Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood 
by Idith Zertal.
Cambridge, 236 pp., £19.99, October 2005, 0 521 85096 7
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In 1950 the Israeli parliament passed the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law, the first constitutional expression of Israel’s belief that it must act as the heir of the Jews murdered in Europe. This status won international recognition only gradually, thanks by and large to West Germany’s decision not only to pay compensation to the victims of Nazism but also to pay ‘reparations’ to the state of Israel. In her excellent book, Idith Zertal reviews some of the trials of Jewish collaborators who had immigrated to Israel after the war and were indicted under this law. These survivors were victims too, but the law required that their victimhood be suspended. Nevertheless, they were all given light sentences, as if the judges themselves had some reservations about the law.

A far more critical case followed, however, when a man called Malkiel Grunewald, who had lost his entire family in Hungary during the war, issued a series of pamphlets accusing Israel Kastner, a spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, of collaboration. During the war, according to Grunewald, Kastner had met Eichmann, travelled all over Germany, and arranged transport out of Occupied Europe for more than a thousand privileged Hungarian Jews. Grunewald’s own family, too unimportant to be saved, were deported to places from which no one returned. Kastner had known about these places but, as part of the deal he had struck with the Nazis, had kept this knowledge from his fellow Jews. After the war he testified at Nuremberg on behalf of his SS contact Kurt Becher and saved him from being hanged.

Instead of indicting Kastner, if only to allow him to be found innocent, the attorney general chose to file a libel suit against Grunewald. What followed turned into the political trial of David Ben-Gurion and his party, to which Kastner belonged. Grunewald was acquitted. Kastner, the German-born judge wrote, ‘had sold his soul to the devil’. In Zertal’s view this was the beginning of Ben-Gurion’s downfall. Worn out by the scandal, he ordered Mossad to kidnap Eichmann and to bring him to Israel for what Zertal and other Israeli scholars, following Hannah Arendt, have called a show trial.

Holocaust memory is the safest, or at any rate the least controversial, Israeli collective experience, at a time when the rest of our national values are under threat. To be a good Israeli some forty years ago meant doing something for the state – ‘for the nation’, ‘for the Jewish people’. Now, to be a good Israeli means to see ourselves as the only protagonists in our story. This has been a gradual process, and its grotesque culmination came in the spring of 1993 when Major-General Ehud Barak, then IDF chief of staff, stood in uniform at Auschwitz and said at the climax of his speech: ‘Had we only arrived here 50 years earlier …’

The Holocaust is by now a central element of ‘Israeliness’. Zertal sees it not just as a ‘spiritual’ entity, but as a material institution as well. She begins with the way the Zionist elite chose to ignore its survivors: ‘martyrdom’ was reserved for the dead. Dead victims are far more convenient for myth-making, ceremonies and political speeches.

Zertal describes three occasions when the pre-Israel Zionist elite turned defeats into heroic myths. First, an incident in 1920, when settlers near the disputed border between the French and British colonial powers (the border between what is now Lebanon, Syria and Israel) were attacked by armed locals. This quickly became a legendary tale of the land of Israel being redeemed by force of arms, work and death. The protagonist of the story was Josef Trumpeldor, whose actual last words were a Russian curse, something close to ‘motherfucker’, but the version we all grew up on was: ‘Never mind. It’s good to die for our country.’ The second heroic defeat was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and other similar rebellions against the Nazis. The third was the boarding of the Exodus in 1947 by the British navy to prevent its 4500 passengers, Jewish refugees from Europe, from landing in Palestine.

There were survivors of all these defeats, but their voices were silenced unless they stuck to Zionist ideology when telling their story. If their story wasn’t part of our story, they were forgotten. The victims, Zertal writes, were instrumentalised. Thus the story of the Warsaw uprising became part of Zionist history. Zertal quotes speeches and articles from the immediate aftermath in which only Zionism is seen as capable of explaining the courage of the people ‘over there’:

The meaning of the nationalisation of the ghetto uprisings was the nationalisation of the narrative of the uprisings as well as the expunging of its incompatible non-Zionist components. Early on, while the insurrection was actually taking place, it was convenient to believe in Palestine that it was solely borne by the young people of the Zionist youth movements. This glossed over and ignored the fact that the rebel groups encompassed the entire spectrum of Jewish political parties; that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was led by a group which did in fact include representatives of the Zionists, but also members of the anti-Zionist Bund as well as Communists, and that the Jewish Fighting Organization – Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB) – received material and moral support from both community leaders and institutions of the openly non-Zionist American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint), without which it could not have operated.

Take Marek Edelman, an extremely eloquent and charismatic man, and a prominent figure first in the socialist Bund movement, then as one of the commanders of the Warsaw uprising, then as a doctor in postwar Poland, then during the Solidarity insurrection, and finally in post-Communist Poland. He was almost erased from the official Israeli story of the uprising. Why?

