Germany’s Election and History

With the latest results in Germany’s elections, I found myself thinking about the past. Despite our painful history, for years Israeli Jews have been living in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany and ever other Israeli cab driver has a Mercedes-Benz car. Indeed Israelis have been inculcated from an early age that modern Germany and Israel are good pals. Nothing tells the story better than the recent submarine deals between Israel and Germany. Hanky panky or not.

The history behind this big love is told superbly by Tom Segev in his important, 1993 book, “The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust.” I missed it years ago and just read it.

This book is helpful in understanding how David Ben-Gurion and his cronies viewed the Shoah. It also sheds light on the role of the Yishuv in the Shoah and how the Holocaust is viewed in modern Israel. There are a few things which time has overtaken. For instance Yitzchak Arad stepped down from the presidency of Yad Vashem in 1993; Yad Vashem’s campus was rebuilt and, the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip etc,. in 2006, had loads of Holocaust imagery. Indeed, these things happened after Segev’s book came out but generally the dating is not too problematic. Its like any history book although he tends to editorialize too much in part 2 which deals with the Holocaust in modern Israeli life.

Segev writes that the Yishuv didn’t exactly help persecuted Jews before and during the Second World War and later had a massive problem with survivor’s perceived lack of heroism. Segev seems to argue against Ben Gurions jaundiced view and “in favor” of the Holocaust but to a point. He evidently thinks Israel has gone too far. And this was in the Nineties!!

Background: In prewar Europe, Segev, argues, many belonged to ideological groups. For example, as a student at the University of Warsaw, Polish-born David Gruen (Ben-Gurion), later Israel’s first prime minister, joined the Social-Democratic Jewish Workers’ Party. But once in Palestine and an elected leader, he became a man with one issue: establishing a viable Jewish state with a “red” tinge in the ancestral Holy Land.These “new Jews” would be strong, Hebrew speaking, tanned and ideally engaged in agriculture, not genteel city folks .Ben Gurion felt that independent Jews living in their own land, was the only sane way to deal with anti-Semitic attacks, threats and persecution.

A fervent Zionist, his shadow Labor Mapai “government”, run from the Jewish Agency, even had dealings with the Nazis after they came to power. (Segev claims that German Betar followers, also worked with the Gestapo in early days.) Right-wing Revisionist “Opposition”leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, also a Zionist and Jewish nationalist but not a socialist, and later Menahem Begin, were horrified that the Jewish state would have dealings with Germany but BG thought differently. BG thought fighting with Hitler wouldn’t bring a Hebrew state.

In fact, Zionism and Europeanism were at loggerheads. Until Hitler, Jews loved Germany and Poland was the center of the Jewish world. The United States and the United Kingdom were blossoming as places to live, especially the USA. Most Jews did not live in Palestine. Ben-Gurion was annoyed that many of the persecuted German and Austrian Jews came to Palestine out of fear of persecution, not Zionism, (nor were the British helpful, ever w about the Arab reaction.) Rescuing German Jews was not BG’s or his aides “thing”; especially not “unproductive” types writes Segev. (To wit the Jewish Agency did nothing to help the inhabitants of the doomed St Louis ship which sailed from Hamburg ). Indeed some famous German and Austrian Jews such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Kurt Weill and Hannah Arendt elected to go elsewhere because Palestine seemed too backward and nationalistic.
During the war, notes Segev, Ben Gurion did not think that saving European Jews was his job Why didn’t they come before? it was asked. And after the war many survivors did not follow the tenants of Zionism and did not settle in Palestine/Israel preferring big urban enclaves elsewhere. For some survivors, Palestine/Israel seemed too far,hot, battle-scarred and hard. For some Jews, Zionism was a great idea—for someone else. Some did move to Palestine.,

But BG recognized the power of the Holocaust and its aftermath. During the war,there were fasts and prayer rallies in Palestine, and even Jewish paratroopers were dropped into Europe, several of whom were caught and killed by the Nazis. And in the post war phase, survivors (also known as Displaced Persons), in crowded DP camps and on rickety ships like the Exodus 47, made the British look bad and helped the cause of Zionism. Indeed Segev writes that though survivors were generally disliked in the pre state Yishuv for “going like sheep to the slaughter”, they were needed for state-building and initially for collecting German restitution money and “things” (Segev doesn’t get into Israeli survivor rage over German money used for infrastructure building which diluted their pensions) and for emotional purposes. When Oriental Jews arrived, from Muslim lands, Holocaust survivors and prewar “yekkes” suddenly became ordinary “Ashkenazim”.

But the Holocaust mantle was heavy and Israel was not a normal country as BG and Moshe Sharett, the second prime minister, would soon discover.The fight over accepting German restitution money almost caused a civil war and the trial of Rudolph Kastner on collaboration charges reflected badly on Mapai. Later, the sale of Israeli made weapons to Germany also led to rage. BG “answered” this all with the capture and trial and execution of Adolph Eichmann.

Today (or when Segev wrote his book) everything changed. Israel is very nostalgia obsessed and survivors are viewed as walking heroes. (Many have since died) But Segev seems to think Israel has gone too far making the Holocaust the central theme of this country’s ethos and the center of our civil religion. He acidly recalls Israeli high schoolers walking wrapped in flags in Auschwitz and singing songs and IDF soldiers and Israeli policeman in the camps acting as if they could save someone from the Nazis.
They can’t; they weren’t even alive then.Its a different tragedy. I wonder what Segev would say now about the rise of the extreme right in Germany. Some talking heads have said this is similar to the rise of the Third Reich, others disagreed. This time the “strangers” are Muslims. But there are plenty Jews in Germany —Israelis, Russians, all kinds. History Lessons are worth preserving,

About the Author
Netty C. Gross-Horowitz is a journalist who worked for many years at The Jerusalem Report Together with Susan M. Weiss, she is co-author of "Jewish Marriage and Divorce Israel's Civil War," published by Brandeis University Press and the University Press of New England, December 2012.
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