Israel and the Shoah

Israel and the Shoah: these two subjects in Jewish history and life often seem hopelessly entangled in the way we as Jews think about the twentieth century.  They are, after all, the two most important stories in the recent past of the Jewish people.  They're both about the Jewish people, rather than about Judaism.  Let's think about the ways in which they're connected and disconnected.

First, Israel exists because of, and in spite of, the Shoah.  Political Zionism, even in its sunniest moments, assumed the inherently problematic nature of the diaspora: Jews would either assimilate and lose their identities, or their presence would ignite deeper forms of anti-Jewish thought and behavior.  In that sense, the Shoah, however horrific and unprecedented, was for many, inevitable, i.e. somehow a function of the process of Jewish modernization in exile. 

Israel exists in spite of the Shoah in two ways.  Political Zionism is only one aspect of Zionism, and Zionism at its heart is about Jewish freedom, agency, self-creation and regeneration socially and culturally, and has nothing to do with what others do to Jews.  To follow that thinking, Jews deserve a state not because they got killed en masse: they deserve a state because as a people, they possess the right of self-determination and the will to build such a sovereign entity.

The more tragic way that Israel exists in spite of the Shoah is demographic.  Virtually all Zionist thinkers from Ben-Gurion to Jabotinsky assumed that an organic link connected European Jewry and the project of settling the land of Israel.  Europe's Jews — in particular, the three million plus Polish Jews of the interwar period — needed land in which to resettle themselves, and for the land to yield its fruits, it would require the labor of millions of Jews.  The Holocaust effectively cut the chord of that nexus, making it doubtful that Zionism could even succeed with so few immigrants to populate it. 

 The Mufti with Adolf Hitler

The Mufti with Adolf Hitler

The harder truth is that at some level, the Shoah constituted the ultimate proof text for the premise of Jewish self-government, even as it threatened the future viability of Jewish state building. One can see that in the main exhibit at the central Israeli museum of the Shoah, Yad VaShem.  One descends into the winding tortuous snake path of European Jewish history, into the increasingly hellish darkness of 1933-1945, to emerge finally at the end of the exhibit into the bright blinding light of the Judean hills and Jerusalem.  Jewish history, we should think and believe, not only contains facts: it contains a story, a narrative with meaning, with direction, with energy.  Zionism supplies that fuel and is powered by it.

 Survivors of Buchenwald in Israel   

Survivors of Buchenwald in Israel

 

The fact that Israel at some level "needed" the Holocaust leaves us confused and ambivalent, and sometimes obscures our sense of the actual story of those tragic years, particularly in the matter of what, if anything, Zionists and the Jewish community in Palestine could have and should have done to lessen the tragedy.  Some writers — Tom Segev comes to mind — know better, but cannot help themselves, equating the disdain Zionists felt for the diaspora and the disrespect they paid to survivors as the foolish weaklings of Jewish history with something close to culpability.  They should have loved them more, respected them more, helped them more.  Yes to the first two, which if they done a 180, would still have yielded virtually no practical results re. lessening the horror.  All they could really do was beg the Allies to do more.

A study of the wartime Jewish newspapers from Palestine tells the tragic truth: the Soviet Union's victory at the Battle of Stalingrad and the turning of the tide of war against the Nazis constituted a bigger media story than the reports of the destruction of Polish Jewry. The Jews of Palestine knew that all too well since they believed they themselves stood in mortal danger of the Nazis conquering Mandatory Palestine. They couldn't save their brethren in Europe; the only question remained would they be able to save Jewish life in Palestine. 

 Survivors in Europe en route to Israel

Survivors in Europe en route to Israel

That, of course, is the greatest and most tragic irony of all: the movement of Jewish self-empowerment wasn't strong enough. Palestinian Jews never had to save themselves; the British saved the Mandate by stopping Rommel's forces at El Alamein. As non-sovereign actors the Jews depended upon the kindness of strangers. Their own political power came too late to fruition to be of much practical difference in the darkest hour of the Jewish people.  The Jewish people was a weak and divided and powerless one, and could do virtually nothing to save its elderly, its parents, its brothers, sisters, and children. The abject powerlessness of those years went from being a proposition to being materially true and in effect, the only fact that mattered.  So yes, Israel exists because the Shoah proved the merit of self-government, even as it metaphysically and physically reminded Jews of their weakness. Live and learn. 

 Protesting the British White Paper in 1939

Protesting the British White Paper in 1939