Many Jews and non-Jews, both friends and enemies of Israel, assume that Israel was founded as a result of the Shoah of European Jewry. While the Shoah was indisputably an important background factor, it is a serious mistake or misrepresentation to view it as the cause of Israel’s creation. Think about that: it effectively attributes responsibility for Israel’s existence to the Nazis.
A common pro-Israel view is that the world felt guilty about the Shoah and concluded the Jews were “owed” compensation in the form of a state. Israel herself perpetuates the idea of causal linkage between the two when she observes Independence Day one week after Holocaust Remembrance Day, or takes foreign dignitaries to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as the first stop in their visits here.
Opponents of Israel readily agree that the Shoah was critical for Israel’s creation, but why should the Palestinians be punished for the sins of Europe? This works even better if they are also Holocaust-deniers. Then the argument becomes that the Zionists inflated a minor phenomenon into a huge victim rationale for manipulating western guilt and justifying dispossession of the Palestinians. Israel’s demonization then becomes complete – a wicked country with a bizarre, phony provenance.
The debate often focuses on the UN vote of November 29, 1947, when just over two-thirds of the nations decided that Palestine should be divided between a Jewish and an Arab state.
The 33 countries voting in favour had various motives. Humanitarian sympathy for the Jews played a certain role for some. But foreign policy decision-making rarely depends on sentiment. The “world”, whatever that means, doesn’t owe and doesn’t pay.
At least some of the Europeans and North Americans were concerned to avoid having to absorb quantities of the numerous Shoah survivors then languishing in various refugee camps. The Soviet bloc (5 countries) temporarily relaxed their long-term anti-Zionism in the effort to push British influence out of the Middle East. Some Central and South American countries were purportedly influenced by the United Fruit Company (then owned by a supportive American Jew), the major importer of their banana crops to the US,.
The motives of the voting nations are debatable, but what happened after the vote is not: Virtually nothing. The Jews were abandoned, and arms shipments to them embargoed. The prevailing assumption was that they would be overwhelmed by the armies of the surrounding Arab countries. Many regarded Ben Gurion as a madman for leading his fledgling nation into collective suicide. Only the Soviets, in very calculated fashion, permitted Czechoslovakia to provide Israel with some limited rifles and disassembled airplanes, in furtherance of their strategic goals.
In fact, the Jews were far better prepared than anyone realized for the following war, which they won – at a horrific cost. 6000 out of their total population of 600,000 were killed – fully 1%! Compare that to the casualty figures of other wars, to grasp the extent of the loss. This was the only reason Israel survived. Without it, there would be nothing – Jewish victimhood, UN votes, western guilt and fine intentions notwithstanding. Israel would have been strangled in the cradle, as Arab leaders left no doubt was their precise goal.
So, why is it important to get clear on the connection between the Shoah and Israel’s founding? Two main reasons:
One is to refute the “original sin” narrative of Israel’s genesis. Yes, without apology, one of the reasons for Israel’s existence is to provide sanctuary for any Jew who needs it. But that need alone would never have sufficed to create the modern state, nor would preoccupation with the lethal sorrows of Jewish history. It rather took the positive energies of the age-old connection of Jews to this land, the long years of pre-State pioneering and institution-building, the conviction that there was nowhere else for the Jews of 1948 to go, and the awesome sacrifices of her founding generations. Agency for Israel’s creation returns to where it belongs – with the Jews.
The other is to dispel a dangerous fallacy of our time, that suffering ennobles you, and entitles you to compensation. Ideally it should; in reality it doesn’t. The fashionable embrace of victimhood, and its weaponization, are a treacherous path to false liberation. True liberation comes, as the early Zionist movement put it, through self-emancipation. Short-cuts yield illusory victories and end in frustration and anger. The only real liberation comes from taking your destiny into your own hands and building it patiently.
Jews must always study and commemorate the Shoah, sanely and healthily, without letting it become an obsession, controlling our perceptions of ourselves, our Jewish identity and the world around us. What a grotesque, posthumous victory for Hitler that would be! Attempts to exploit the Shoah as a cover for political ideologies must be vigorously resisted.
We can achieve a balanced perspective which understands the potential for evil in our species, and works to contain it, while emphasizing the humane attitudes and positive actions enabling mankind to heal, and to hope for redemption. That is the finest Shoah commemoration of all.