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.
Segev severely, and rightly, criticizes this attitude, citing some of the appalling pronouncements that were prevalent in the Yishuv. In June 1942, for example, Yitzhak Gruenbaum, who had been one of the leaders of the Polish Jews before his immigration to Palestine, told the Jewish Agency that the problem with the Polish Jews in the exile was that they preferred “the life of a dog over an honorable death.” Little did he know that his own son Eliezer was serving as a kapo in Buchenwald at the time. That among all the millions of Soviet soldiers who were captured by the Nazis, many of whom died in captivity under horrifying conditions, not one serious rebellion broke out did not cause the left to think twice about their characterization of the Jews as “beaten dogs.”
The Zionists in Palestine also felt estranged from European Jewry because they were then in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom. British army forces stationed in the Middle East were buying everything from food and clothes to anti-tank roadblocks in Palestine, and the soldiers spent their leaves in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. The cafés and restaurants were full, and the atmosphere in the normally ascetic Jewish community was more that of a holiday resort than of a population in mourning.
What was known about the Holocaust in the Yishuv? The information about the killings was available and was published, although not always with the prominence it deserved, and the accusation that the Yishuv leaders censored the reports from Europe is nonsense. Belief and denial, however, could paradoxically exist at the same time. Thus, for example, Apolinari Hartglass, a Zionist activist who had immigrated from Poland and was a member of the Rescue Committee for European Jewry, was the first to speak soberly and accurately about the systematic extermination of millions of Jews in the Nazi-occupied countries, of whom he believed only a few tens of thousands would manage to survive. “They are exterminating the population in Poland mercilessly and with sly cruelty,” he said, on the basis of reports he heard in 1940. But when refugees arriving from Poland in 1942 confirmed his fears in grim detail, he said to one of them, “If I believed everything you’re saying, I’d kill myself.” The evidence tempts one to say that many in the Yishuv knew about the extermination and yet did not believe it.
Segev devotes a third of his book to the ways the Holocaust has been dealt with in Israel, particularly in the three important Holocaust trials that have taken place in Israel since the establishment of the state. Both Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961 and John Demjanjuk’s in the late Eighties were explicitly considered “show trials,” whose declared purpose was to “educate the youth” who had not been “there.” Even the trial in the mid-Fifties of Israel Kastner for collaborating with the Germans in Hungary had some aspects of a “show trial.”
Segev dismisses the Demjanjuk trial, which he covered for Ha’aretz, as an “educational failure.” Once the key question at the trial became one of identification, i.e., whether or not John Demjanjuk was “Ivan the Terrible,” the sadistic murderer of Treblinka, the trial deteriorated into a series of technical disputes about the type of paper and staples used in the identity cards issued to the Ukrainian guards at the Trawniki training garrison and so on. The court determined that Demjanjuk was beyond a reasonable doubt Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka; but an appeal to the Supreme Court overturned the verdict when new evidence from the former Soviet Union strongly suggested that Demjanjuk had been a camp guard but was not Ivan the Terrible. Neither the conviction nor its reversal had much effect in Israel.
By contrast, the Eichmann trial, which took place after Eichmann was captured by the Mossad in Argentina and brought to Israel in 1960, had enormous educational impact. Native-born Israelis were exposed to the details of the Holocaust for the first time, and with all the drama inherent in a courtroom trial. Not only did the Eichmann trial help to change the image of Holocaust victims as sheep or beaten dogs, it also finally broke the barrier of silence between Holocaust survivors and Israelis who had not been in Europe during the war. Many Israelis began to listen attentively to the survivors’ stories, and the survivors discovered that they had an important story to tell.
For some of those outside Israel, the Eichmann trial was viewed from the perspective of Hannah Arendt’s reports in the New Yorker and her subsequent book, which has not been published in Hebrew to this day. Arendt’s reporting infuriated many Israelis Segev does not defend Arendt’s judgmental tone when she writes about the Jewish Councils; but he agrees with her criticism of the ways the Holocaust has been appropriated by the Zionists and later by Israel, as if all the Holocaust victims had been Zionists on their way to Israel. Israel does not necessarily have the right to speak on behalf of European Jews since in fact only a small number of European Jews were Zionists. (I believe, however, that Arendt’s assertions about the “banality of evil” are misguided. She fails to make the important distinction between those who instigate evil and those who simply comply with it. Goebbels was anything but banal. Eichmann was a borderline case.)
