Once again, the days commemorating the Holocaust, Yom HaShoah; Israel’s fallen, Yom HaZikaron, and Israeli independence, Yom HaAtzmaut, are before us, with somber reflections on the former followed by triumphal celebrations of the latter. For some, the symmetry is neat and the symbolism is cathartic: The degradation of the Churban followed by the redemption of the Jewish State. It is understandably tempting to link the two phenomena. The impulse to do so encompasses a wide spectrum, both secular and spiritual, with Orthodox luminaries citing Scripture to console us that the rebirth of Israel was divinely forged in the crucible of the Destruction. The problem with such reasoning is not only that it is morally repugnant but it is historically false.
The Destruction of Europe’s Jews and the Creation of the Jewish state are two distinct events. That one followed upon the other doesn’t connect them except superficially, affording emotional release at the expense of historical reality. Implicit in this rationale is that the Zionist enterprise was unable to establish the Jewish state through its own agency. It plays into the hoary Palestinian critique of the Jewish state: that it is essentially a colonial creation of Europe to expiate its guilt over the Holocaust, allowing Arabs to persist in asking why they should have to pay the price for Europe’s sins.
The Jewish State owes its creation to a string of contingencies which either predated, or were independent of, the Destruction of Europe’s Jews between 1941 and 1945. One can begin anywhere but let us start with the Balfour Declaration which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The British commitment to a Jewish homeland after an anticipated triumph over the Ottoman Empire in World War I, gave international standing to what was already a vibrant Zionist presence marked by the aliyahs of the previous three decades. The subsequent Allied victory in the Great War, creating a League of Nations mandate as a precondition for the Jewish State, was far from assured when the Balfour Declaration was drafted in 1917, yet one of many outcomes that broke in favor of the incipient Jewish state.
By the end of the 20-year interwar period, the Yishuv was a thriving entity, socially integrated, economically viable, and politically organized with a motivated defense element that would only grow in discipline and effectiveness. Its Palestinian foes, despite pogroms, boycotts and rebellion would ultimately prove no match for the Jewish military. Their signal achievement during this period was in preventing the British from opening the gates of Palestine to Jews fleeing Hitler’s Reich in the last years before World War II.
The advent of Hitler’s war offered him the opportunity to “settle accounts” with Europe’s Jews. His program of destruction had three phases: From 1939-1941 the decimation of the Jewish population in Poland and the Baltics through starvation and disease in ghettos, augmented by mass murder at the hands of killing squads and local auxiliaries in the conquered territories; From 1941 to early 1942, mass shootings of 1 million Jews in the invasion of the Soviet Union, and from 1942 to 1944, death camps as the ultimate destination for the Jews of Europe, with a coda of death marches in 1945.
At this point, the Yishuv itself was threatened. In the summer of 1942 Rommel’s Afrika Corps was rolling toward Cairo. At the same time, Hitler’s Army Group South was striking southeast toward the oil fields of the Caucasus, beyond which was the prize of Middle East oil. Nazi forces penetrated deep into the Caucasus. It was only the counteroffensive at Stalingrad that later forced their withdrawal. Had Army Group South succeeded, as it nearly did, it would have been able to march through a compliant Turkey or invade a resentful Iran recently occupied by the Allies, opening the road to Syria and Iraq where its forces would have been welcomed. British Palestine would have been caught in a pincer movement between Rommel coming from the West and the Panzers from the East. The fate of the Yishuv would have been sealed. But Rommel was stopped at El Aleman, thanks in part to 300 Sherman tanks from the U.S., and the Germans had to withdraw from the Caucasus after the Russian offensive on the Volga. The salvation of the Yishuv was not a concern for the Allies, but their actions led to its survival.
After the war, Great Britain was spent. Its colonial empire became too costly and too draining. It chose selectively to make a stand in regions such as Burma and East Africa, and it opted for withdrawal in possessions such as India. One of the places where it had enough was Palestine where violence from both the Jewish and Arab populations made continued occupation too heavy a price. It is no accident that, in the guise of partition, Britain withdrew from both India and Palestine the same year. This had little to do with the Holocaust and much to do with the calculations of the British Colonial office as to the cost-benefit ratio of keeping an embattled outpost in Palestine rather than maintaining control of Suez in the Mediterranean and a base at Aden in the Arabian Sea.