Edelman persistently refused to view the establishment of the State of Israel as the belated ‘meaning’ of the Holocaust … Consequently, his narrative of the uprising was silenced and his role was played down. His book, The Ghetto Fighting, published in Warsaw in 1945 by the Bund, was translated into Hebrew only 56 years later, in 2001 … Within the flourishing commemoration industry that developed in Israel around the rebellion and its heroes, there was no room for Edelman and his other story.

The past had to be carefully constructed, and the Holocaust entered only through the eye of the Zionist needle. If the thread was too thick or had too many strands it had to be altered to fit – a boy scout morality prevailed. In 1976, Israel Gutman, later the editor of the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (1990) and himself a survivor of the Warsaw uprising, wrote in Haaretz about Edelman (to whom he granted a very short entry in the Encyclopedia): ‘Why did Marek Edelman remain in Poland as a doctor when almost all his Jewish political colleagues and people close to him personally left?’ Edelman used to come, now and then, to Israel, to see old friends, but no one had ever publicly asked him this question, though he had a very good answer: he didn’t like the idea of the ‘new nation’. In fact, Edelman was always very critical not only of Israelis’ attitude to the Holocaust, but also of more sensitive issues – such as our racist laws of citizenship. In a late interview he told a Polish journalist: ‘Israel is a chauvinist, religious state, where a Christian is a second-class citizen and a Muslim is third-class. It is a disaster, after three million were murdered in Poland, they want to dominate everything and not to consider non-Jews!’

The truth, according to Israeli ideology, is that the Nazis never really died: they just changed languages, ideologies, systems and allies. The most ridiculous claims, that Arabs are Nazis, today come from the right-wing leader Benjamin Netanyahu. But Netanyahu has predecessors within the Zionist establishment.

In The Holocaust in American Life (1999), Peter Novick noted that the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin El-Husseini (a sworn enemy of both Zionists and British colonialism, who had met with Eichmann and had great expectations of a Nazi victory), was depicted in Gutman’s Encyclopedia as one of the major designers and perpetrators of the Final Solution: his entry is twice as long as those for Goebbels and Goering, longer than the combined entries for Heydrich and Himmler and longer than the entry for Eichmann. ‘One might add,’ Zertal says, ‘that in the Hebrew edition of the Encyclopedia, the entry on El-Husseini is almost as long as that on Hitler.’

Anyone seen as an enemy of Israel is still perceived to be carrying on Hitler’s work. Similar paranoid traits can be found in connection with the ‘new anti-semitism’, an ugly charge aimed at anyone who criticises Israel’s destruction of Palestine. The campaign (which has been quite successful in Germany and France) was launched after the reinvasion of the West Bank three years ago, after the devastation of Jenin (which capitulated, to the great pride of the Israeli army, on Holocaust Day 2002). The language that pro-Israelis and representatives of Israel use to describe the ‘new anti-semitism’ stems from the logic that portrays Palestinians as Nazis. Zertal traces it back to Ben-Gurion’s rhetoric of the early 1950s.

On the night of 12-13 October 1953, an Israeli woman and two of her children were murdered by Palestinians who had crossed the border from what was then the Jordanian West Bank. The response, decided on by Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, was immediate. A military detachment was sent under the command of the young Ariel Sharon on the night of 14-15 October. Forty-five houses in Kibbya were blown up and 60 villagers (most of them women and children) killed. The international outrage directed at the young, quite popular state was unprecedented. It was followed by the official lie.

On 19 October, Ben-Gurion, ‘the father of the nation’, gave one of his most famous speeches – a speech in which he not only lied, as we all know today, but also launched his new discourse of equivalence. First, he gave the numbers which proved that ‘we’ were the victims: ‘Hundreds of Israeli citizens, women and men, old people and infants, have been murdered and severely injured.’ These victims were ‘frontier dwellers, most of them Jewish refugees from Arab countries or survivors of Nazi concentration camps’. Then he claimed that the atrocities had been committed by ‘them’:

The Israeli government justifiably allotted them weapons and trained them to defend themselves. However, the armed forces from Transjordan did not cease their criminal attacks until the patience of some frontier settlements was exhausted and after the murder of a mother and her two children in the village of Yahud, they attacked this week the village of Kibbya across the border … The Israeli government strongly rejects the absurd claim that 600 soldiers of IDF took part [in the operation] against Kibbya. Having conducted a thorough investigation we certify beyond a doubt that not a single military unit, however small, was absent from camp on the night of the attack on Kibbya.

Zertal comments:

While rhetorically magnifying the crime of the Palestinian infiltrators by defining the objects of their crime as ultimate Jewish victims, survivors of Nazi concentration camps, Ben-Gurion did the almost inconceivable … by pointing to those same victims and singling them out as having ‘justifiably’ taken up arms and perpetrated the Kibbya massacre … he moved the Jewish frontier dwellers, many of them in fact Holocaust survivors … equipped them with weapons, and transformed them into avengers who had taken the law into their hands.

