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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 book Trapped Leadership1 than by Segev’s text. Porat, however, claims that the Zionist settlers felt removed from the events taking place in Europe, and did not feel obliged to respond to appeals for help or to react in any other way to the Holocaust. I believe, with Segev, that the problem was precisely the opposite. Like many other liberation fighters, the principal Zionist leaders—David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), Golda Meirson (later Meir), and Berl Katznelson—had an exaggerated sense of their own power, an illusion sustained by the need to show that they were capable of running a state. They even, in some cases, accepted responsibility for not having saved European Jews when it is very doubtful whether they could have done anything at all. In other words, they invited the criticism that they did not do enough to save the Jews of Europe.

Segev also fails to describe the response to the Holocaust of the non-Zionist haredim or ultra-Orthodox Jews. The ultra-Orthodox did not experience any crisis of faith or of theology when confronted with the absolute evil of the Holocaust. Their conception of current events is not historical but is based on typology: they interpret current events according to the ways these events reflect the models of the past. For the ultra-Orthodox the Nazis were prefigured by the Amalekites—the ancient people who were the first to fight the Israelites in the desert and thus became the prototypical evil anti-Semites (see Exodus 17: 8–16); and the Holocaust followed the Biblical pattern of the destruction of the Temple.

The response to the Holocaust of the ultra-Orthodox Jews was directed, then, not at God for having allowed the Jews to be murdered but at the Zionists. Their dangerous rebellion against the Gentiles, they argued, had helped to cause the Holocaust. Since anti-Semitism (in its typological formulation, “Esau hates Jacob”) is a fact, the Jews’ only chance of survival, in the ultra-Orthodox view, is through acceptance of Gentile rule. Zionism, by aspiring to establish a state without waiting for the advent of the Messiah, was a form of rebellion that only enhanced the radical and vicious forms of anti-Semitism.2 According to the prominent Orthodox rabbi Moshe Scheinfeld, “What the heads of Zionism inflicted on European Jewry during World War II [could not] be described as other than killing in the proper sense of the word.” The Zionist leaders, he said, were “the criminals of the Holocaust who contributed their part to the destruction.”3

The second complaint of the ultra-Orthodox was that the Zionists acted shamefully during the Holocaust. Instead of working to save the Jews of Europe, they concentrated on establishing a heretical Zionist state in the Holy Land. In the few instances when the Zionists in power were able to save some Jews, they discriminated against the ultra-Orthodox who were not Zionists. Segev himself agrees with the latter criticism of the Zionist Yishuv as “Palestinocentric.”

There is a strange dialectic between the secular Zionist and the Orthodox responses to the Holocaust. In late December 1942 the Zionist organizations in Palestine proclaimed a month of mourning in solidarity with the Jewish victims in Europe, three days of which were designated as days of fasting and lamentation, including mourning processions headed by rabbis carrying Torah scrolls. These are the traditional Orthodox Jewish ritual responses to public catastrophes, and many leftist Zionists flinched at this religious expression of mourning. But they did not have their own means of expressing it: two thousand years of Jewish martyrdom had given Orthodox Jewry an edge when it came to expressing grief. Even the secular newspapers used the biblical style of lamentation in their reactions to the extermination: “Cry, Jerusalem,” said an editorial in the newspaper Davar, “for the fallen of your exile; shout, Zion: save your sons and daughters, be refuge to my children and little ones.”

The traditional forms of lamentation encouraged a sense of distance from the catastrophe, however, as if the grief expressed were in response to the destruction of the Temple and not the persecution by the Gestapo. The mourning rituals also suggested that although this catastrophe was of greater proportions than any in the past, it did not differ from them in kind. The traditional Orthodox Jewish responses to disaster were, in general, highly ambivalent: on the one hand, they would say, the current affliction is the most terrible that has ever occurred; on the other, the Jewish people have already survived many such calamities. This traditional Jewish reaction prevented people from seeing the Holocaust as something both horrific and unique.

In my view there was very little the Yishuv could have done to save the Jews of Europe. But there still remains the question of whether Zionist leaders failed to express solidarity with those who were being exterminated in Europe. The Israeli poet Haim Guri once asked Antek Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, what would have happened if the Yishuv had sent 500 fighters into the ghetto by parachute. Zuckerman answered that 490 would have been killed by anti-aircraft fire. The other ten would have landed, but no one would have known what to do with them, and they too would have eventually been killed. What the Polish Jews needed was not 500 men but one messenger. “They needed a single man to bring them a good word from the land of Israel,” an expression of solidarity, Haim Guri said. “Only one man—and he never came.”

Why did the Zionists in Palestine fail, on the whole, to express strong solidarity with their brothers in Europe? The reasons were ideological and not merely psychological. Zionism was a revolution in Jewish life, and the Jewish tradition of lamenting collective persecution, which Zionism considered a poor substitute for action, was one of the cultural tendencies they wanted to reform. At the time of the Holocaust, Ben-Gurion did not believe it possible to do anything practical to save the Jews of Europe and what was not practical did not interest him. His first concern was to mobilize world Jewry for the task of establishing a Jewish state. He and the other leaders of the Labor movement rejected protest that was merely expressive and not directed at specific political goals. They identified such sentiments not only with the religious tradition but also with the followers of Jabotinsky on the revisionist right, which they perceived as trapped in grandiose nationalistic rhetoric and incapable of effective action. Thus on the one occasion when there was a real need for expressive politics—because no other form of politics was possible—the Zionist movement largely failed.

The Zionists saw traditional reactions to disaster as the passive response of a group without political will; it was only one step from this view to the accusation that first appeared during the Holocaust itself and later became a recurring motif in Israeli public life: that the Diaspora Jews went to their death “like sheep to the slaughter” instead of dying “a hero’s death.” This patronizing attitude toward the Jews in Europe was based in part on the fact that most of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising were members of socialist Zionist youth movements. To the people in the Yishuv their uprising seemed to illustrate what their own response to Nazi persecution would have been. This contempt for those who did not mount such an uprising and who were “led like sheep to the slaughter” was one reason why survivors who arrived in Palestine and later in Israel were often ashamed to talk about their experience.

Furthermore, many in the Yishuv felt that the Holocaust had resulted in a kind of negative selection: “I believe that those who lived were the ones who survived because they were egotistic and took care of themselves first,” said a Zionist official, David Shaltiel, who later became a general in the Israeli War of Independence.

  1. 1

    Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1986, in Hebrew.

  2. 2

    An editorial in Hamodia, the special newspaper of one of the ultra-Orthodox parties, following the 1989 elections echoed this criticism: “It was Zionism,”—which provoked British restrictions on immigration to Palestine—”that prevented many Jews like us from immigrating to the Land of Israel and thus caused their death in the Nazi gas chambers.”

  3. 3

    Quoted from Dina Porat’s article “Amalek’s Accomplices Blaming Zionism for the Holocaust: Anti-Zionist Ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel during the 1980s,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 27 (1992), p. 698.

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