The Uses of the Holocaust

The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust

by Tom Segev
Hill and Wang, 593 pp., $27.50

In September of 1942, Mordecai Shenhabi, a member of a kibbutz in Palestine and former delegate to several Zionist conferences, suggested to leaders of the Jewish National Fund that they set up a memorial for the Holocaust with the name Yad Vashem—roughly, “a memorial and a remembrance.” That September, of course, most of the Holocaust victims were still alive. But the incident, which is reported in Tom Segev’s The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, suggests that the destruction of European Jewry was being treated by many Jews in Palestine as an event in the past, at a time when it had only just begun to occur.

Remembering the Holocaust with ceremonies and rituals has become central to the civic religion of Jews in Israel; and their attitudes toward the Holocaust have become a part of their identity as Israelis. Segev’s book is the first to examine the deep influence of the Holocaust on the history of the State of Israel, from its establishment in 1948 and the subsequent mass immigration of the early Fifties to the Six Day War and the development of Israel’s nuclear capacity.

Segev has reconstructed much of his fascinating history from newspaper stories, many of them long forgotten, and these give a sense of immediacy to a period usually hidden behind a thick curtain of rhetoric. But Segev also offers various judgments of his own, many of them implied, some bound to be irritating. The book’s subtitle, “The Israelis and the Holocaust,” is itself misleading. Israelis have existed only since the State of Israel was established, and the book’s early chapters deal not with the state but with the Yishuv, the organized Jewish community in Palestine before 1948. This distinction is not mere pedantry, in view of the misguided tendency to see the pre-state of the Yishuv as a version of the State of Israel. It is important to remember that the Jewish population of Palestine at the time of the Holocaust consisted of fewer than a half million people living among a hostile population of more than a million Arabs, all under British rule. The Arab rebellion against the British in the late Thirties was in large part a protest against the Zionist settlement; and since Arab leaders sympathized with Nazi Germany, it was plausible to suspect that they would join in the Nazi war effort.

The British, for their part, tried to appease the Arabs and prevent another rebellion that would impede the war against Hitler by closing Palestine’s ports to Jewish refugees from Europe. And until late 1942 and the battle of El Alamein, the Jews in Palestine were justifiably fearful that Rommel’s army in North Africa would conquer Palestine and occupy it. With Palestine at the periphery of the British Empire and under severe military censorship, the Yishuv was very far from being a sovereign state.

The limitations of the Yishuv community are described far more clearly by Dina Porat in her …

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