Nations like to imagine themselves as unique, but one belief they have in common is that it is noble to die in their name. Death and redemption are the themes of almost every form of patriotism. In the case of Israel, however, the connection between nationalism and death is especially visceral. For the Jewish state is a nation that emerged from the ashes of a project of extermination, and that sees itself as the best defense against the renewal of violent persecution. Zionism, the state’s ruling ideology, is a triumphal creed shadowed by death.
The Israeli historian Idith Zertal argues that the nexus of death and nationalism is essential to understanding Israeli society today. In her powerful new book, Death and the Nation (which will be published in an English translation this summer by Cambridge University Press under the title Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood), she demonstrates how the catastrophes of Jewish history have been transformed into nationalist fables of heroism, victory and redemption. In debunking the official nationalist historiography, Zertal’s book follows in the footsteps of works such as Nachman Ben-Yehuda’s The Masada Myth and Yael Zerubavel’sRecovered Roots, both of which explored how ancient Jewish history was distorted to serve the needs of the Zionist movement. What sets Zertal’s book apart is her focus on death. She believes that an obsession with death and martyrdom has vitally shaped the way Israelis understand themselves and their state. One of her recurring themes is “ancient graves produce fresh graves.”
At the center of this culture of death is the remembrance of martyrs–Jews who, in Zionist ideology, had to die so that the state might be born. The central chapter in the construction of Israeli martyrology was, of course, the Holocaust, but it began well before, according to Zertal, who traces it to the cult surrounding Joseph Trumpeldor, the first hero of the Jews who settled in Palestine.”Never mind dying,” Trumpeldor is reported to have said shortly before his death in 1920. “It is good to die for our country.” Born in a small town in the northern Caucasus, Trumpeldor was strongly influenced in his youth by a nearby farming commune established by followers of Leo Tolstoy, a model that soon merged in his mind with the Zionist ideal of settling Palestine. In 1912 he made his way to Palestine, hoping to establish agricultural communes. The kibbutznik, however, ended up achieving distinction not as a farmer but as a soldier. Drafted into the Russian army in 1902, he lost an arm in the Russo-Japanese War. He went on to serve as the deputy commander of a Jewish brigade established by the British in World War I, participating in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915.
When he returned to Palestine four years later, he was called by the Jewish community leadership to northern Galilee to help organize the defense of small frontier-zone outposts against attacks by Arab militias allied with the newly established, British-backed regime of Faysal in Damascus. These outposts had been created by Jewish settlers as a way of establishing the northern border of Palestine, an issue of contention between France and Britain. In 1920, a year after his return to Palestine, Trumpeldor was mortally wounded while defending the outposts at Tel Hai, a commemorative “holy place.” Along with five of his comrades, he was buried near Tel Hai. In 1934 a memorial was erected at his gravesite, and it soon became, for Zionist youth movements, a place of pilgrimage nearly as important as Masada, where, according to the Zionist interpretation of Flavius Josephus, Jewish rebels committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans in AD 73.
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The remembrance of Trumpeldor’s death at Tel Hai, argues Zertal, marked the beginning of a cult of death among Israeli Jews. The “new Jewish man,” in this ideology, was ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, to die defending his land and people, in stark contrast with Diaspora Jews, who would later be depicted as weaker souls who went “like lambs to the slaughter” in the Holocaust. The voices arguing that it is better to live for one’s country than to die for it were accordingly stifled and silenced. It is deeply ironic that the very same society now claims to be shocked by the “martyrdom culture” in the occupied territories.
The Tel Hai affair also established the basic pattern of conflict management with the Arabs. As Zertal points out, the Zionist leadership made appeals to the defenders of Tel Hai to withdraw, citing their poor weapons and their immense numerical inferiority. After a heated debate, this option was rejected by the Jewish community leadership (with the exception of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founding father of the Zionist right). In this moment, we can see the seeds of the idea that the construction of Jewish settlements–the creation of “facts on the ground,” in contemporary Israeli parlance–should be the major tool by which to establish the geopolitical boundaries of Jewish control over Israel-Palestine. The line that runs from Tel Hai to “Judea and Samaria” may be twisted, but it is more direct than some would like to imagine.
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.
