Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1983).
Lenni Brenner has written a singular book about “the interaction between Zionism and Fascism and Nazism.” It is one of the many ironies of history that Zionism, a movement that claims to be dedicated to assuring the survival of the Jewish people, should have developed in symbiosis with the most murderous Jew-haters of our (or perhaps any) era. Ironies, however, have their logic, and this is what Brenner explores.
What Brenner writes about is not unknown, but it is found mostly in obscure journals, newspapers and memoirs which are not readily accessible. Brenner surveys those aspects of Zionist theory and practice, from Herzl to the end of World War II, that intertwine with fascism and Nazism.
The Zionist view of anti-Semitism as an inevitable and irradicable fact of life requiring the establishment of a Jewish state, Brenner argues, emerged from the historical circumstances which gave impetus in 19th century Europe to a stong current of conservative nationalist doctrine. The German-Jewish university students who were followers of Herzl adopted the racist and separatist ideology of “blood and soil.” Anti-Semitism, they believed, was brought by Jews on themselves: they were intruders on foreign soil, prone to destructive assimilationist ideologies like socialism. The people of Europe had every reason to feel contempt for these rootless wanderers. Only a return to the soil of Palestine would allow Jewish blood to develop a healthy race. By the 1920s, the World Zionist Organization “abandoned all pretense of action on behalf of Diaspora Jewry in situ.” (p. 13) Only the return to the homeland mattered; all else was a dangerous diversion. After meeting in 1898 with Kaiser Wilhelm, Herzl wrote in his diary, “I explained that we were taking the Jews away from the revolutionary parties.” (p. 5) Brenner cites incident upon incident in which Zionist leaders offered their cooperation in the fight against the socialist enemy. This was not mere opportunism. Both Zionism’s nationalism and its virulent contempt for socialism served the class interests of its proponents among the Jewish bourgeoisie. Brenner demonstrates that Labor Zionism, in spite of its socialist rhetoric, was never able to remove itself from this reactionary heritage.
This heritage had dire consequences for the Jews of Europe. Having been fortunate enough to escape from Europe in 1942, I found it sickening to read Brenner’s enumeration of the ways in which Zionist ideology helped to blind European Jews to the fate awaiting them. The memorandum sent by the Zionist Federation of Germany to the Nazi Party in June 1933 conveys the flavor of this practice:
…a rebirth of national life, such as is occurring in German life through adhesion to Christian and national values, must also take place in the Jewish national group.
On the foundation of the new state, which has established the principle of race, we wish so to fit our community into the total structure so that for us too, in the sphere assigned to us, fruitful activity for the Fatherland is possible…
…rootedness in one’s own spirituality protects the Jew from becoming the rootless critic of the national foundations of German essence…
It takes only a small step to move from this kind of thinking to Haganah agent Feivel Polkes’ spying in 1937 for Adolf Eichmann, in the hope of getting the Nazis to further “the realisation of Zionism.”
For the major Zionist organization, the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine overwhelmed all other considerations, including the rescue of Europe’s Jews. After Kristallnacht (November 1938), when the British government proposed that thousands of Jewish children be brought to Great Britain from the continent, David Ben- Gurion told a meeting of Labor Zionists:
If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Yisrael, then I would opt for the second alternative, (p. 149)
In 1943, while the Jews of Europe were being slaughtered, the US Congress finally got around to proposing a rescue commission. Rabbi Stephen Wise, one of American Zionism’s most important spokesmen, “came to Washington to testify against the rescue bill because it did not mention Palestine.” (p. 242) The romantic chauvinism of 19th century nationalist ideology came home to roost in the politicking of a liberal reform rabbi. Here, perhaps, is the ultimate irony of this monstrous history: both murderers and the spokesmen for their victims emerged from the same ideological currents. Brenner claims, with good reason, that they collaborated in the deaths of millions.
Brenner’s final chapter is about the Stern Gang, a terrorist group that splintered from Begin’s Irgun. In 1941, while still considering themselves part of the Irgun, the Sternists sent a proposal of alliance to the Nazis. “The establishment of the historical Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, and bound by a treaty with the German Reich,” the Stern document read, “offers to actively take part in the war on Germany’s side.” It adds that “the NMO [Irgun] is closely related to the totalitarian movements of Europe in its ideology and structure.” (pp. 267-268)
These are clearly the rantings of a madman. Why do they matter. For one thing, Yitzhak Shamir, one of the Stern Gang’s leaders, recently served as Israel’s prime minister. Begin honored Stern by putting his portrait on a postage stamp.
This book is extremely important, worth reading for its documentation alone. I do wish, however, that Brenner had held the reins on his hectoring second-guessing of nearly every move made by the Jewish leadership during the fascist and Nazi era. Just how many options did they have? It is easy for Brenner to insist that the Jewish leadership should have responded militantly to all fascist and Nazi onslaughts against Jews. But is there any evidence that this strategy would have saved any more lives? The actions of the leadership reflected the changing historical circumstances within which they operated. Even with the wisdom of hindsight, it is difficult to formulate alternate strategies for saving Jewish lives. Brenner mars his achievement by seeing Zionism and the Jewish community as a single, unchanging essence. This allows him the luxury of his sledgehammer moralizing. We don’t need it. The evidence compiled in this book speaks quite eloquently for itself.