Had Israel existed in 1939, would the Holocaust have been averted? Did Israel need Auschwitz to be born or reborn? These questions have surfaced over and over again. They are heavy with implications. I, myself, choose to view these two events in Jewish History as mysteries linked not as cause and effect but by chronology.
Tom Segev, an influential columnist for the Israeli daily “Haaretz,” is to be congratulated for the way he is treating the issue. Daring to challenge traditional beliefs, “The Seventh Million” is richly documented and written with great passion. Still, it is certain to cause pain, especially to those who love Israel and harbor a romantic and idealized image of its destiny.
What follows is not meant to mitigate the guilt of the killers and their collaborators; nothing can ever diminish that. Still, on a different level, not all others are beyond reproach.
Israel, for some of us, is much more than a geographical or political notion; it is the very heart and conscience of our people. Even inside the “Kingdom of Night,” there were inmates who dreamed of Jerusalem, who were convinced that in Tel Aviv and Haifa, Givat-Brenner and Hulda, our brothers and sisters were crying for us and with us. Our faith in Jewish solidarity was total. Had anyone dared to suggest that during the darkest hours of our history, the leaders and inhabitants of Palestine were not overwhelmed by compassion for their deported fellow Jews, we would have dismissed him as a traitor.
Of course, Segev is not the first to have revealed the shortcomings of the “Yishuv"--as the Jewish community in Palestine was then called--and its leaders. Playwright and novelist Ben Hecht wrote a violently polemical work, “Perfidy,” dealing with the Kastner trial in the early 1960s. Through it, he attacked the Zionist establishment’s timorous policy during the war and went so far as to accuse its major players of collaborating with the Germans.
There is no comparison between Ben Hecht’s inflammatory pamphlet and Segev’s study. The latter is sober and balanced, and therefore, all the more disturbing. Segev tells of his torment as he gradually discovers the extent to which the Jewish victims in Europe were let down by their co-religionists in Palestine.
Let us examine the strange episode of the haavar or “transfer.”
In the mid-1930s, after Hitler’s rise to power, while American Jewry fought to organize an economic boycott of Nazi Germany, the leaders of the Palestinian Yishuv entered into active, though unofficial, negotiations with Berlin regarding the transfer of German Jews and their wealth--some 30 million pound sterling--to the Holy Land.
Surely, Jewish Palestine--at the time the two words were not contradictory--needed money to finance its development, but this brazen pragmatism went against the political philosophy of a majority of world Jewry. There developed a growing perception that instead of supporting and strengthening the boycott, Palestine was, in fact, sabotaging it.
There were justifications. Yes, the country was poor and needed financial input and yes, this course of action provided a chance to save German Jews who might otherwise have decided to “wait and see” and let the last possible opportunity of salvation go by.
But Segev goes on to show, supported by devastating evidence, that later, even as Germany carried out its Final Solution--liquidating one ghetto after another, one community after another--the Jewish leaders of Palestine never made the rescue of European Jews into an overwhelming national priority. We know that Zionist leader Itzhak Gruenbaum, a future Minister of the Interior in David ben Gurion’s first cabinet, considered creating new settlements more urgent than saving Jews from being sent to Treblinka and Birkenau.
Read Segev’s heartbreaking conclusion:
“There had been about nine million Jews in Europe on the eve of the war; about six million were killed, leaving three million alive. Most of them were saved by Germany’s defeat in the war. Some were spared thanks to the help they received from various governments and organizations such as the Joint Distribution Committee and from thousands of good-hearted people in almost every country--the “righteous Gentiles.” There were dramatic rescue operations such as the flight across the Pyrenees from France to Spain and the convoys of Jews that sailed from Denmark to Sweden. Only a few survivors owed their lives to the efforts of the Zionist movement.”
What follows is equally depressing. It concerns the reception accorded to survivors as they arrived, first in Palestine, then in Israel. They were received warmly, but, most often, with little sensitivity. They were urged over and over again, to forget what they had experienced. People would tell them: “The past is the past . . .,” “Let bygones be bygones . . . .” But the survivors needed to tell their stories, if only to fulfill their obligations toward the dead.
They needed to bear witness and no one wanted to listen. Except if the stories glorified Jewish heroes and partisans. The proud citizens of Eretz Israel did not want to hear about the suffering, the oppression, the agony, the humiliation of hundreds of thousands, of millions of their own people. It was only after the trial of Gestapo head Adolf Eichmann that the teaching of the shoah , a term as inadequate as the term “Holocaust,” began to be taken seriously in Israel.
Of all that Segev reports in this singular book--the unsuccessful plans for revenge, German reparations, the complex relations with Bonn--the chapter about the Israelis’ attitude toward survivors is the most painful.
While it is not my role to corroborate his claims, I can relate my own experience when I arrived in Israel in June 1949 on my first visit there. I had been sent by a Parisian weekly to write a series of articles on the metamorphoses death camp survivors were undergoing in their new homeland. The survivors’ comments fill me with sadness, as they did then. They spoke of the arrogance of old-timers who asked why they had not immigrated to Israel earlier. And why they had gone “like sheep to slaughter.” And why, why, and why . . .
I shall stop here. Read Segev’s book and you will understand why.