Another affair described in detail by Grodzinsky concerns the preparation and conscription of the displaced persons in European camps for participation in the Arab-Jewish struggle over Palestine. From 1946, the Palestinian Jewish underground militia organizations–mainly Ben-Gurion’s Haganah–attempted to recruit veteran Jewish partisans from Russia, Poland and France for the anticipated war. Moreover, in February 1948 the Haganah issued a call to every fit man and woman in the European camps between the ages of 17 and 35, seeking volunteers for the military forces of the embryonic Jewish state in Palestine. The Zionist movement’s assumption that the survivors in the camps would become citizens of Israel and fight on its behalf aroused resentment among many of them.
At the same time, the sense of existential fear in the Jewish community of Palestine, roughly 600,000 in number and short on weapons, was quite real. There was a deep anxiety that the coming intercommunal (and perhaps interstate) war could lead to their annihilation. The sense of urgency led a number of inhabitants of the camps in Europe to join the Haganah, which provided a degree of pride and some psychological compensation for the horrors they had suffered. In addition, it rescued them from their miserable lives in the camps.
Yet the request for volunteers yielded only about 700 recruits. The majority of survivors were in no mood to take up arms for the Jewish state. “We have already smelled fire, let others smell it now,” said one. As Grodzinsky shows, the low number of volunteers led, from April 1948 onward, to “compulsory conscription” in the camps in Germany and Austria. This “compulsory conscription” was implemented by the autonomous camp managers through a variety of means, among them firing employees from their jobs; evicting tenants from their houses; denying food supplies; arrests and beatings; and the threat of ostracism from the community. The number of draftees rose to 7,800, many of whom disembarked from the ships only to be sent directly to the battlefield to die for their new homeland.
After the war, under pressure from Holocaust survivors, Israel’s Knesset passed the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law, in 1950. The law, tailored in accordance with the Nuremberg precedent, required a mandatory death sentence for every person found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, without any differentiation between the degree and scope of their crimes. The law’s intention was mainly symbolic since, as Zertal observes, nobody seriously considered the possibility that Israel would bring Nazis to trial after Nuremberg, even if some Nazis succeeded in escaping justice. The passage of this law, however, would have unintended and far-reaching consequences.
Initially intended to punish Nazis and their collaborators in Eastern and Central Europe, the law turned sharply against certain Jews themselves. During the 1950s dozens of Jewish men and women were sued by Holocaust survivors who identified them as kapos–Jewish supervisors in death and concentration camps–or as former members of the Judenräte, the Jewish community councils that provided the Nazis with lists of community members and organized the transports to the camps. In most of these cases the sentences were light, since the judges felt that most of the Jewish collaborators were themselves victims and that the 1950 act was not designed to apply to them. Nonetheless, the boundary between perpetrators and victims began to be blurred in disturbing ways, raising troubling questions about the role some Jews had played in the Nazi campaign of destruction.
In the 1954 Kastner affair, the carefully policed boundary between victim and perpetrator all but evaporated, upsetting the stability of Israel’s entire political system. The controversy broke out after a 71-year-old Hungarian Jew, Malkiel Gruenwald, published a pamphlet in which he accused another Hungarian Jew, 48-year-old Dr. Rudolf Kastner, of collaborating with the Nazis in Hungary between 1944 and 1945. Kastner had assumed various leadership roles within the Jewish community in Hungary and Transylvania before and during the war, including the chairmanship of the “rescue committee” of Jews who escaped from countries occupied by Nazi Germany. After arriving in Palestine in 1946, he became a prominent member of Ben-Gurion’s ruling Labor party (then known as Mapai) and was to be its candidate for the Knesset in the coming election. Kastner also occupied several influential positions, including spokesman of the Trade and Industry Ministry, director of broadcasting in Hungarian and Romanian, chief editor of Uj Kelet (a Hungarian daily) and chairman of the Organization of Hungarian Jewry in Israel.
