On The Proper Response to Anti-Semitism

A lot of ink is spilt; and a lot of windy speeches are made, these days about the proliferation of anti-Semitic attacks. But life itself is a book. One grew up in an upper Manhattan neighborhood where many young mothers had numbers tattooed on their arms: some of those women saw their children torn from them and sent to the ovens, and when at the end of the war those living skeletons with staring eyes asked Rabbis why they should go on living, the holy men counseled them to raise more children, and those second children were my playmates. At the age of fifteen I was taken to see Auschwitz concentration camp, which in the Communist Poland of 1969 was unsanitized and stark; and many in our group of American kids, unprepared for the experience, had nervous breakdowns that night when we returned to Kraków. The Nazi Holocaust is a human historical event that often seems to stand outside the possibility of normal historical understanding, like an irruption of supernatural evil. It has a character and enormity no sane mind can encompass, that no soul attuned to goodness, decent values, and a belief in the validity of this world can ever be fully equipped to believe. We know what led up to it, how it happened and what the details were, and that it is real. One wrestles with the book of the past. When I was young, I thought the world had learned the needful lesson from that book. I could not have been more naïve. Anti-Semitism is as virulent now as it was then. What is it and how should we be prepared to fight it?

Anti-Semitism happens when one sees Jews not as people but as characters— the bearers of negative, predetermined stereotypes. Hook-nosed, bow-legged, bleary eyed, fat and ugly, greedy, treacherous, conniving, both pathetically weak and uncannily powerful. It is the stuff of conspiracy theories built up over centuries, polished in forgeries like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (which the present government of Iran publishes and gives away for free— I have a copy), made into policy in Mein Kampf, updated as a prophecy of a nightmarish American future in The Turner Diaries. Much of the basis of this is a perversion of the teaching of the Christian faith. Jesus Christ was a Jew who never called Himself anything else and who spent all His life in the Land of Israel. His sermons are based on Torah and replete with Midrash. His disciples were Jews and He was killed by occupying Roman invaders against whom His people rose up in 70 CE, two generations after His death, in a rebellion that was doomed but was so determined, so ferocious, that it is the best-documented single event in all of ancient history. Yet our people— His people— were cast in the role of the villain in a play that has been elaborated over the ages and is performed over and over, since the world seems to need a permanent enemy. All too often, we’ve internalized the part, thinking we really must be the monsters they say we are.

I want to talk about that problem, what it leads to, and what we have to do about it. Who are we, really? Here is the real image. Every soul of the nation of Israel alive today, in this synagogue tonight, stood thousands of years ago at the foot of mount Sinai, seven weeks after liberation from slavery in Egypt, and pledged our allegiance to the one true God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, with these words: “We will do and we will listen”. The mountain was wreathed in fire and smoke, and the voice of the trumpet sounded louder and louder, and God in His own voice spoke the Ten Commandments, and gave the tablets and the Torah to His servant Moses, the greatest of the Prophets, and as we carried the Ark of the Covenant before us the Lord led us through the desert with a pillar of cloud by day and a column of fire by night to the land flowing with milk and honey. There in the sun under the date palms with the hot desert wind blowing, King David sang the Psalms and King Solomon built God’s house on the holy mountain in Jerusalem, where the stones tinged with the color of honey glow and the air is heavy with roses, and all the Prophets spoke, and all their words are truth. The Teaching really did go forth from Zion and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem— a poor young Jewish teacher, the son of a carpenter, gave his life spreading the Word; a merchant in the south of Arabia abandoned his livelihood and his home to heed and take up the Call. We are a small people, hailing from a little homeland, and few speak our ancient tongue, the resurrected language of Scripture; but the Covenant of God with His people Israel now shelters billions of our fellow human beings wherever there is life on this planet.