The actual UN vote on partition which put in motion a Jewish state (as well as a Palestinian one) was based more on self-interest than sentiment. Russia and its satellites supported the Zionist cause with an eye toward diminishing British power in the Middle East as well as advancing its own interests. The French were motivated at least in part by shoring up their hegemony in North Africa and the Mediterranean by cultivating a potential ally in the region. While Harry Truman was probably sincerely supportive of a Jewish state, a debate raged in Washington between the geopolitics of the State Department with an eye toward Arab oil and the domestic politics of the Democratic Party with an election in the offing the following year. To be sure, the importance of the Jewish vote was a calculation, but not the only one in making Truman’s decision. Moreover, the specter of “Jewish influence” was as much a bugaboo of home-grown anti-Semites as it was a political reality in the days well before AIPAC. So-called Jewish “influence” did little to bring Jews into the U.S. both before and after the war.
Once Washington opted to vote yes on partition, most Latin American nations fell into line and, together with Western Europe and the Commonwealth nations, it pushed the vote through. Predictably, all the Muslim nations voted “no.” Had the vote taken place with an expanded de-colonized UN a few years later, it is doubtful the decision would have gone in Israel’s favor. Significantly, Great Britain abstained. While sympathy for the plight of Hitler’s victims may have played a role, the justice of Israel’s cause together with reasons of state was a critical determinant. There is little evidence that nations motivated by realpolitik before the war should have altered course subsequently.
As for the survivors themselves, to what degree did they contribute to the establishment of the Jewish State? After the war, more than a quarter of a million Jews remained stranded in Western Europe. Although a few were able to be smuggled into British-controlled Palestine, most languished in DP camps well through 1948 when the critical battles for Israel’s survival had already been won by the Palmach. This is not to gainsay the courage of those who managed to make their way through the British blockade and fought and died for the Jewish state. Nor is it to diminish the propaganda effect of incidents such as “The Exodus” where the Royal Navy turned back a boatload of more than 4,000 Holocaust survivors off the coast of Palestine, which most certainly had a significant impact on world opinion in the lead-up to the U.N. vote. As did newsreels of illegal Jewish immigrants behind barbed wire in British internment camps on Cyprus conjuring up images of the very concentration camps that they’d survived. But in fact, the British blockade, while a public-relations disaster for London and a windfall for the Zionists, was militarily effective, preventing large numbers of Jews from emigrating to Palestine in the crucial months leading up to partition and the ensuing struggle.
The massive immigration that flooded the Jewish state directly after partition came not from Europe but from Arab lands from which 700,000 Jews were driven after the creation of the Jewish state, roughly the equivalent of the number of Arab refugees from Israel during the war of Independence. Whatever the suffering these Sephardic Jews endured – horrible enough in its own right – they were not victims of the European Holocaust. Their persecution was effected by an endemic Muslim anti-Semitism prompted, in part, by the success of the Jewish state itself.
The narrative of the Holocaust as a precursor, indeed a necessity, for the creation of the Jewish state, satisfies many agendas: The Arabs can claim it was a catastrophe not of their making but which nevertheless precipitated their own national calamity. Secular Zionists can see a worldly redemption from millennia of persecution to the Restoration of Jewish national renewal. Religious zealots can see God’s hand in a design bringing us to the cusp of a messianic era. This is rooted in the mystical view that before the light of Final Redemption there must be a Great Darkness. There is an arc to this narrative that is hard to resist. But we must resist it because it is not true.
It is understandable that one might want to see God’s hand metaphorically in the rebirth of Israel. It is, after all, promised in Scripture and a sincere belief in the fulfillment of this promise is central to Jewish thought. It is also conceivable to see Israel poetically as a consolation for the Churban – something that the Jewish people needed to maintain their faith after the spiritual void left by the Holocaust. But to take it to the next step – that the Holocaust was necessary for the creation of Israel – is impermissible.
For believers with any sense of compassion, much less justice, God did not need the Holocaust to create the Jewish state. The Halutzniks were doing God’s work on the land itself. A true act of faith is to believe that, sooner or later, through their own efforts, or with God’s help, they would have succeeded. They did not need the blood of six million innocents to seed their own Tree of Life. There is an ironic ring to the words of God in the recently read Parsha Shemini: “I will be sanctified by those who are nearest to me.”
It would behoove those of us who have not suffered God’s wrath to consider those who have, and not consider them a sacrifice for our own well-being, whatever the cause. It is a position that is wrong not only historically, but morally.
Jack Schwartz was the book editor of Newsday.