According to Gruenwald, Kastner, in his capacity as a Jewish community leader in Hungary, had provided indispensable assistance to SS Lieutenant Col. Adolf Eichmann in the latter’s efforts to ship a half-million Hungarian and Transylvanian Jews to the extermination camps. At the time Eichmann was head of the Gestapo department in charge of Jewish matters and population evacuation. Eichmann had been largely responsible for the deportation to the East of nearly 190,000 Austrian Jews from March 1938 onward. Eichmann had also participated in the January 1942 Wannsee conference, where the administrative and logistic details of the “final solution to the Jewish problem” were settled. He was not, it must be underscored, a policy-maker in the Third Reich, and his activities and decisions were mostly bureaucratic. Even his negotiations with the Jewish dignitaries and Nazi-appointed or self-appointed Judenräte were aimed at achieving a well-organized and well-run transportation process to the camps. His role, on arriving in Budapest in March 1944, was to send a half-million Hungarian Jews to their death as swiftly and efficiently as possible.
To accomplish this goal, Eichmann needed Jewish collaborators like Kastner, since he was understaffed, with an SS team of 150 men and only a few thousand Hungarian soldiers at his disposal. Eichmann knew that the Jews would not go voluntarily to the so-called resettlement areas at the behest of the Nazis or the Hungarian authorities. The only people they would trust were their own leaders. Here, Kastner played a major role. He and his staff had to make sure that the Jews were not informed of the real destination of the trains. Misled by Kastner and others like him, the Jews showed up dutifully at the trains in the belief that they were merely being resettled. Some even made efforts to get on the earlier trains in order to have a better choice of housing in the new settlements. In exchange for Kastner’s help, Gruenwald alleged, the Nazis gave the gift of life in June 1944, organizing a special rescue train for him and 1,600 Jewish notables, including Kastner’s relatives and friends.
Charged with slander by Israel’s attorney general, Gruenwald hired the services of a young, able and highly motivated lawyer, Shmuel Tamir. Tamir had his own political agenda, as did Gruenwald and the judge presiding over the trial, Benjamin Halevi. All three men were veterans of the right-wing Lehi underground during the British colonial period and were vehement opponents of Ben-Gurion’s government, which Kastner represented. During the trial, one of Israel’s most dramatic ever, Tamir succeeded in turning the tables on his client’s accuser, arguing that the Jewish leadership in Palestine had sabotaged a series of attempts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. In his verdict, which cleared the accused of slander, Judge Halevi rejected most of Gruenwald’s charges against the Jewish leadership (during Eichmann’s trail, the judge would maintain a discreet silence about this painful issue), but he accepted the main one: that Kastner had collaborated with the Nazis and “sold his soul to the devil.”
Following the Gruenwald verdict, an appeal was submitted to the High Court of Justice, but in March 1957 Kastner was assassinated. Three people were arrested, accused and sentenced for the murder, but even today the assassination is a matter of contention. The official version is that the assassins belonged to a tiny right-wing underground group inspired by the fringe right-wing zealot Israel (Sheib) Eldad. Zertal’s account, however, is closer to the alternative version, advanced by extremist right- and left-wing groups, according to which Kaster was eliminated by the state security services because he proved too much of an embarrassment for the government. Posthumously, the High Court cleared Kastner of responsibility for any of the crimes of which Gruenwald accused him, except for that of false testimony on behalf of Nazi officer Kurt Becher at the Nuremberg trial.
Zertal’s preference for the unofficial version of Kastner’s assassination is not incidental. This version reinforces the link she makes between the Kastner trial and the extraordinary trial that followed it, that of Adolf Eichmann, whose capture by Israeli agents in Argentina Ben-Gurion announced in the Knesset in May 1960. According to Zertal, there were several motives behind Ben-Gurion’s decision to bring Eichmann to trial in Israel. The first and most immediate was to correct the impression left by the Gruenwald-Kastner trial, namely that the Jewish leadership in Palestine failed to undertake any serious rescue efforts on behalf of their European brethren during the Holocaust. Second, in spite of his initial discomfort with the subject and his insensitivity toward survivors, Ben-Gurion sought to turn the Holocaust into the central pillar of Israeli identity and to use it as the main basis upon which to legitimize the Zionist project. Third, the Eichmann case could be used as a tool to equate Israel’s Arab enemies with the Nazis. Fourth, the trial helped cast Israel as the representative and savior of world Jewry.