We respect our younger siblings, the Christians and Muslims, and honor their brilliant heritage. But we have also steadfastly remained ourselves, with the courage to be different that a human being has to have, and because of that became at times the envied, feared, hated other— related but alien, distant though next door— for some of the human family. And over many centuries we inherited at birth the role that I’ve spoken about, that of a caricatured villain in somebody else’s play. Most of us lived by then in lands of exile far from home, peripatetic strangers, and though we are a nation of farmers and fighters as well as of prophets and dreamers, over time we had lost contact with the earth. We were prevented often from working the land and bearing arms, and that contributed to the lethal picture, shaped by prejudice, of weakness and passivity. Over the long years some of us began to forget who we really were, as the hatred formed an incrustation of self-loathing and a habit of concealment; and as a strategy of survival many of us made a virtue of necessity and found reasons to praise the absence of physical strength and invented excuses to prefer homelessness to a homeland. That is why even now some Jews, pathetically eager to please, side with those who deny Israel the right to defend itself and even to exist, and celebrate with nostalgia the precarious and powerless life of the old Eastern European shtetl, as though it were endearing to be imprisoned in poverty at the whim of a tyrant, to be less than a full human being.

What was to be done in World War II? What is to be done about anti-Semitic violence, today? The answer I want to talk about is armed resistance. This seems to me to have been the proper response, though for many, through no fault of their own, it was not possible. All the victims of the Nazi genocide, whether or not they resisted, and whether that resistance was armed or non-violent, were martyrs.

This is the historical scene. Before World War II, there were some 400,000 Jews in the Polish capital, Warsaw— roughly 30% of the population of the city and 10% of the whole country— and Eastern Europe was the center of world Jewry. Fully 96% of the world’s Jews, according to one statistic, considered Yiddish their mother tongue. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, reaching Warsaw in one week and subjecting the besieged city to indiscriminate aerial attack for a fortnight, reserving the heaviest bombing for the 23rd of the month, Yom Kippur— the Jewish Day of Atonement. This was intentional: Hitler’s war was above all a war against the Jews, in which military and strategic aims were secondary. After the city fell, the Nazis herded first the Jews of the capital and later those of many other towns and countries into a small area and forced their captives to build a wall around themselves. On 16 November 1940 the Warsaw Ghetto was closed. By 1942, some 450,000 were imprisoned in it, and about 100,000 of those had died of starvation and disease. That summer the Nazis deported most of the surviving inhabitants— nearly 300,000— in cattle cars to death factories, mainly Treblinka, sixty miles away, where they were murdered in gas chambers; by September only about 60,000 Jews remained in the ghetto.

A handful of young men and women, mainly Zionists and Communists, formed the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB: Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa) and determined to resist by force further deportation orders by the Germans, who planned to empty the Ghetto on Passover— April 19th, 1943 (the same day as this year)— as a present for Hitler, may his name and memory be blotted out, whose birthday was the next day, April 20th (and thus, the date an American Nazi chose for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995: till 9/11, it was the worst massacre on American soil). Although few of the young rebels had much in the way of arms training, they refused to be humiliated, they did not accept the Nazis’ caricature of them, they would not deceive themselves about the intentions of our enemy, and they preferred death to dishonor. It’s important to stress this: their attitude was as important as the weapons they carried, maybe more so.

The Germans attacked late on Passover night with about 2000 troops, assisted by Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Latvian collaborators and Polish police, armed with 1000 rifles, 135 submachine guns, 69 light machine guns, 13 heavy guns, flamethrowers, and 3 armored cars. The ZOB met them with ten rifles, one or two captured submachine guns and one light machine gun, about 60 pistols with 10-15 rounds each (these were mostly defective and in any case are useless in battle), and about 2000 handmade grenades and Molotov cocktails. Using prepared tunnels and bunkers, the ZOB waged an asymmetrical guerrilla war, causing up to 1000 German casualties. The Germans were unable to defeat the Jews in a fair fight; they set fire to the entire ghetto and then used poison gas to flush out the bunkers. The battle ended on May 16th, 1943. The tiny army of the Jews of Warsaw, with virtually no outside support, held out longer than the entire country of Poland, with its regular army, had done in 1939— and isolated incidents of fighting continued till the fall.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the first instance of Jewish armed resistance since the rebellion of Bar Kokhba against the Roman occupiers of the Land of Israel nearly two thousand years earlier, in 135 CE. Surviving Warsaw Ghetto fighters and Jewish partisans from other parts of occupied Europe, notably the Yiddish and Hebrew poet Abba Kovner, went on to fight in the Haganah, the defense organization that fought the British and pro-Nazi Arabs after the war when England prevented Holocaust survivors from coming to the Land of Israel; the Haganah became the Tsava Haganah le-Yisrael, Tsahal, the present-day Israel Defense Force. Other Jews in Europe joined resistance movements or formed partisan units: in Belarus the Bielski brothers, who before the war had never much trusted the authorities and who knew how to shoot, formed an independent partisan unit, subject to no outsider’s command, that saved over a thousand Jews from the Nazis.

