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Top Israeli general faces criticism for comparing Israel to Nazis

In a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech Wednesday, Major-General Yair Golan said he saw 'remnants' of the process that led to the rise of the Third Reich. When, if ever, are Nazi comparisons appropriate?

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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin lays a wreath during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

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A top Israeli general faces criticism after apparently comparing aspects of Israeli society to Nazi-era Germany during a Wednesday speech about the Holocaust. 

Speaking at the Tel Yitzhak kibbutz on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Major-General Yair Golan, the Israel Defense Forces's second-highest-ranking officer, implied there was Nazi-like behavior in Israeli society.

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"If there is one thing that is scary in remembering the Holocaust, it is noticing horrific processes which developed in Europe – particularly in Germany – 70, 80, and 90 years ago, and finding remnants of that here among us in the year 2016," he said.  

Golan had reportedly referenced Israeli Sgt. Elor Azaria's alleged shooting of a Palestinian attacker who was subdued and on the ground. Sgt. Azaria was charged with manslaughter, a decision criticized by some nationalist Israelis who believe the soldier acted properly. 

In his speech, Golan condemned "the aberrant use of weapons" and said the military was committed to "investigate difficult issues impartially," according to Reuters.  

"[The Israel Defense Forces] should be proud that it has probed problematic behavior with courage and that it has taken responsibility not just for good, but also for the bad and the inappropriate," Golan said, according to The Jerusalem Post.  

Although Golan and the IDF released a statement hours later saying Golan "had no intention" to compare Israel and its army to Nazi Germany, his words reignite a debate that has simmered in the 71 years after the liberation of Auschwitz: Is there ever such a thing as a constructive comparison to the Third Reich? 

"Some would say it defames the memories of those who perished," Rutgers University sociologist Judith Gerson, the co-author of "Sociology Confronts the Holocaust," tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview Thursday. "It is still highly charged, vexing, troubling, and worrisome to the families of survivors and to survivors themselves because of this ongoing tension about whether the Holocaust was unique as a genocide, and whether we can even talk about it."  

Ken Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, tells the Monitor that any comparison to the Holocaust — whether it's about Israel, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, or abortion — is "hugely incorrect and insensitive."  

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"To make that leap to the Holocaust is insensitive to the six million," says Jacobson. "It doesn't mean there isn't room for legitimate criticism on social issues in America, in Israel, or any place."  

In Israel in particular, censurers of Golan's speech worried how it could be used to deny the Holocaust or criticize the country's treatment of Palestinians.

Marc Shulman, an op-ed contributor to Newsweek and lives in Tel Aviv, reflected on these fears in his blog. 

Golan's words cut deep to the one of the fundamental divides among those who try to understand the Holocaust and apply the lessons they glean today. On one side of the divide are those who say the Holocaust and its lessons are unique to the Jewish people and what it teaches us is that the world hates us and we can only rely on ourselves. That has certainly been the official message of this government. The alternative understanding that Golan had the temerity to present is that the lessons of the Holocaust are more universal, and they teach us about tolerance, about hatred of the other, and most importantly, show where extreme intolerance and hatred can lead.