The trial lasted from April to August of 1961. Eichmann was sentenced to death and executed in Ramleh Prison in May 1962. It was a show trial, not because the accused was innocent–Eichmann was responsible for staggering crimes against humanity–but because the trial was a grand attempt to shape Jewish and Holocaust history and memory by a single man, Ben-Gurion, and because it had far less to do with the task of proving Eichmann’s guilt. (Ben-Gurion went to great lengths to keep post-Holocaust Germany–the “New Germany,” as he called it–and the West German leadership out of the trial, so as not to embarrass Israel’s new military and economic ally, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.) The entire narrative was set in motion from the very first statement made by Attorney General Gideon Hausner:
When I stand before you here, judges of Israel, to lead the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, I am not standing alone. With me are 6 million accusers. But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger toward him who sits in the dock and cry: “I accuse.” For their ashes are piled up on the hills of Auschwitz and the fields of Treblinka, and are strewn in the forests of Poland. Their graves are scattered throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Their blood cries out, but their voice is not heard. Therefore I will be their spokesman and in their name I will unfold this awesome indictment.
Over four months, day after day, witnesses recounted the horrors of the death camps, the heroism of Jewish partisans and soldiers who fought the Nazis, especially the hopeless uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. As Zertal observes, the Jewish resistance was presented as having been organized and led solely by Zionist movements and their leaders, while the role of the Bundists, Beitarists and Communists was either downplayed or ignored. Marek Edelman, one of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the deputy commander of the uprising under Mordechai Anielewicz, was not even mentioned. Edelman, who represented the Jewish Socialist Party (Bund), opposed Anielewicz’s decision to commit suicide (accompanied with the murder of one’s relatives). After the war, Edelman rejected the very idea that one could draw “lessons” from the Holocaust, as well as the notion that Zionism provided the “answer” to the Jewish question. He remained in Poland and achieved fame as a leading cardiologist and a key figure in the Solidarity labor movement of the 1980s. In 1946 he published one of the first accounts of the ghetto uprising, The Ghetto Fights, in Polish, Yiddish and English. The book was translated into Hebrew only in 2001.
The Eichmann trial received extraordinary attention in Israel, where much of it was broadcast live on state radio (the country’s only radio station at the time), which functioned, in the words of media expert Elihu Katz, as Israel’s “tribal campfire.” The state radio supplemented its live broadcasts with follow-ups and daily and weekly summaries and comments. For most of Israel’s Jewish population, the trial provided a rite of passage, imbuing them with the sense that they were all, in a way, Holocaust survivors and that another Holocaust might be imminent. Had it not been for the Eichmann trial, Zertal suggests, Israelis might not have seen the 1967 war as an “existential threat” of Holocaust proportions but as a secular war over disputed land.
The trial also attracted considerable attention abroad. Hundreds of foreign reporters descended on Jerusalem to cover the remarkable story. (Adding to the drama–and raising questions about the trial’s legality–was the fact that the accused had been kidnapped in Argentina by the Israeli secret service, and that the Israeli law was invoked retroactively.) Among these reporters the best-known was the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who had recently achieved fame for her 1951 tome The Origins of Totalitarianism. A German Jew who had studied under Heidegger (with whom she had a brief affair), Arendt had a long, troubled relationship with the Jewish state. In her early 20s she was a Zionist. In the 1940s, as she became a critic of any form of nationalism, she drew close to the tiny Brit Shalom movement, which espoused an Arab-Jewish binational state in Palestine. In 1945 she published an article titled “Zionism Reconsidered”–which forecast most of the wrongdoings of Zionism while still demonstrating a deep emotional and intellectual concern for the future of Israel and its people.
Arendt arrived in Jerusalem as a reporter for The New Yorker, but her interest in the trial went far beyond that of a foreign correspondent. She saw the trial as an opportunity to re-examine her thesis about the uniqueness and modernity of the Nazi regime and to find answers to the enigmatic question of how it was possible to implement the Final Solution so easily and efficiently. Elaborating on an argument in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she asserted that the bureaucratization and rationalization of the nation-state made possible a new, industrialized kind of mass murder. Sitting at his desk in a sterile office, organizing the logistics of properly managing transportation and extermination camps, Eichmann was, in her view, a symptom of the “banality of evil” rather than a prime mover in the Nazi machinery of organized killing.
