Idith Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (trans. Chaya Galai) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Anniversaries have a way of recalling the past, but rarely in so literal a manner. In July 2006, as Israel marked the fortieth year of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the twenty-eighth anniversary of its occupation of south Lebanon, its army launched a decimating assault on Lebanon after Hizballah kidnapped two of its soldiers. As in 1967 and 1982, warnings of the enemy’s existential threat to the state issued forth from the Knesset, the media and ordinary citizens. Throughout the five weeks of fighting prior to the August 14 “cessation of hostilities,” most Israeli Jews continued to believe that their “war of survival” justified the deaths of 900–1,300 civilians, the displacement of some 900,000 others and massive destruction of infrastructure over the border. Most sincerely believed that morality was exclusively on their side.

As the ceasefire takes hold, certain questions beg for reflection: Why, despite the army’s failure to crush the resistance in south Lebanon, the deaths of 39 Israeli civilians from Hizballah’s rocket strikes and the near shutdown of the north, were expressions of dissent limited to a few thousand demonstrators and a handful of journalists? Why did only a tiny minority of Jewish citizens question the long-term sustainability of a politics predicated on the absolute military domination of their neighbors? Fifty years from now, or even 15, will Jewish communal life in the Middle East look the same as it does today?

A recent book, now translated into English, begins to offer some helpful, if sobering, answers: Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood, by Idith Zertal. In haunting and lyrical prose, the author vividly chronicles the cycle by which cracks and contradictions within Israel’s Jewish consensus have been opened, and then papered over, only to return later in more virulent form. Although Zertal currently teaches history at the University of Basel in Switzerland, she is profoundly rooted in Jewish Israel. She fears that the tribalism that underlies her society, if not checked, may soon bring about its demise.

The fraught relationship between the Holocaust and the state of Israel is not news. In different ways, Tom Segev’s The Seventh Million (1993) and Zertal’s own From Catastrophe to Power (1998) explored the disjuncture between the failure of the Zionist leadership in Palestine to attempt to rescue more Jews from Europe and its political appropriation of their memory for its nation-building project. Zertal’s new book situates this process in a broader framework by exploring the ways in which a culture of victimhood and a “politics of death” have shaped the stories Jewish citizens tell about themselves and produced a militarized state that is “impervious to rational dialogue with the world around [it].”

The genocidal campaign against Europe’s Jews did not, by itself, create the link between absolute victimhood and absolute power that has become so central to Israel’s political culture. For at least two decades prior to World War II, the Zionist leadership in Palestine fostered a “civil religion…[of ] martyr worship” to sanctify the blood of Jewish colonists who died trying to expand their frontier. At the time, most absolved themselves of the violence entailed in their settlement project by way of distinguishing themselves from the “thieving” Arab farmers, on the one hand, and the “passive” Diaspora Jews, on the other. The consequences of this attitude were often self-destructive. Zertal carefully reconstructs the events leading to the disastrous battle at the outpost of Tel Hai in 1920 in order to show how the Labor Zionist leadership, safely ensconced in the center of the country, knowingly sacrificed the young settlers living at the outpost by refusing to remove them from harm’s way. Fearing the negative political implication of retreat, the leadership opted to save the symbol over the people.

Publicists, politicians, poets and historians immediately mythologized the deaths of the Jews at Tel Hai, and the outpost was transformed into a shrine. Zertal discusses this mythology not for its own sake but to highlight what it obscured, and at whose expense. The same questions frame her investigation of the ways that Israel’s founding elite selectively sought to remember and forget the Jewish catastrophe in Europe. During the formative first decade of state building, the pursuit of “normalcy” relegated the memory of the Holocaust to the margins: the 300,000 survivor-immigrants held sporadic, private ceremonies; the Knesset repeatedly postponed the establishment of a national memorial day that might reinforce the image of Jewish weakness; and the government refused to pursue Nazi hunts for fear that these would require them to violate international law and thereby threaten their fragile international standing.

Above all, most veteran Zionist leaders viewed the Holocaust as a shameful event, a blow that they had failed to prevent and whose victims had failed to resist. To purge this national shame, Knesset members projected it back onto the survivors themselves by passing the 1950 Nazis and Nazi Collaborators Law, which, despite its lofty rhetoric, was never aimed at the Nazis themselves. Zertal describes the tragic irony by which Jews who had never faced Nazi crimes took it upon themselves to punish other Jews who had — all petty bloc officers in the concentration camps, none found guilty of causing an actual death. Meanwhile, the law refrained from judging far more controversial acts, including the decision by most Jewish community leaders in Europe to hand over the lists of their constituents to be deported. Throughout the next decade, the Israeli press kept silent about the images revealed during the trials of the “everyday human ravages” in the death camps, where basic moral boundaries were blurred for the most ordinary of inmates. These tales were left out of the official narrative of the Holocaust, Zertal argues, because of the dual threat they posed: to “a nation establishing and defining itself as absolute good against the Holocaust’s absolute evil,” and to the sacrifices the nation’s youth were being asked to make in its defense.