Zertal is right to describe Ben-Gurion’s use of these ‘frontier dwellers’ not only as a political lie, but as an Israeli symptom: he wouldn’t have done it to groups that could have protested that ‘we’ don’t do such horrendous things.

He allowed himself to do it … because these marginal, new immigrants, living on the border line of Israeliness, in every possible sense, had no voice, no representation and no political power, and, consequently, could be discounted. Just as they had been sent, without being consulted, to those border villages, many of them recently abandoned Arab villages converted to immigrant settlements to become the living barrier of the new state, so they could also be given an identity and moulded to fit propaganda need or political contingency.

In 1953, ‘us’ (IDF, Israelis) and ‘them’ (Holocaust survivors and their moral equals, Jewish refugees from Arab countries) were still two separate entities. It was only later that the difference was blurred in the construction of our ‘identity’. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ any more. We are all victims. We are all saviours. One Zionist academic described that process as ‘healing the trauma’. Whose trauma? Both the victims’ and the saviours’.

What should also be noted about Ben-Gurion’s speech is the way he represents the Holocaust survivors, who were commonly supposed to be more cruel, more vindictive than other Israelis, as if they came out of one of Leon Uris’s cheap novels. The survivors were, of course, never more cruel than the IDF, with its tough, ‘guiltless’, arrogant officers. The Israeli story made vengeance a mode of Jewish being – ‘because they came through Hell’.

But then came the Eichmann trial (1961), the last of many pedagogical projects we had to go through as children of the state. Zertal quotes in this context one of Ben-Gurion’s ugliest speeches, of April 1961, in which he responded to Ernst Simon of the Hebrew University. It was election time, during the Eichmann frenzy, and Simon had just proposed a less belligerent government without Ben-Gurion. The prime minister, in a public speech, replied:

Has the distinguished professor co-ordinated his call with the tyrant of Egypt who has just declared that Israel is an ‘element which must be eradicated’ … ? Would the distinguished professor dare to blame the six million Jews of Europe annihilated by the Nazis – claiming that the fault was theirs for not acquiring the love and friendship of Hitler? The danger of the Egyptian tyrant is like that which afflicted the European Jewry … Is he [the professor] not aware that the Mufti was a counsellor and a partner in the extermination schemes, and that, in all Arab countries, the popularity of Hitler rose during World War Two? Is the distinguished professor confident that, without the deterrent force of the Israeli army, which he sees as an ‘anti-security’ and ‘harmful’ factor, we would not be facing similar annihilation?

This is how the nation was transformed by its political leaders. The rhetoric against Palestinian nationalism never ceased to involve comparisons with the Nazis. On 30 August 2002, in an interview with Haaretz, the former Israeli chief of staff Moshe (Boogey) Yaalon made what he called ‘an unequivocal statement: Arafat will not be the decision-maker. He will not be.’ Asked what would happen if Arafat were democratically re-elected, Yaalon replied: ‘The alternative Palestinian leadership has to be elected democratically on the model of Germany after World War Two. Anyone who was a member of the Nazi Party was not allowed to be a candidate in the elections there, and anyone who is tainted by terrorism cannot be a candidate here.’

If what Zertal writes about the ideological role Israel has assigned to the Holocaust – using it to legitimise the most horrific acts – is true, it is also important to remember that the Holocaust, even in Israel, plays a very ambiguous role. One cannot understand the phenomenon of the refuseniks (five are currently in jail for refusing to serve in the army), or many other types of stubborn Israeli resistance to the Occupation, without understanding the dreadful fear that haunts so many Israelis (though too few for us to be proud about): the fear of becoming a victimiser. Ensuring that the Holocaust is an inseparable part of our life has produced a counter-warning as well: ‘Beware of the Nazis, do not become one.’

Zertal’s account contains the plot of an implied melodrama, in which Ben-Gurion is the villain and Hannah Arendt the heroine. Arendt’s excommunication, in Israel and in the USA, after her book on the Eichmann trial was published, is described in full. In Israel the book was not available, even in English, until recently. Few read it. Gershom Scholem wrote a fierce attack on Arendt. She wrote him a letter. He promised to publish his attack only with her response, but he didn’t keep his promise, not in Israel, in Hebrew, not even in his later collections of articles and letters. When Arendt’s book was finally published in Hebrew in 2000 the attacks on her were no less offensive. Her relationship with Heidegger led to accusations that she was a Nazi-lover.

I was 13 when Eichmann was tried. I listened to the radio every day – there was no TV in Israel until after the 1967 war. We lived the Holocaust through that trial. In a way we are its products. In that sense, Ben-Gurion’s decision, no matter what his motives were, no matter how his attitude to the Holocaust changed from contempt to adoption, made all Israelis to a certain extent survivors. We need to pinch ourselves and say: we are not the victims.

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