As the Arendt scholar Jerome Kohn has argued in an illuminating essay, one of the major reasons for the controversy provoked by her book Eichmann in Jerusalem
was and remains the failure of many readers, both Jews and non-Jews, to make the tremendous mental effort required to transcend the fate of one’s own people and see what was pernicious for all humanity. The notion of a “crime against humanity” was introduced in the Nuremberg trials of major war criminals in 1946, but in Arendt’s opinion the crime was confused there with “crimes against peace” and “war crimes” and had never been properly defined nor its perpetrators clearly recognized.
In Arendt’s view, the Nazi genocide, while “perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people,” was a crime that “violated the order of mankind.” What stood out for her as a political philosopher was less “the choice of victims” than the extraordinary “nature of the crime.”
Unlike some Israeli-Jewish intellectuals, such as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, Arendt did not object to the trial being held in Jerusalem. She did not argue for an international court, nor did she oppose the capital sentence. She did, however, object to Attorney General Hausner’s understanding of Jewish history, and of the nature of Nazism as a form of genocidal anti-Semitism. In his opening speech, Hausner presented Jewish history as a narrative of eternal victimization. Far from being an unprecedented program of mass industrialized killing, the Holocaust was discussed as if it were merely an immense pogrom. The effect of Hausner’s speech, in Arendt’s view, was to define Zionism and Israeli nationalism as the only guarantors of Jewish survival and continuity. She also objected to the ideologically motivated characterization of Eichmann as the incarnation of the ultimate evil. Arendt in no way sought to diminish the magnitude of Eichmann’s crimes. But with her concept of the banality of evil, she sought to underscore the bureaucratic machinery in which Eichmann was a cog (however enthusiastic), and without which he could never have committed his crimes.
However, Arendt did not believe that the rise of the nation-state and its bureaucratization sufficed as an explanation of the Nazi genocide. More controversially, she also turned to an examination of the social structure of the Jewish communities and the nature of their leadership and representatives. Drawing upon Raul Hilberg’s exhaustive research in The Destruction of the European Jews (a book that has never been translated into Hebrew and is not quoted in Israel), she provided an unsparing anatomy of the ways in which the European Jewish communities facilitated Nazi purposes–for example, by providing lists and addresses of their members and their property. She also analyzed the ways in which most of the Jewish leadership consciously collaborated with the Nazis. Law-abiding to a fault, they filled out endless forms (about their property), policed themselves, funded the “project of resettlement,” went to the concentration points and entered the trains of “resettlement,” while most of their leaders were fully aware of the railroad destination. The Nazi officers and clerks were surprised at how obediently the Jews went to their death.
Thus, the Kastner case cannot be considered as an isolated one, but should be seen as part of a syndrome that characterized both Eastern and Western organized Jewish communities. As Arendt pointed out, in cities where the Jews were less tightly organized, or where the leadership warned the population or refused to collaborate with the Nazis, many more Jews survived. Had the Nazis been forced to hunt individuals or families, they would have needed more time and manpower to accomplish their mission. By a uniquely cruel twist of fate, what had been for generations a vehicle of Jewish survival became, in the hands of their enemies, one of the major tools for their physical annihilation. Contrary to Arendt’s often vituperative critics, this analysis does not reduce the perpetrators’ responsibility–if anything, it makes the Holocaust even more monstrous.
Eichmann in Jerusalem sparked “a civil war…among New York intellectuals,” as Irving Howe recalled in his memoirs. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, the noted historian Barbara Tuchman accused Arendt of seeking to aid in Eichmann’s defense, despite the fact that her book was published only after Eichmann’s execution. According to Zertal, in the mid-1960s alone more than a thousand articles and books were published in response to Arendt–most of them in the spirit of Tuchman’s attack. Arendt’s descriptions of Eichmann’s pettiness struck many American Jewish readers as a coded apologia for his behavior; her discussions of trial evidence regarding Jewish collaborators, as well as of non-Zionist Jews and their role in the resistance, were widely seen as attempts to blame the Jews for the Holocaust and to undermine the Zionist cause. A refugee from Hitler’s Germany, Arendt found herself subjected to a vehement campaign of vilification by the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations, and denounced as a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite and even a Nazi.