Little or no help came to us from our neighbors or the wartime Allies: resistance in the Holocaust was mainly an exercise in self-reliance. The Home Army (AK: Armia Krajewa) of the Polish government-in-exile had a long-term aim of liberating the country and at best did very little to help the Jews, providing the uprising with some rusty pistols. At worst, it did us harm. The Allied governments were likewise focused on larger wartime plans and did nothing specifically to help the Jews, the mass extermination of whom had begun with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The Germans killed a million Jews then with bullets; the industrial, streamlined techniques of mass murder of the other five million were still in the planning stage: the Nazis had been experimenting with gas chambers in their murder of mental patients and disabled children. By 1942, anyone who cared to know, could know everything, even if The New York Times buried the news in the middle of its pages. Though the Nazis carefully hid the stages of the “Final Solution” from their intended victims, deceiving them at every stage, the West knew. Any effective action had to happen now, and even two years later there still was none. The US Army Air Force in 1944 bombed the Monowitz factory next door to the concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau but left the machinery of death— rail links, gas chambers— untouched although it had aerial reconnaissance photographs of these in full operation, with people lined up on the ramp for selection, with smoke belching from the crematoria.

A few bombs could have impeded the murder that summer of hundreds of thousands of the Hungarian Jews. Those are the people in the pictures of the trains and the selections in the infamous Auschwitz album now preserved at Yad Vashem, and the SS officer Adolf Eichmann managed their deportation: after the war he got away scot free, with nobody looking for him, till Israel kidnapped him in Argentina, brought him to Jerusalem, tried and convicted him, hanged him, burned the corpse to dust, and dumped the refuse in the sea. The only Allied operation of the entire war whose explicit mission was to help Jews was the parachuting of a small unit of British Army volunteers— teenage Jewish collective farmers, kibbutzniks, from the Land of Israel— into occupied Yugoslavia that same year, 1944, to try to warn and help rescue the community in Hungary. Their mission was unsuccessful. One of those fighters, the Hebrew poet Hannah Senesh, was captured and brought by Hungarian Nazis to her native Budapest. They brought her mother into the prison where she was, and murdered Hannah. אשרי הגפרור שנסרף והיצית להבות “Happy is the match that burned out but kindled flames,” read her last poem.

Before the war, the great and little powers had conferred on the refugee problem at Evian, in France. But the doors remained closed. After the war, hundreds of Jews trying to return to their prewar homes in Poland were massacred. Others were confined by the Allies to the very same concentration camps, refitted as DP camps, where the Germans had done their killing. The British turned back ships like the Exodus bringing survivors to Israel. It took a war of liberation waged by the remnant of Israel that remained, against a country that was supposedly an enemy of Hitler, to secure the right to stand on the soil of our own land. Israel, a country nine miles wide at its narrowest point, with all of nine million inhabitants, is the only true democracy in the Middle East, but the United Nations passes more resolutions against it than against any other country. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed: anti-Semitism is more virulent than at any time since 1945, with Israel its new target. But Israel is armed and is not interested in the opinions of anti-Semites.

The Holocaust would not have begun without Hitler, whom most Germans adored. It could not have succeeded without the active collaboration of the civilian authorities, police, and much of the general population of conquered Europe. A survivor, the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, wondered in 1960 (The Informed Heart, p. 27) whether the Nazi notion “that millions of Jews would submit to extermination did not also result from seeing how much degradation they would accept without fighting back.” And what if you do fight back?

