Sunday, June 07, 2009

Holocaust and Israel

The Holocaust is back in the news. President Obama has fallen into the vulgar historical error of justifying the state of Israel as reparation for the Holocaust. “[T]he aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied,” he said in Cairo. “Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.”

But the historical relationship is exactly the reverse. The Jewish state was not made possible by the Holocaust. The Holocaust was possible only because there was no Jewish state. What is more, Hitler’s victims understood this to be the case at the time events were unfolding.

Consider, for example, Em habanim sameyaḥ (1943), a Zionist polemic addressed to the ultra-Orthodox, which has become a classic of modern Hebrew literature. It was written by Yissakhar Shlomo Teichtal, a Hasidic rabbi in the resort town of Piestany in Slovakia who fled to Budapest ahead of the National Socialists. Most of the Eastern European ḥaredi were bitterly opposed to political Zionism as a solu­tion to the problem of Jewish existence in Europe, but Teichtal had come to believe that the “object of the Jewish tragedy” was “so that [the people] Israel will ask to return to Eretz Israel [the land of Israel].”[1]

According to Teichtal, the Holocaust is not the reason for emigration to Palestine; to motivate emigration to Palestine is the (divine) reason for the Holocaust. The land of Israel, and the longing to return there, had to be firmly established in the Jewish imagination—had to be commonplaces of Jewish thought—for Teichtal even to advance such an argument. He was not writing out of what David Ben-Gurion would later the “hospital mentality”; he did conceive the land of Israel as a convalescent ward. It was, in the language of Shakespearean tragedy, the “promised end” of the Jewish people. The Holocaust would not be the last word.

Teichtal’s faith in a divine plan is displeasing to modern secularists, who express their displeasure by objecting to the very name of the Holocaust. “[T]o name the Nazi genocide ‘the Holo­caust,’ ” the phi­los­opher Gillian Rose warned, “is already to over-unify it and to sacralize it, to see it as provi­dential pur­pose—for in the Hebrew scriptures, a holocaust refers to a burnt sacrifice which is offered in its entirety to God without any part of it being consumed.”[2] Not in the Hebrew scrip­tures exactly: holokaustoma is the Greek Septuagint’s word for the Hebrew עלה [olah], the sacrifice that is burnt whole. But Holocaust is the exact word, because the Jews who experienced the Nazi genocide first hand experienced it as divine providence.

Thus Teichtal opens Em habanim sameyaḥ by appealing to the common experience, and in terms that would be likely to gain assent from ultra-Orthodox readers who would otherwise be unlikely to heed his call for emigration to Palestine:

We must endure these misfortunes with love, these difficult decrees and pogroms which have befallen us at this time. We must brave them with all our strength, since they are as important to us as if they were a whole burnt offer­ing [olah].[3]The religious language served as a constant reminder of the proper order to events. First God’s promise of the land; then the planting of Israel in the land; then disgrace, retreat, plunder, which may shake Israel’s faith but does nothing to alter the promise; and then the return. Even secular Jews conceived Jewish history in these terms.

The name of the Holocaust, with the sense it has now, was first writ­ten in English in Israel’s Declara­tion of Indepen­dence, which was translated anonymously in the New York Times on May 15, 1948:The Nazi holocaust which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe proved anew the urgency of the re-establishment of the Jewish state, which would solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates to all Jews and lift­ing the Jewish people to equality in the family of nations.[4]The political case was merely renewed by the Nazi holocaust. It was not created by it.

Nor did the name come out of nowhere. The Hebrew term translated as holocaust here is שואה [shoah], a word used twelve times in the Hebrew bible for devas­ta­tion, ruin, waste. And though it was not partic­ularly common in Jewish literature to describe a recent his­torical cata­strophe as a shoah, the usage was also not without precedent. In fact, shoah was merely a substitute for a more common term, which was widely used by Jews during the Holocaust itself to describe what was happening to them. The more common word is חרבן [Hebrew, ḥurban; Yiddish, khurbn], a stock expression in post-bibli­cal Jewish writing for the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple—both its burning at Babylonian hands in 586 BCE and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The double ḥurban became a something of a cliché in medieval Jewish lit­erature, the central and predom­inant archetype for Jewish catastrophe.