In Israel, by contrast, the language barrier insulated most of the population from Arendt’s heterodox ideas. Few Israelis were aware of intellectual controversies beyond the country’s borders, unless they passed through the filters of the local intelligentsia. Although Eichmann in Jerusalem was translated into Hebrew by the Israeli thinker Boas Evron soon after its publication, it was not published in Israel for almost four decades, and even today none of Arendt’s other work is available in Hebrew.
This state of affairs did not protect her from attacks in the Hebrew press. Shortly after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Gershom Scholem, the distinguished scholar of Jewish mysticism, wrote an open letter in the Hebrew daily Davar accusing Arendt of lacking ahavat Israel–“love for the Jewish people.” In her reply, published in Encounter, she explained that the notion of allegiance to a group–particularly one to which she would be bound by birth–was highly suspicious to her, since it is rooted in self-interest. Her love, Arendt sharply remarked, was reserved for her friends. In her political commitments, she professed a “love of humanity” and not of a distinct people. Scholem and Arendt agreed to publish their exchange, and indeed both letters were printed in a book, but not in Hebrew. Thus, Hebrew-speaking readers only had the opportunity to read Scholem’s criticism of a book that was not available to them and, unless they read English, they had no access to the author’s response. In Death and the Nation, Zertal presents, for the first time in Hebrew, considerable portions of Arendt’s letter to Scholem.
One striking effort of the attorney generalduring Eichmann’s trial was to equate the Arabs with the Nazis. This was achieved by inflating the role of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the prominent Palestinian political and religious leader (chairman of the Supreme Muslim Council and the mufti of Jerusalem) in the extermination of the Jews. In 1937, a year after the outbreak of the Arab Revolt, the British tried to arrest Husseini, among other Arab rebels, in the hope of quelling the uprising. Husseini escaped to Fascist Italy and then to Germany, where he offered his services to Hitler. There is no doubt that he saw in Nazi Germany an important ally against Zionism and, in at least one case, he tried to intervene to prevent the rescue of 10,000 Jewish children to Palestine. Husseini probably knew and approved of the Nazi plan to annihilate the Jewish people and hoped to receive a proper position in “liberated Palestine.” He helped the Nazis form a collaborationist Muslim brigade in Bosnia, and to broadcast propaganda to the Arab world. However, the argument that he was a chief adviser to the Nazis on the “solution of the Jewish problem”–an argument on prominent display at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum–is preposterous. The Germans did not need Husseini’s advice and in fact scorned the non-Aryan religious cleric.
Since then, however, “the mufti” has become one of the major assets of pro-Israel propaganda. The argument was and is as follows: The Arabs do not accept the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, therefore they are anti-Semites who want to annihilate all the Jews and to accomplish the Nazi program–the best example being the mufti’s alliance with Nazi Germany. This social construction of reality ignores not only the complexity and the fundamentally different basis of the Israeli-Arab conflict but also some inconvenient historical facts. One such fact is that while assisting the Nazis, the mufti lost almost all his influence over the Palestinian Arabs, which he never regained. Another is that during the 1930s and ’40s Palestine was the only country in the region (and perhaps in the whole world) where no Nazi party or organization was established. During the 1930s, some Arab, as well as some Jewish, leaders expressed admiration for fascist regimes, but this was before the racist bases of these regimes became clear. It was only much later that Arabs borrowed anti-Semitic literature and motifs from the Europeans and used them in their propaganda.
It’s true, of course, that the native Palestinian Arabs, as well as the Arabs of the region, did not like or welcome the European Jews who colonized Palestine. They perceived the Jewish claims of ownership over the land based on a distant and ambiguous past and on some holy scriptures as unjust and ridiculous. They opposed this colonization with all the means at their disposal, sometimes with indiscriminate violence and terror. The confrontation between Arab and Jew in Palestine was a conflict of mutually exclusive interests, much like any other ethno-national conflict. To be sure, there were some racist undertones and expressions on both sides. But it is dangerously misleading to regard the Arab resistance against the Jewish presence and the gradual conquest of the land as an expression of historical anti-Semitism. Ironically, the Zionist effort to “Nazify” the Arabs–a strategy that began in the 1940s–ends up diminishing the extraordinary genocidal crimes committed by Nazi Germany.