The Kapo trials were followed by other attempts to silence voices that might complicate the neat lessons of the Holocaust that the political establishment sought to impart: silencing the surviving rebels of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising who objected to the state’s appropriation of the event as a Zionist act; prosecuting for libel a survivor who accused a recent immigrant-turned-government spokesman of direct collaboration with the Nazis in Hungary (the well-known Kastner affair); and leaving survivors altogether out of the text of the belated 1959 Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Law, which formalized the exclusive link between the memory of the Jewish genocide and the establishment of the Jewish state. These remarkable events would soon be overshadowed by the spectacle that became the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. In the words of the prime minister, Eichmann’s punishment was to serve as a lesson for the new generation of Israeli youth, which was taking “the State of Israel, born out of so much blood and anguish and idealism, for granted.” With the state apparatus firmly in place and his own popularity on the wane, Ben Gurion would stage Israel’s first full-fledged confrontation with the Holocaust “from a position of power, sovereignty and control.”

Zertal agrees that the Eichmann trial marked a turning point in the popular embrace of a discourse that juxtaposed European Jewish helplessness to Israeli omnipotence, but she is more interested in how — and against whom — this discourse was applied. The book’s final chapters focus on its two greatest targets: the Palestinian national movement, along with Arab state leaders, on the one hand, and Jewish critics of this discourse, on the other. The deliberate “Nazification of the enemy” by the Zionist leadership began even before 1948, but it reached new heights and found a deeper cultural base in the weeks leading up to the 1967 war. Paradoxically, Israel’s resounding military victory, easily predicted by Israeli and US intelligence, did not check this rhetoric. Instead, the conviction that the country had barely averted a second genocide only intensified. Drawing on examples from the popular press, poetry, fiction, party meetings and public speeches, Zertal demonstrates how representations of the Holocaust and the political conflict became mutually reinforcing at all levels of society. Abstracted, dehistoricized and stripped of their inner contradictions, the “borders between the [two] became blurred, turning them into closed, critique-proof mythical realities, bound together and sustaining one another. The Jewish Holocaust, and Israeli power, had thus become a central factor in consolidating the Israeli identity and in fortifying social cohesion and solidarity within Israel.”

Since 1967, Israel’s messianic and traditionalist right has successfully appropriated the “Arab-Nazi” threat from its secular, left Zionist forefathers, wielding it against Jews as well as Arabs. The settler movement and its supporters first branded the political elite as Judenräte in 1979, when Israel began its withdrawal from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula; they stepped up this rhetoric as never before when the Labor-led government signed the Declaration of Principles with the PLO in 1993. Ultimately, a university student named Yigal Amir took seriously the warning that any territorial dismemberment of the biblical Land of Israel would bring about a second Holocaust. But even more disturbing to Zertal than the incitement that led to Amir’s assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was the national response that followed. The press, the judges at Amir’s trial and the governmental commission of inquiry all branded the young student as a bad seed to be expunged, shutting their eyes to the violent, apocalyptic climate that produced his crime. The “national reconciliation” that the Zionist left sought so urgently after Rabin’s murder would prohibit a reevaluation of the ghetto-versus-gun worldview that its founders had forged.

If Zertal has any hope for the future, it lays in the possibility that Jewish intellectuals will resurrect the legacy of Hannah Arendt, the German Jewish philosopher whose critical reportage of the Eichmann trial shattered the object lessons it was staged to produce. Formally, Zertal dedicates a chapter of Israel’s Holocaust to an analysis of Arendt’s 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem and the near uniform vitriol it elicited from the Israeli academy. In practice, every page of Zertal’s book is guided by Arendt’s impassioned warning against the distortion of the Holocaust to serve chauvinist national goals. Like Arendt before her, Zertal seeks to honor the humanity of all the Nazis’ victims by restoring their experiences to their unique historical contexts. As the Israeli state approaches its sixtieth year, she seems to plead with her compatriots to reject the official link between absolute security and absolute insecurity on which they were raised — to realize that the violence they have unleashed upon their neighbors, as well as upon themselves, has long since reached the dangerous level of banality.

How to cite this article:

Shira Robinson "The Ghetto vs. the Gun," Middle East Report 240 (Fall 2006).

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