Just when you think no one can come up with a genuine modern analogy to Nazi Germany, someone does. Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the conservative Likud Party in Israel, offers a scary and wholly plausible comparison. "It's 1938 and Iran is Germany," he told the annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities the other day in Los Angeles. "When someone tells you he is going to exterminate you, believe him -- and stop him."
No sooner than he completed his speech the Iranian newspapers reported that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was boasting that "we will soon witness [Israel's] disappearance and destruction." Ahmadinejad and his men are preparing a Holocaust that Hitler would envy, not limited to a tiny fledgling democracy in the Middle East. The Iranian nuclear program poses a threat to the entire West.
"Israel would certainly be the first stop on Iran's tour of destruction, but at the planned production rate of 25 nuclear bombs a year . . . [the arsenal] will be directed against 'the big Satan,' the U.S., and the 'moderate Satan,' Europe,'" Mr. Netanyahu told the assembled Jewish communities. But the ordering of events has changed. Hitler started a war first and began work on the atomic bomb; Ahmadinejad is building nuclear weapons first.
To do nothing is to appease, which is yet another allusion to the careless international diplomacy before World War II: "No one cared then and no one cares now." Hitler went on building a formidable military machine while the world pretended not to notice. Winston Churchill was the lonely prophet whose warning went unheeded. Appeasement, he said, is "a bit like feeding a crocodile hoping that it would eat you last." This time everyone notices what Iran is doing, but wants to go about business as usual: "What, me worry?" The first missiles will have Europe in range, then America. Israel will be the canary in the coalmine, the first to disappear as a warning to everyone else.
Ahmadinejad isn't trying to sell a Holocaust analogy; he insists the original never happened. But the 5 million Jews in Israel understand that rhetoric precedes the reality. Erasing Israel from the map is real to them. "Because Auschwitz really happened, it has permeated our imagination, become a permanent part of us," says Nobel Prize-winning novelist Imre Kertesz. "What we are able to imagine -- because it really happened -- can happen again."
While Netanyahu was speaking on the Left Coast, the man who now represents "the little Satan," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, met President Bush in Washington. They talked for several hours and mostly about what to do about Iran. Both men have been weakened since the last time they met. Mr. Olmert suffered because he was slow to react with enough ground troops for the war in Lebanon. George W. Bush had a really bad hair day on Nov. 7.
Thus, their rhetoric rings a little hollow now, suggesting that their countries have deeper divisions than they're ready to admit. Israel worries that the American weakness in Iraq might compel the president to press Israel to make unwise concessions to the Palestinians in order to organize a coalition of Arab states to support sanctions against Iran. The United States worries that Israel's military image was tarnished in the war in Lebanon, making it appear less fearsome. This war in Lebanon was not exactly the Six-Day War.
Israel has strong friends in America, particularly among evangelical Christians. Nearly everyone has known this for a long time, but some people always find out late. The New York Times discovered it only last week, and put the news of its late discovery on Page One. These Christians frequently invoke Biblical references, but they're quick to draw analogies to the Third Reich. "Hitler told everybody what he was going to do, and Ahmadinejad is saying exactly what he is going to do," says Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, the faith-and-family advocacy organization. "He is talking genocide."
The Rev. John Hagee, pastor of a megachurch in San Antonio, says the Iranian leader's remarks about a second Holocaust prompted him to establish Christians United for Israel. He compared the Ahmadinejad Iranians to an Old Testament villain: "Pharaoh threatened Israel and he ended up fish food."
After President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert concluded their private meeting in the Oval Office, they spoke in a unified voice that they cannot accept a nuclear-armed Iran. The question of how they would stop it remains unaddressed -- in public. But both men obviously know that taking a nap is not the route to peace in our time.