Zertal cogently demonstrates how a social construction of a “second coming Holocaust” was built before and during the wars of 1948 and 1967 for the mobilization of domestic public opinion, world Jewry and Western nations. In fact, this campaign of fear directly contradicted the Zionist dogma asserting that a Jewish state in Palestine would insure Jewish security (and normalize Jewish existence). This inherent paradox was ironically expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who referred to the Jewish state as Shimshon der Nebedicher (in Yiddish “the Wretched Samson”), the mighty military superpower that considers itself a victim. By invoking the Holocaust as a catastrophe whose repetition had to be avoided by any means (such as Abba Eban’s famous definition of the Green Line as “Auschwitz borders”), Israeli leaders unburdened themselves of almost any moral restrictions, or even obedience to internal and international laws, whether it came to the making of nuclear weapons (with France’s assistance and America’s tacit acceptance), the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza or the invasion of Lebanon. Faced with political problems, Israel saw only existential threats. Once the Palestinian national movement was defined as a mortal threat to Jewish survival, any response to it, from the demolition of homes to the bombing of refugee camps, could be justified as legitimate self-defense.
The worst abuses of the Holocaust in Israel, however, have occurred in the midst of debates between Jews, particularly the controversies around the territories occupied in 1967. The frequency and casualness with which Israeli Jews accuse one another of Nazi-like or anti-Semitic behavior today is a disturbing measure of the coarsening of the country’s political culture.
The example of such invective best-known outside Israel was the left-wing philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovitz’s description of settlers as “Judeo-Nazis.” More common and far more dangerous, however, has been the abuse of the Holocaust by the Israeli right wing. As Zertal points out, almost every Israeli politician who has tried to make peace with the Arabs has been likened to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who tried to avoid the Second World War by appeasing Hitler, or as a “Nazi” whose secret desire is nothing less than the annihilation of the Jewish people. Any “concession” to the Arabs signals, in these terms, the destruction of Israel, the end of Zionism and the end of the Jewish people. Another symbol often seen at right-wing demonstrations is the yellow Star of David, the single most emotive symbol of Jewish victimization. If Ariel Sharon is Israel’s prime minister today, it is in large part because of this right-wing campaign of vilification against supporters of a negotiated peace with the Palestinian people. Now, it seems, it is his turn to be demonized as his proposed evacuation from the Gaza Strip settlements comes to be labeled as a process aimed at making the Land of Israel judenrein–i.e., cleansed of Jews.
In October 1995 Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu and the late Rafael Eitan attended a rally in Jerusalem organized by the extremist right-wing organizations Chabadand Zu Artzenu. The assembled mob called for the deaths of the “Oslo criminals” Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Cabinet minister Shimon Peres, calling them the “Judenrat.” One month later Rabin was shot dead by Yigal Amir, a religious nationalist youth who hoped to stop the implementation of the Oslo Accords. Rabin’s assassination was the culmination of months of unprecedented incitement and violent demonstrations against the accords and the prime minister himself, who was blamed for betraying the idea of a Greater Israel. At right-wing rallies protesters held up posters depicting Rabin in an SS uniform. Opposition leaders played a major role in these incitements by using an unrestrained rhetoric of blood, land and treason.
“Never forget” has been the mantra of Jewish and Israeli politics for three decades. But in Death and the Nation, Idith Zertal argues, daringly and I think rightly, that one can “remember too much.” The obsessive commemoration of the Holocaust and of Jewish victimhood has blinded much of the Jewish community to Israel’s real position in the world and to the humanity of the Palestinian people. The result has been to make ever more distant a reasonable political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is the victory of death over life, of the past over the future. To be sure, there are periods in the history of a nation when ultimate sacrifices are necessary, and a cult of death unavoidable. The question in Israel today is whether this heroic period has come to an end or whether the prevailing ideology of the 1948 war will last another hundred years, until the entire “Land of Israel” is “liberated.” To choose the former option is to grant priority to the lives of Israel’s citizens, Jewish and Arab. To choose the latter is to remain a community of victims, joined in a mythical communion of Jewish sacrifice in an eternally hostile gentile world. Tragically, most of the organized American Jewish communityseems to prefer the mythic option, a course that can only lead to disaster.