Before the war, the great and little powers had conferred on the refugee problem at Evian, in France. But the doors remained closed. After the war, hundreds of Jews trying to return to their prewar homes in Poland were massacred. Others were confined by the Allies to the very same concentration camps, refitted as DP camps, where the Germans had done their killing. The British turned back ships like the Exodus bringing survivors to Israel. It took a war of liberation waged by the remnant of Israel that remained, against a country that was supposedly an enemy of Hitler, to secure the right to stand on the soil of our own land. Israel, a country nine miles wide at its narrowest point, with all of nine million inhabitants, is the only true democracy in the Middle East, but the United Nations passes more resolutions against it than against any other country. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed: anti-Semitism is a virulent as ever, with Israel its new target. But Israel is armed and is not interested in the opinions of anti-Semites.

The Israeli statesman Abba Eban once said of a wise saying that if it were not already a Chinese proverb that it ought to be one; accordingly, even though the wartime Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto may not actually have written, “You cannot invade the mainland United States because there is an American with a rifle behind every blade of grass,” he should have written it. What if we had been able, every one of us, to fight back? Imagine if every country in Europe had a Constitution like that of the USA, with its crucial Second Amendment— imagine if every Jew had arms training and a gun and was ready to use it to defend his home, family and community against any attacker. Would Hitler have invaded Poland if behind each of three million blades of grass stood a Jew with a rifle and an attitude to match? David Ben Gurion really did say, עתידנו אינו תלוי במה יאמרו הגויים אלא במה יעשו היהודים. “Our future does not depend on what the gentiles will say but on what the Jews will do.”

The Holocaust happened long ago but anti-Semitic incidents constitute the majority of hate crimes in America today, it is not safe to be a Jew in Europe, and the demonization of Israel— the latest form of the ancient hatred— is commonplace on college campuses. Violent assaults on Jews have become an everyday occurrence on the streets of American cities. Nice words from the mayor of NYC and the president of the USA are appreciated, but they are just that— nice words. Nothing’s changed except for the worse. I haven’t seen any big street demonstrations in New York or elsewhere in solidarity with the Jewish community. There is a silence, a malign indifference, that should be deafening, and it’s nothing new.

We Jews in the Diaspora cannot rely on the IDF for protection. We need to be proficient in armed self-defense and we need an attitude to match. One should remember and take to heart the admonition of the Russian writer and Zionist leader, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky: “Our habit of constantly and zealously answering to any rabble has already done us a lot of harm and will do much more. We were not created in order to teach morals and manners to our enemies. Let them learn these things for themselves before they establish relations with us. We want to hit back at anybody who harms us. Whoever does not repay a blow by a blow is also incapable of repaying a good deed in kind. Only someone who can hate his enemies can be a faithful friend to those who love him. We do not have to apologize for anything. We are a people as all other peoples; we do not have any intentions to be better than the rest… We do not have to account to anybody, we are not to sit for anybody’s examination and nobody is old enough to call us to answer. We came before them and we will leave after them. We are what we are, we are good for ourselves, we will not change, nor do we want to.”

Tractate Sanhedrin 72a of the Babylonian Talmud says: והתורה אמרה אם בא להורגך השכם להורגו “And the Torah said, If someone comes to kill you, kill him first.” Based on this ruling the Hasidic rabbi of Lask, Yehuda Leib, may his righteous memory be for a blessing, declared when the Germans invaded Poland, “Any Nazi must be killed on sight.” (אלה אזכרה 7.13-15, cited in Shema Yisroel, Kaliv World Center and Targum/Feldheim, Jerusalem, p. 51.) That is the lesson of the Holocaust— from those who foresaw the disaster, from those who confronted it, from those who survived it, and, what matters most, from Torah. Let’s learn it. Let’s exercise our right to bear arms and teach our children to. Let’s tell the world, we are ready to be your friends, but we aren’t going to play the role of the villain in anybody’s play anymore. Let us who are in the Diaspora prepare now to defend ourselves, when necessary by force of arms. And for God’s sake, if you have kids, prepare them for Aliyah. There’s no future here.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University; the journal Linguistica Petropolitana, Russian Academy of Sciences; and the journal Homo Loquens, Russian Christian Humanities Association, St. Petersburg. He is a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. He holds the PhD in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; B.Litt. (Oxon.); B.A. (summa) (Columbia). His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.
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