sorts to be reasoned with. If this isn’t anti-Semitism, the term has no meaning.

MJT: What was it like spending years speaking to the families of the victims of terrorism? It must have taken quite an emotional toll.

Giulio Meotti: Depression and anguish, loneliness and droop. When you confront so much pain for so many years it affects your soul and your spirit, probably forever. But I’m also happy that the book may help some people understand the situation in the Middle East more clearly and that I’ve rescued an incredible treasure of pain and hope. This book stands against disinformation, injustice, hatred, prejudice, amnesia, and bereavement.

MJT: What do your Italian colleagues in the media think of your views on Israel? Only my most extreme colleagues in America give me a hard time because supporting Israel is the normal default position in the United States.

Giulio Meotti: They react with indifference or hatred. I have been labeled an “Israeli slave,” “a Zionist moron,” a “criminal,” and a “killer.” It doesn’t matter. I can conceive of only one way to be a journalist and a writer, and that is to use moral clarity and to behave with dignity and with honor. For those who write about Israel it means we have to make a choice between enlightenment and obscurantism, between freedom and subjugation. One day my son will read this book and he will understand what I tried to do.

MJT: You interviewed and profiled so many people. Whose story made the most profound impression on you and why? For my part I’m struck most by those who escaped Hitler or Stalin only to be murdered by Saddam Hussein or Hezbollah.

Giulio Meotti: I consider these innocent victims saints. Those who survive them are the best humankind has to offer. The testimonies, the tears, the emotions of the witnesses are more authentic than historical documents for those who wish to understand Israel’s vortex of life and death. A great film maker should make a movie about them.

I divide the stories in my book into two major categories, ordinary people and “martyrs.” The first were civilians killed while going to work or school, to a restaurant or home. I’m thinking here of the people killed in the Dolphinarium’s discotheque, on buses in Haifa and Hadera, on Jerusalem’s pedestrian streets. People such as Yossi Zur’s son Asaf, the Katsmans or the granddaughter and son of Lipa Weiss, a supreme hero of Israel’s rebuilding after the Holocaust.

I am also thinking of Faina Dorfman’s daughter. She was killed while dancing in Tel Aviv. Arnold Roth’s daughter Malki was returning from school in Jerusalem. These are the stories that foreign readers in the U.S. and Europe, especially the non-Jews, can easily identify with.

The “martyrs” are those killed in the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria–the famous “settlements”–and the humanitarian doctors. The settlements endured hundreds of deaths, with days full of fear, nights spent standing guard in isolated houses, the sudden massacres of families, infants and unborn babies, the drives through darkened streets in helmets and bulletproof vests. Those “devils” in the settlements.

These days everyone demands a “freeze” of their presence in the West Bank. In the popular imagination, the colonists keep their rifles by their side and devastate Arab olive trees. But what is a colonist, really? I have tried to answer this question. One day they may evacuate their homes for a viable peace agreement and the book will preserve the memory of those who were killed for being Jews in the Bible’s places. People such as Steve Bloomberg, who learned to live in a wheelchair along with his daughter. People such as David Hatuel, who lost his wife and four daughters in a Gaza settlement. Or Hebron’s Jews.

Among the doctors I am thinking of Shmuel Gillis or David Applebaum. The latter lived with a defibrillator under his bed and was killed with his daughter the day before she was to be married. Also among the “martyrs” are those who fled the Stalinist persecution and the Gulags only to be killed in Israel. A New Shoah is not an archival reminder, but a re-living, a re-enactment of the lives brutally interrupted by terrorism. In that sense the book is a living monument.

MJT: You’re not Jewish. (Neither am I, by the way.) What is it that draws you to Israel and the tragedy of the Jewish experience in this world?

Giulio Meotti: If some day Israel were to fall into the hands of its enemies, the West as we know it would cease to exist. The West is what it is thanks to Rome, Jerusalem, and Athens–Rome’s rule of law, the Bible’s morality, and Greek democracy. If the Jewish part of those roots is overturned and Israel is lost, then we are lost too. Israel is a lighthouse of life at a time when life is our most endangered value. A New Shoah is an affirmation of life in the kingdom of death.

A special friend of mine said the book is the Dead Sea Scrolls of modern Israel. It may take some years before the book’s stories have an effect, and for me the most important would be to change the world’s conscience about Israel. It’s a hard task, but one worth attempting. My enduring consolation will be to give an everlasting name and voice to those who have been murdered.

Giulio Meotti is the author of A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism. He lives in Tuscany.

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