JERUSALEM (AP) — In a reflection of the deep divisions plaguing Israel, a top general set off a controversy Thursday after appearing to liken the atmosphere in Israel to that of Nazi-era Germany during a speech marking the country's Holocaust memorial day.
The comments, coming on one of the country's most sensitive and sacred days, enraged Israeli nationalists. The episode also underscored an increasingly evident rift between hard-liners in the government and the country's security chiefs — who tend to be more pragmatic than many politicians on its troubled relations with the Palestinians.
In a speech Wednesday night, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, the military's deputy chief of staff, said the Holocaust — in which the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews — should prompt Israelis to "think deeply" about their society.
"If there is anything that frightens me in the remembrance of the Holocaust, it is discerning nauseating processes that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany specifically back then, 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and seeing evidence of them here among us in the year 2016," he said.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, called on Golan to correct his comments or be seen as comparing Israeli soldiers to Nazis. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a member of the same party, said Golan was "a little confused" and that his statement reflected "a lack of understanding, if not a disrespect of the Holocaust."
Although military figures are supposed to steer clear of politics, Golan's comments reflected the concerns of Israeli liberals about the deterioration of Jewish-Arab relations and the increasing antipathy between the groups as a result of a wave of Palestinian violence.
Since September, 28 Israelis and two Americans have been killed in Palestinian stabbings, shootings and car rammings. Nearly 200 Palestinians have also been killed, most of them said by Israel to be attackers. In several cases, armed Israeli civilians have killed the attackers, winning praise from politicians but drawing accusations from Palestinians and some Israelis of vigilante killings.
In one recent incident, a soldier was caught on video fatally shooting an already wounded Palestinian attacker in the head in the West Bank town of Hebron. Hard-liners accused the military of abandoning the soldier by indicting him for manslaughter, and polls showed most Jewish Israelis shared the sentiment. Many Israeli Jews also now openly oppose the equal rights of the one-fifth of the country's 8 million citizens who are Arabs — who in turn are growing increasingly alienated from the Jewish state.
"There is nothing simpler and easier than hating the foreigner," Golan said in his comments. "There is nothing easier and simpler than arousing fears and intimidating."
He called on Israelis to "discuss our ability to uproot from among us buds of intolerance, buds of violence, buds of self-destruction on the path to ethical deterioration."
The Haaretz daily said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, late Wednesday to express displeasure.
That report could not immediately be confirmed. But early Wednesday, the military issued a clarification, saying Golan did not intend to compare Israel and its army to "the horrors" of Nazi Germany.
"This is an absurd and baseless comparison that he never would have made and it was never his intention to criticize the Israeli government," the military said. It said it "holds the value of human life as a guiding value."
Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left opposition, called Golan brave. "This is what ethics and responsibility sound like," he said.
And Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank, said Golan had delivered an important message about the need to confront "isolated events" of extremism in Israeli society and to set a moral example.
But he said that given the "extremely high sensitivity" of the Holocaust, Golan's comments struck a raw nerve. "One has to be overly cautious and accurate with the words one chooses in order to not be wrongly understood," he said. "That's why he made his clarification."
With his comments, Golan touched upon two of the most central aspects of Israeli society: the Holocaust and the military.
The Holocaust remains an open wound in Israeli society and is at the heart of Israel's national identity. The country was founded in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust and became a refuge for tens of thousands of survivors. Thousands of Israeli high school students make annual trips to Nazi death camp sites in Europe, and foreign leaders routinely visit Israel's Holocaust memorial.
In an annual ritual Thursday, sirens wailed for two minutes as the nation came to a standstill to mark the day. Cars and pedestrians stopped, while ceremonies were held nationwide.
Israeli officials also frequently draw parallels between the Holocaust and contemporary events, at times stirring controversy.
Netanyahu has been criticized for invoking the Holocaust when talking about Iran and its nuclear program. And last year, he drew criticism for suggesting that a World War II-era Palestinian leader persuaded the Nazis to carry out the genocide. Holocaust experts and survivors slammed Netanyahu's comments as historically inaccurate.
The military, meanwhile, is widely seen as Israel's most trusted institution, with favorability ratings around 90 percent among the Jewish population.
But divisions have emerged between hard-line politicians calling for a tough crackdown against the current wave of attacks, and security chiefs who at times have urged restraint. The Palestinians have repeatedly accused Israeli police and troops of using excessive force to subdue attackers.
Earlier this year, the military chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, came under fire from parliamentary hard-liners for calling on soldiers to use only "necessary force" against attackers.
Yaalon, the defense minister and a former army chief, said Thursday that he had "full faith" in Golan and decried "the worrying and bothersome campaign to politically damage the army and its officers."