The Kastner trial is little known outside Israel but it caused some Israelis to arrive at a more negative assessment of the Yishuv’s leaders during the Holocaust. A Zionist Jewish leader who had headed the Rescue Committee set up to save Jews in Hungary, Kastner was found guilty of collaborating with the Nazis, particularly in the negotiations with Nazi officials that allowed him to select 600 of the 1,685 Jews who escaped on a “VIP train” to Switzerland in 1944. Among them were various members of his own family and inhabitants of his hometown. The presiding judge, Benjamin Halevy, condemned him severely: “In accepting the offer, K. sold his soul to the devil.”
Dr. Moshe Keren, the daily newspaper Ha’aretz’s judicial commentator at the time of the trial, wrote, “One of the many astonishing things in the opinion is that the judge explicitly admits that there was no hope of organizing a Jewish resistance at that point in the war…. If that is the case, what does he want, for God’s sake?” The Supreme Court exonerated Kastner of all guilt on appeal. Not only had he not sold his soul to the devil, but, in the opinion of the high court judges, he had done all he should and could have done “at every juncture.” In March 1957, several months before the Supreme Court reached its decision, Kastner was murdered under circumstances that remain mysterious. The murderers came from the lunatic fringe of the right, but their leader had worked, until fifteen months before the murder, for Israel’s Security Service.
Kastner was a member of Ben-Gurion’s Labor Party and one of its candidates for the Knesset; his trial was used by the demagogic lawyer Shmuel Tamir, an extreme right-wing opponent of Ben-Gurion and his party (and later minister of justice in the Begin administration), to attack the government. Judge Halevy, later a member of Parliament in Begin’s party, did nothing to restrain his accusations in court. Tamir’s idea, according to Segev, was to present the Yishuv leadership at the time of the Holocaust essentially as an offshore Jewish Council—a Judenrat—with Kastner as its representative in Hungary. With supreme arrogance Tamir told a witness who had served on Kastner’s committee “While your comrades collaborated with the British and you with the Nazis, we were out fighting to save Jews.” In Tamir’s view, the Yishuv leaders, like the Judenrat in Budapest, were not the proud rebels they should have been, but a group of meddlers and cowards who betrayed the virtues of Jewish dignity and pride.
This nasty, patronizing judgment was still current in Israel during the Fifties. It was tempered, however, by more humane appeals to public opinion, such as Ben-Gurion’s: “The Jews who lived in safety during the time of Hitler,” he said, “cannot judge their brothers who were burned or slaughtered or who were saved.” Parliamentary elections took place shortly after Judge Halevy’s original statement was made public, and his talk of a “pact with the devil” had an important part in election propaganda. Begin’s party doubled its strength, while Ben-Gurion’s party suffered its worst decline until Begin was elected prime minister in 1977.
Begin’s role as the great dramatist of the Holocaust in Israeli politics, however, did not begin with the Kastner trial. In 1951 the Israelis negotiated with Konrad Adenauer’s government for payments of reparations both to Nazi victims and to the State of Israel as the refuge of the Holocaust survivors. Segev provides an excellent account of the talks that led to the agreement ratified by the Knesset in January 1952. In the months before the Knesset debate, Begin had become severely depressed; he felt that he had come to the end of his political career and was considering returning to his previous career as a lawyer. A vicious debate over German reparations with Ben-Gurion—whom he called “the tiny despot and great maniac”—was just what he needed to get him back into public life.
