Zionists during the Holocaust: A studied indifference

Book Review in Jerusalem Post, 30. Nov. 1991 (excerpts)

Hamillion Hashvi'i (The Seventh Million): The Israelis and the Holocaust, by Tom Segev, Jerusalem, Domino Press, Keter, 548 pp. NIS 45.90

Book review by Gilla Eisenberg

How die the Zionist leaders relate to the Holocaust and to European Jews during and after WWII? How was the catastrophe perceived in the Yishuv, and later in the newborn State? What reception awaited the survivors arriving in the Promised Land? How did Israeli society choose to safeguard the memory of the Holocaust?

Tom Segev - a historian and columnist at Ha'aretz - has worked for over two years to answer these questions, digging into various archives and unearthing much unpublished material. The overall picture that emerges is a far cry from the awe and respect on might suppose this event would elicit.

The Zionist leadership, whether Mapai or Herut [Labor or Right-wing Revisionist - E.D.], behaved with incredible disregard for the events in Europe: the fate of their European brethren was important only insofar as it served the Zionist cause; in later years, the Holocaust, its consequences, its memory, were exploited without any qualms in political infighting by major Israeli parties.

To flesh out his provocative thesis, Segev lines up a number of 'affairs' which bitterly divided the country, and shows the way the Holocaust was used and abused by political figures like Ben-Gurion and Begin. Most of the facts are known and, though Segev does reveal some new elements, it is his assembling of different events which proves so troubling.

Zionists from all sides adopted a 'pragmatic' attitude during the war in regard to the rescue of European Jews. Since they were quite powerless at that time [see entries on Zionism in the United States during World War II for contrary evidence], they tended simply to negate the extent of the catastrophe. Segev refuses to go into the question of whether or not all was done by the Jewish leaders in Mandatory Palestine that could be done. Nevertheless, the documents he produces show clearly that the fate of the Jews under Nazi domination was never a priority for Ben Gurion. He was a man dedicated to one cause: the establishment of a Jewish state. He put all his strength into this task.

More shocking is the way the survivors were treated on their arrival in the Promised Land. Regarded with undisguised contempt, they weren't even given the chance to speak about their experiences: this kind of testimony was considered 'demoralizing'. Moshe Sharett declared that they were 'undesirable human material'.

Ben-Gurion and his associates couldn't reconcile the image of the crushed Jewish victims of Nazism with the new Jew that Zionist ideology had tried to set up: the proud pioneer-soldier. On the other hand, the leaders of the Jewish Agency and of Mapai realized that the Holocaust powerfully buttressed the reasons for their work. These two contradictory reactions may explain the ambiguity which characterized the relation of the Israelis to the event and to the survivors.

(...)

Some rituals inflicted on Israeli youth border on the grotesque: Segev witnessed some shocking scenes when he travelled to Poland to participate with groups of adolescents in the 'March of the Living', now a must in Holocaust education. He is deeply troubled by the fact that the lesson taught is one of mistrust of the outside world, of aggressiveness and narrow nationalism. The memory of Holocaust should have instilled respect for democratic values and human rights, and reinforced the struggle against racism.

A harsh piece of self-criticism, The Seventh Million offers interesting revelations and sometimes controversial conclusions. It will no doubt provoke passionate debate. Members of the new generation, who were taught mainly the heroic deeds of the founding fathers, will discover that the mythic figures of the Zionist enterprise were great men who also made great mistakes. So far, it seems, Israeli society has not yet learned how to cope with the Holocaust - with its survivors and with the preservation of its memory - in an appropriate and dignified manner.

(The Seventh Million will be published in English early in 1992 by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York)