Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)
How central is the Holocaust to the narrative and the reality of present day Israel? This is the question which the reputed French scholar Georges Bensoussan asks in his provocative work. Professor Bensoussan has already written a number of books on the Holocaust including The Intellectual and Political History of Zionism (2002) and more recently Europe, a Genocidal Passion (2006).
One of the criticisms leveled at the embattled Jewish state today is that the western world, by creating Israel, was atoning for the annihilation of European Jewry – in effect forcing the Palestinian people to pay for the Holocaust. President Ahmadinejad of Iran expressed this view in his speech at the Second Durban conference in Geneva, saying that “following World War II, they (the West) resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering.”
Wrong, on two counts, says Bensoussan. There is nothing to support this claim in the UN declaration of 29 November 1947 that paved the way to partition, or in other declarations made at that time. In fact Great Britain, which could have felt a degree of guilt for having closed the doors of Palestine to would-be immigrants, did not endorse the declaration and abstained.
Even more decisive is the argument that the UN was only giving an official stamp of approval to a de facto situation on the ground. Bensoussan quotes the White Paper published on 18 June 1922, a few weeks before the League of Nations formally granted the mandate of Palestine to Great Britain. In fact, as Winston Churchill said of the Jewish community in Palestine at the time, “its business is conducted in Hebrew as a vernacular language, and a Hebrew Press serves its needs. It has its distinctive intellectual life and displays considerable economic activity. This community, then, with its town and country population, its political, religious, and social organizations, its own language, its own customs, its own life, has in fact “national” characteristics (32).”
This view, says Bensoussan, is reiterated in the Peel report of 1937 which underlines the fact that, should independence be given to the Jewish National Home in Palestine, it could start functioning as a state immediately (33). It even had its self defense force, created in 1907 and which in 1920 became the Haganah. When the Second World War broke out, the Haganah was already an effective fighting force with its elite Palmach commando troops (36). Therefore, the State of Israel would have come into being without the Holocaust.
Having dealt with that issue, Bensoussan devotes the greater part of his work to the consequences of the Holocaust and its aftermath for the Jewish State. Far from contributing to the birth of the State, he says, the destruction of European Jewry exacted a terrible toll: “the Holocaust has emptied the human reservoir of Zionism while intensifying a demographic weakness which is felt to this day in the Arab-Israeli conflict” (12). Ben-Gurion lamented this fact in December 1942, well before the full scope of the disaster was known, saying that “the extermination of European Jewry is a disaster for the Zionist movement, there will be no one left to build the country.” In 1954 he added that “Hitler has done great damage to the State of Israel, the existence of which he had not anticipated” (13).
To this tangible demographic consequence of the Holocaust must be added other, no less weighty, problems. The State of Israel and the people of Israel, says Bensoussan, are still wrestling with deep rooted feelings of guilt on three major counts. First and foremost, they lament the fact that the leaders of the Yishuv – the name given to the Jewish community in Eretz Israel before statehood – failed to convince their European brothers to come to the National Home they were building. They were not persuasive enough, nor did they try hard enough. Furthermore, these leaders were not able to save the Jews of Europe during the war, and again they should have tried harder. And if that were not enough, some of the survivors were shamefully treated in their historical homeland and most of them did not receive the warm welcome they expected and needed. They were often reviled by their Israeli brothers for not having fought more vigorously.
Bensoussan makes great efforts to explain that most, if not all, of this assumed guilt is based on false premises. That the Jews did not come to Eretz Israel before the war is as much their fault as that of the leaders of the Yishuv, and neither the former nor the latter knew of the horrors that were to come. During the war, little, if anything, could have been done to rescue Jews in Nazi occupied lands. Regarding the cold reception of the survivors, one has to remember that this was a universal problem and that the Jewish communities in other countries, such as France or the U.S. for instance, did not want to listen to the tales of those who had returned from hell. In Israel this attitude was aggravated by the feelings of guilt mentioned above. However, in recent years this trend has been reversed and, according to Bensoussan, the memory of the Holocaust has become omnipresent. It has been given a greater emphasis in many aspects of public life, for example in schools and in the army. To a certain extent its memory supersedes that of the achievements of the Zionist movement and of the heroic fight for independence: “The memory has then closed down like a trap which prevents life and condemns [one] to an anguished reliving [of the past]…. Zionism intended to free the Jews from the curse of being a “people dwelling alone”…. But the House of Jacob is again camping in loneliness at the side of its memory. (293)”
In his bleak conclusion, Bensoussan very much fears that by neglecting its history and concentrating on the Holocaust Israel is endangering the very foundations upon which it was founded.
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. Only one has been published in English (abbreviated): Antisemitism in French Schools: Turmoil of a Republic ACTA 24 (Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2004).
. All translations are by the reviewer.
. The author says, erroneously, Eretz Israel is the Hebrew name of Palestine (13).
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MICHELLE MAZEL is a graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and the Faculté de Droit of that city.