Begin had already arrived in Palestine before the extermination was at its worst, but, as Segev points out, he always gave one the impression of having come from “there.” (He claimed that he saw with his own eyes his parents murdered by the Nazis while they were standing by a river reddened with the blood of the five hundred Jewish inhabitants of his town. His own sister said this was a tall tale and that he was a way from home when his parents were killed.) Begin chose to lead the opposition to the reparations in what was the stormiest parliamentary debate ever to take place in Israel. At a demonstration that ended in a violent attack on the Knesset, Begin was reported to have said, “Today I will give the order—yes [to violent demonstrations against reparations]!” Another version quotes him as saying, “Today I will give the order—blood!” He was suspended from the Knesset for three months. Ben-Gurion won the debate and Israel agreed to accept reparations.
But Begin established the Holocaust as a permanent concern of Israeli politics, not only for the Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe but for the Oriental Jews, many of them from North Africa. He used it in the most manipulative way for his own political purposes. Writing to Reagan in 1982, he claimed that destroying Arafat’s headquarters in Beirut made him feel as if he had sent the Israeli Defense Forces to Berlin to eliminate Hitler in his bunker. Amos Oz responded in an article in Yediot Aharanot, “Hitler is already dead, my dear Prime Minister,” adding, “Again and again, Mr. Begin, you reveal to the public eye a strange urge to resuscitate Hitler in order to kill him every day anew in the guise of terrorists.” Ben-Gurion, for his part, wanted to base the new Jewish identity on the experience of building a new society and a sovereign Jewish state, not on the worship of the dead. Underlying the debate between Ben-Gurion and Begin was the primary question of the meaning of the Holocaust for the Jews in Israel—especially how to remember it and how to perpetuate its memory. Segev devotes his last chapter, in which he describes a visit to Auschwitz and other former concentration camps in Poland, to the theme of memory, “the struggle to shape the past.”
It is important in any discussion of the Holocaust to separate two questions which have become dangerously conflated: First, how are we to remember the Holocaust and keep its memory alive? And second, what are we to learn from it? To the second question, the nationalistic response encourages the use of military force; a nation that has undergone a Holocaust, so the argument goes, has the right to do anything to prevent such a situation from occurring again. And, the argument continues, pervasive Arab anti-Semitism should make us see that it could happen again. The humanistic response—that of Segev and other Israeli radical liberals—argues that the sort of genocidal racism that made the Holocaust possible can occur in any society. Racism must therefore be fought everywhere, including in Israel. The Holocaust obliges Jews to fight the kind of hatred from which it arose and get rid of the kinds of conditions that engender Nazi behavior. It follows from this line of thought that Israelis should end the military occupation of Arab land and stop believing that they are “moral” simply because they are Jews.
Attempts have been made to combine the two approaches into one common “Zionist lesson.” Segev recalls asking the head of Yad Vashem, Yitzhak Arad, about what we should have learned from the Holocaust.
Arad, very cautiously, said that he assumed that over the years a national consensus had developed in Israel, largely independent of party affiliation. Everyone agrees that the Holocaust teaches what awaits a nation in exile that has no state of its own; had Israel been established before the Nazis came to power, the murder of the Jews could not have been possible.
I myself believe that if there is one sure way to trivialize the Holocaust, it is by extracting “lessons” from it. The Holocaust was carried out by human beings, some of them banal and some not. It was not simply an act of monsters but the result of a monstrous ideology. The combination of circumstances that produced this industrialized murder, however, was unique and because of this, there is no ideological lesson to be learned from it. The Jews were not prepared for a Holocaust because it is not possible to be prepared for a Holocaust. If anything, Jews were psychologically more prepared for affliction than most other nations—but not for this sort of catastrophe. To say there is no ideological “lesson” to learn from the Holocaust, however, does not mean that people’s lives should not be affected by it. It should prompt us to change, but such a change is not a didactic matter, to be achieved by one lesson of the Holocaust or another.
The question of remembrance, however, remains important. We must remember not only the death chambers but also the rich complexity of Jewish life in Europe which died in them. Zionists resist reviving the memory of the life they rebelled against, but remembering the Holocaust requires a reevaluation of Zionist criticisms of the Jewish world that was destroyed. As for the form of remembrance, the only appropriate way to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust is through meticulous documentation and mastery of facts. In the case of the Holocaust, the Devil is in the details.
February 17, 1994
Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1986, in Hebrew. ↩
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.” ↩
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. ↩