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What exactly are ‘Auschwitz borders’?

Longtime Israeli statesman Abba Eban made no bones about what would happen if Arab forces overran the nine-mile-wide coastal plain he was referring to.

Abba Eban in 1969. Credit: Fritz Cohen.
Abba Eban in 1969. Credit: Fritz Cohen.
Stephen M. Flatow
Stephen M. Flatow, an attorney in New Jersey, is the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. He is the author of A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror.

Politicians and pundits sometimes invoke the term “Auschwitz borders,” but all too often, they completely misunderstand the meaning of the term.

Consider Professor Shaul Magid of Dartmouth College. Writing this week in 972, an extreme-left online Israeli magazine, he complains about what he calls “Holocaust-centrism” and “Holocaust messianism.”

He continues: “This worldview led Israeli politicians as disparate as Abba Eban and Yitzhak Shamir to assert that Israel’s borders are ‘the borders of Auschwitz.’ The utter incoherence of such a claim—that a sovereign state with a modern military is comparable to disempowered masses rotting in a concentration camp—is not only grotesque but a sign of deep collective failure.”

Wrong, wrong and wrong again.

In a letter to the editor that was published in The Jerusalem Post on Aug. 13, 1993, Eban explained that the phrase “Auschwitz lines” originated in the famous speech that he delivered at the United Nations on June 19, 1967.

Less than a week had passed since the Six-Day War, and the Soviet representative in the United Nations was already demanding that Israel retreat to the narrow borders that had prevailed before the war.

Eban told the world body that going back to the old borders was “totally unacceptable.” He pointed out that during the conflict, Israel on its eastern front was faced by “the mobilized forces of Jordan, with their artillery and mortars trained on Israel’s population centers in Jerusalem and along the vulnerable narrow coastal plain.”

That coastal plain was just nine miles wide—narrower than Washington, D.C., or the Bronx. Eban made no bones about what would happen if the Arab forces overran that narrow stretch.

He called it “the approaching stage of genocide.” He recalled that with the Arab armies massing on its borders and blockading its waterways, Israel was “hemmed in by hostile armies ready to strike, affronted and beset by a flagrant act of war, bombarded day and night by predictions of her approaching extinction.”

Eban did not hesitate to invoke memories of the Holocaust: “June 1967 was to be the month of decision,” he declared. “The ‘final solution’ was at hand.”

He reminded the United Nations that the population of Israel was “the remnant of millions, who, in living memory, had been wiped out by a dictatorship more powerful, though scarcely more malicious, than [Gamal Abdel] Nasser’s Egypt.”

And more. Eban compared Israel’s self-defense action to “the uprising of our battered remnants in the Warsaw Ghetto,” to “the expulsion of Hitler’s bombers from the British skies” and to “the protection of Stalingrad against the Nazi hordes.”

Eban did not actually mention Auschwitz anywhere in that speech. But he obviously had the Holocaust on his mind then, and later— because in that 1993 letter to the Jerusalem Post, recalling how the term “Auschwitz lines” began, he wrote that in response to the Soviet delegate’s advice to retreat, “I said that a people that has suffered the agonies of Auschwitz is not likely to take such suicidal advice.”

Eban added, in his letter to the Post, that “a German correspondent once ascribed a similar expression to me.”

So, the editor of The Jerusalem Post then added an explanatory note: In an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel on Nov. 5, 1969, Eban had said, “We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. … The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz.”

So, Professor Magid got it all wrong. Eban was not saying that “a sovereign state with a modern military is comparable to disempowered masses rotting in a concentration camp” (as Magid put it). Eban wasn’t an idiot. He understood the difference between the State of Israel and the death camp of Auschwitz.

What Eban was saying, obviously and repeatedly, is that borders that are nine miles wide are so incredibly vulnerable that Israel would again be in extreme jeopardy. With advanced weapons, the Arab forces attacking that narrow region would be able to inflict severe damage and casualties on the Jewish state. Israel could find itself on the verge of destruction—the equivalent, for the Jewish people, of a second Auschwitz.

Obviously, the Arab armies in 1967 would have killed every Jew they could. That’s why Eban called their approaching attack “the approaching stage of genocide.” Not literally Auschwitz; not gas chambers and crematoria. But, once again, enormous numbers of dead Jews.

Eban’s position was neither “grotesque” nor “a sign of deep collective failure,” as Magid puts it. It was a realistic assessment of the dangers that Israel faced when it was just nine miles wide.

The only “collective failure” I can see is that of some of our professors and other intellectuals to appreciate the dangers Israel still faces. It’s their attempts to belittle and mock that very real danger, which is grotesque.

Stephen M. Flatow is an attorney in New Jersey and the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. He is the author of “A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror.”

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