Jewish continuity

Reading two recent books on Jewish history, I was struck by the degree of connection and continuity that there was between the Jews in Europe and in Palestine/Israel despite the devastation caused by the Holocaust. The two books are: “Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto” by Moshe Arens, former Israeli Minister of Defense and Foreign Affairs, and “Out of the Depths” by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel. These two books complement each other in that they describe respectively the political and religious connections between European (mainly Polish) Jewry and the Jews of Mandatory Palestine, later Israel.

In Poland there were several distinct major groups of Jewish political organizations, each with its own youth movement. They were divided into Zionist and non-Zionist. The Zionists could be further divided into national Zionist (e.g. Betar of the Revisionists), general Zionist (e.g. Hanoar Hazioni), and socialist Zionist (e.g. Hashomer Hatzair, Dror, Hechalutz, Poalei Zion). Each of these had a parallel organization in Palestine. The non-Zionist organizations in Poland could be divided into religious (e.g. Agudat Yisrael), or anti-Zionist (the Bund and the Communists).

During the British Mandate period in Palestine, there were two major policies within the Jewish community, those that decided to cooperate with the British during WWII, mainly the Jewish Agency and the Labor Party (then Mapai) under David Ben Gurion, and those that decided to continue to oppose the British, even while they were fighting the Germans, namely Zeev Jabotinski of the Revisionists, who were regarded as “fascists” by the left. Because of this animosity, in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising there were two completely separate and uncoordinated armed groups, the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) consisting of all the socialist organizations (including the socialist Zionists allied with the anti-Zionist Bund) and the Jewish Military Organization (ZZW) of the Betar Revisionists. The antagonism that existed between the Zionist groups in Palestine overflowed into Poland and the Zionist socialists preferred to align themselves with the other leftists rather than with their fellow Zionists. This lack of unity certainly reduced the Jewish capability to fight the Germans, even though they had no chance to survive anyway.

From Rabbi Lau’s book we learn how he, as a boy of 5, managed to survive under the unimaginable conditions of the Holocaust. Luckily one elder brother also survived and looked after him. He even carried him into Buchenwald concentration camp in his backpack and he survived inside the camp because he was looked after by foreigners, not in the Jewish camp where it was impossible for him to survive. But, when he eventually came to Israel he was looked after by a series of Rabbis, each of whom knew his father or his father’s reputation as a Torah scholar. Passing thru the Rabbinate as he did inside Israel soon after its founding, we see through his eyes how the structure of the Rabbinical sects that existed in Europe were reconstituted in Israel, thru the acts of Rabbis who restarted yeshivas, and thru the benefactors who assisted in supporting them. One example is the Gur Chassidic dynasty and its thriving yeshiva in Jerusalem.

After the terrible destruction and rupture caused in Jewish life by the Holocaust, Jewish political and religious organizations in Europe restructured themselves in parallel in Israel with an emphasis on Jewish continuity. Only the anti-Zionist Jewish organization of the Bund was, of course, eradicated. The genius of Ben Gurion was that after Independence he forged all the party militias into one national Israel Defence Force.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.