Israel and its relationship to the Shoah

What can we learn from the history of the establishment of the State of Israel as to its relationship to the Shoah?

Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer argued, “The reason why survivors turned to Zionism is not hard to understand. The murder of the European Jews seemed to vindicate the Zionist argument that there was no future for Jews in Europe.”

Naturally, the Zionists supported the resettlement of displaced Jews in Palestine but so did many others who understood that a means had to be found to permit the refugees — they were not then survivors — to rebuild their lives. Jews could not return home; they would not rebuild their lives in Germany, the land in which their destruction was conceived and executed.

We dare not imagine that this support for resettlement in Palestine was purely the result of altruism, a sudden concern for the Jews or even horror at what had happened. Leaders of the world understood that every Jew resettled in Palestine meant one less Jew to be received by other countries — by their countries.

Palestinian operatives, Jews sent by the Yishuv working both in the Jewish Brigade and the Mossad L’ Alyah Beit [Aliyah Aleph, legal immigration; Aliyah Beit, nonlegal, illegal or extra-legal immigration]; American Jewish chaplains, rabbis serving in uniform who ministered both to the American soldiers and their fellow Jews; and Jewish organizations, as well as their supporters kept the pressure on.

There were four important milestones that led to the U.N. resolution of Nov. 29 1947 — every once in a while it is good that we should remember that Israel was established by the United Nations.

  • The Harrison Report that demanded that Army policies be changed; that Jewish displaced persons be separated from other displaced persons and that recommended that 100,000 Jews be admitted immediately to Palestine to ease the overcrowding.

  • The visit of David Ben-Gurion to the displaced persons camps, which was a political triumph. Survivors received him as a hero and pronounced their faith in his vision.
    Ben-Gurion responded: “I come to you with empty pockets. I have no certificates for you. I can only tell you that you are not abandoned. You are not alone. You will not live endlessly in camps like this. All of you who want to come to Palestine will be brought there as soon as is humanely possible.”

  • The Anglo-American Joint Commission that also recommended the admission of the Jews to Palestine and added to the pressure on the British to end the mandate.
  • The work of Bricha in bringing Jews from Soviet-occupied territories, primarily Poland, after the pogrom at Kielce, and thus flooded the American and British sectors of Germany with Jewish displaced persons, all of which intensified the pressure for the creation of the Jewish state.

But most importantly, the work of the survivors themselves, who after the immediate shock of their loss and the desperation of their medical condition, reconstituted themselves as a vital, living, functioning community in exile — in displaced persons camps — disdainful of governments; distrustful of outsiders, perhaps only a bit less so of Jews; determined to have a say in their own future.

They embraced the Zionist diagnosis that the problem of the Jewish people was its abnormality, its lack of sovereignty, the absence of a national polity. They were willing to risk their future — and in many cases their lives — on a Jewish nation with its own flag, and a Jewish army with its own soldiers who would have adequate power, and leaders wise enough to enable them to defend themselves.

That is the risk of contemporary Jewish history, a risk that they were willing to take, and also its achievement, the achievement of that generation.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence stated: The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people — the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe — was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish state, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.

The confusion of our time is that the Zionist revolution worked so well and accomplished so much, yet it did not achieve what it promised.

The Zionists believed that the hatred of the Jews was linked to the anomaly of their situation as a people without a land, without an army and a flag, without the power to defend itself. Their solution was political independence, which they miraculously achieved precisely as the world became increasingly interdependent.

They learned from the Holocaust that powerlessness invites victimization; the key lesson was to gain power. Israel has amassed considerable power, an impressive army, the latest of armaments. It is universally considered among the world’s nuclear powers.

It responded to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by acquiring two German nuclear submarines. It is perceived by the world as powerful and hence, the narrative of its response to Hamas and Hezbollah — outside of the United States and Israel — is an attack of the strong upon the weak, a “disproportionate response” to legitimate provocation.

Israel perceives itself as it is not perceived by most others, as victims, weakened precisely by its empowerment.

Power has not brought an end to vulnerability — so much so that many Jews overwhelmed by the feeling of vulnerability forget the power, the opportunities and the securities it provides.

Is Israel an answer to the Shoah? Surely not.

The Holocaust invites questions not answers, and to regard Israel as the answer is to endow it with a measure of responsibility.

Did Israel attempt to address the problems uncovered by the Jewish condition in the Holocaust? Absolutely and surprisingly successfully.

However, it has neither ended Jewish vulnerability nor achieved normalcy for the Jewish people, something that does not surprise religious Jews but astonishes secular ones.

At 60, it has not — or at least not yet — achieved the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations. That will have to be the achievement of the succeeding generation.

Moses left something undone for Joshua and Joshua something undone for the Judges.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of theology (adjunct) at American Jewish University.

What Does Israel
Mean to You?

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