Israel's Culture of Martyrdom
Death was an inescapable presence in the early days of the Jewish state, which had recently become a sanctuary for hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors. Israeli leaders have often invoked the Holocaust as the ultimate justification for the Jewish state (and, more cynically, for Israel's counterinsurgency tactics in the occupied territories). Yet as Zertal shows, Israel's relationship to Holocaust victims has been highly ambivalent, and the state's treatment of survivors has sometimes been strikingly manipulative.
This point is clearly illustrated by Yosef Grodzinsky, a neurolinguist at Tel Aviv University, in his new book, In the Shadow of the Holocaust, a detailed and well-researched account of the struggle between the survivors of the Holocaust and the various Zionist agencies and emissaries who pressured them to immigrate to Palestine, regardless of the survivors' own wishes, through superior organizational skills and connections with the US military and civilian authorities.
The Holocaust presented a unique set of challenges for the Zionist movement. On the one hand, the major reservoir of Jewish candidates for immigration to Palestine had been annihilated. On the other hand, between 1945 and 1951 millions of displaced people and refugees, 330,000 of them Jewish Holocaust survivors, were desperately wandering the roads of Europe in search of a home. Many of these survivors could potentially be directed to Palestine, especially since the immigration gates of the United States were all but closed. This created a unique opportunity to bring an unprecedented number of Jews to Palestine. At the same time, these potential immigrants suffered from high rates of malnutrition, physical degeneration and illness. Most had no family and no home to which they could return or be repatriated. They were completely disoriented and many were still influenced by the Nazi worldview, which regarded them as subhumans, as Bruno Bettelheim (himself a camp survivor) has described. However, until the camps for Jewish displaced persons and refugees were fully dismantled, less than 40 percent of the survivors came to Palestine (or Israel, after its establishment in 1948), in spite of heavy pressures by the Zionist agencies: a disappointing proportion, given the movement's initial expectations.
David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Zionist movement and Israel's first prime minister, viewed the future Jewish homeland as the one and only destination for the survivors, as Zertal makes clear in an illuminating discussion of the odyssey of the 4,500 survivors from German camps who set sail in July 1947 as "illegal immigrants" on a ship later named Exodus. The real story of the ship was far less glorious than the one told in Leon Uris's 1958 bestseller and Otto Preminger's 1960 film. When the ship embarked, the UN Special Committee on Palestine was holding discussions and Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, the primary governing body of the state-in-formation, felt that the plight of Jewish refugees in Europe needed to be dramatized in order to attract more sympathy for the Jewish struggle over Palestine. The British authorities had refused to let the immigrants disembark in Palestine, or even to take refuge in transitional camps in Cyprus, forcing the boat to be redirected back to Germany. To prevent such a ghastly outcome, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann persuaded the French Prime Minister, Leon Blum, to host the refugees. Ben-Gurion rejected this solution out of hand, and the poor survivors remained on board for seven months.
Ben-Gurion's insensitivity was rooted in his "Palestine-centric" attitude, best exemplified by his 1938 remark that "if I knew it was possible to save all children of Germany by their transfer to England and only half of them by transferring them to the Land of Israel, I would choose the latter, because we are faced not only with the accounting of these children but also with the historical accounting of the Jewish people." This was not merely a rhetorical declaration. Grodzinsky tells us with great pain how Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders vetoed the immigration of 1,000 orphans, who were in physical and emotional danger as a result of the harsh winter of 1945, from the camps in Germany to England, where the Jewish community had managed to secure them permits. Another group of roughly 500 children of camp inhabitants was barred, after Zionist intervention, from reaching France, whose rabbinical institutions had offered them safe haven.
Ben-Gurion's strategy in the Exodus affair paid off. The fate of the refugee ship attracted considerable and sympathetic attention around the world, and served the Zionist cause well. Few observers at the time knew that many of the refugees from the Exodus had applied for immigration visas to the United States, and were hardly anxious to settle in Israel. By dramatizing the fate of the survivors, in whom he had little interest except as future residents of the state he was building (Good Human Material is the original Hebrew title of Grodzinsky's book), Ben-Gurion helped to make Israel the world's chief power broker over Jewish affairs. Under his leadership, Israel established a claim to represent all of world Jewry, and on this basis successfully claimed reparations from the Federal Republic of Germany. Indeed, as Zertal argues, Israel acquired the right to speak not only for living Jews but for the 6 million exterminated Jews, to whom Ben-Gurion suggested granting symbolic citizenship--in effect, turning them into martyrs for the Jewish state.