Religious Jews, speak­ing in Yid­dish, com­monly referred to the Holo­caust as der driter khurbn, the third destruction. The name rose so quickly to Jewish lips that it struck those who reflected upon it as painfully inadequate. In March 1943, for example, Herman Kruk wrote in his notebook in the Vilna ghetto:Years ago I happened to read S. Anski’s book The Destruction of Poland, Galicia, and Bukovina [Yiddish, Khurbn Galitsye]. I remember, as if it were now, how much pain and grief I experienced as I leafed through those volumes. . . . The book is full of horrible events—race hatred, antisemitism, pogroms, victims, and such. But when I compare what is now going on around us with what I have just read, I can’t figure it out: if that was destruction [khurbn], what is this now? . . . I want to find a definition—if that was destruction [khurbn], what is this? There is really no comparison![5]When the Hebrew writers of Israel’s Declara­tion of Inde­pendence substituted the name shoah five years later, their reasons were similar to Kruk’s. They hoped to break the old Jewish habit of calling every catastrophe a ḥurban; they wanted to shatter the medieval archetype. By giving the Holo­caust a dif­ferent name, they emphasized its uniqueness; and yet by giving it a name from the Bible, they also accentu­ated its continuity with Jewish history. Their motives were nearly as literary, then, as they were political. The Holocaust did not justify a Jewish state.[6] What it justified was a new way of talking about the Jewish tragedy. For Hitler was mistaken: die End­lösung der Juden­frage (“the final solu­tion of the Jewish ques­tion”) was not the murder of six million European Jews, but the establishment of a Jewish state.

[1] Yissakhar Shlomo Teichtal, Restoration of Zion as a Response during the Holocaust [Em habanim sameyaḥ—“A Happy Mother of Children”], ed. and trans. Pesach Schindler (Hoboken: Ktav, 1999), p. 204. Teichtal was born in 1885 in Nagyhalálsz, a town in northeastern Hungary. In 1921, he became the rabbi of Piestany, where he estab­lished a yeshiva. The Nazis invaded Czecho­slovakia in 1939 and began deporting the Jews in 1942. Teichtal and his family escaped deporta­tion first by hiding in the attic of the local synagogue—where he conceived the plan of his book—and then by fleeing to Nitra and from there to Hungary. When Germany invaded Hungary in 1944, Teichtal returned to Slovakia, falsely assuming that the National Socialists had finished their efforts to “cleanse” the area of Jews. He was captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz. He died on January 24, 1945, in a train bound for Mauthausen as the National Socialists evacuated Auschwitz.

[2] Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation (Cambridge: Cam­bridge University Press, 1996), p. 27.

[3] Teichtal, pp. 62–63.

[4] New York Times, May 15, 1948, p. 2.

[5] Herman Kruk, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939–1944, trans. Barbara Harshav (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 475.

[6] Or, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech at Bar Ilan University a week after I wrote this post, “The right of the Jewish people to a state in the land of Israel does not derive from the cascade of catastrophes that befell our people.” The Jews’ right to a sovereign state in the land of Israel, he continued, “arises from one simple fact: this is the homeland of the Jewish people, this is where our identity was forged.”


Anonymous said...

My reading of Obama's remark suggests that his view is closer to yours than you seem willing to admit. He opens with a statement of the historical aspiration for a Jewish homeland and refers to the Holocaust as the culmination of longstanding European anti-Semitism, not as a primary cause of the drive for the re-establishment of Eretz Israel. His remarks clearly convey the historical continuity of the desire for a homeland, with the Holocaust as a calamatous reminder of the consequences of Jewish statelessness.

Anonymous said...