The Politicization of the Holocaust: Examining the Uses and Abuse of Its Legacy


For many years, every foreign visitor to Israel, soon after arriving, has been taken to Yad Vashem, the memorial in Jerusalem to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis.

Early in 1995, this policy was changed. Since then, Israel has decided to merely suggest that those making official visits walk through this museum of Nazi barbarity and Jewish suffering. Only presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers will still be taken as a matter of course.

When he was deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin, the architect of this new policy, said that compelling people to visit a particular site is “Bolshevik” behavior and that Israelis must stop thinking that “we know better than you what you should do.”

New York Times correspondent Clyde Haberman reported that, “Forced visits to the memorial discomfort some Israelis for other reasons. They see the tours as perhaps overemphasizing Jews as victims in the national self-definition, and suggest alternative sites that show modern Israel’s accomplishments, like desert farms or science centers.”

Israel’s relationship to the Holocaust, and the manner in which that event has been used and abused for contemporary political purposes, has been the subject of much discussion.

In an important book, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, Tom Segev, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, presents a chronicle of the impact of the Holocaust upon Jews in Palestine and, after 1948, in Israel, and how it has been dealt with by political leaders in both periods. He shows how viewing the world through an ideological lens such as Zionism-as others have viewed events through other closed systems from Communism to Fascism to one or another form of religious fundamentalism-often distorts reality in order to accommodate ideological imperatives.

While the Holocaust was taking place in Europe, Segev argues that the immediate needs of the victims were often ignored as Zionist nationalism blinded the leaders of the yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, to the threats from Hitler.

In December 1935, David Ben-Gurion declared: “We must give a Zionist response to the catastrophe faced by German Jewry-to turn this disaster into an opportunity to develop our country, to save the lives and property of the Jews of Germany for the sake of Zion.” For Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders, Segev shows, the priorities of Palestine must take precedence over the immediate needs of the endangered communities in Europe.

Zionist ideology harbored deep contempt for Jews outside of Israel.

At one point, Ben-Gurion declared: “If I knew that it was possible, to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half of them by transporting them to Palestine, I would choose the second-because we face not only the reckoning of those children, but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people.” In the wake of the Kristallnacht pogroms, Ben-Gurion commented that “the human conscience” might bring various countries to open their doors to Jewish refugees from Germany. He saw this as a threat and warned, “Zionism is in danger.”

While Segev concedes that the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine could not have saved millions of Jews, he believes that it did far too little. Part of the reason was Zionist ideology itself which harbored deep contempt for Jews outside of Israel-the Diaspora-and a sense of moral superiority and an all-consuming focus on state-building.

The rise of the Nazis was seen in Palestine as confirming the historical prognosis of Zionist ideology. The newspaper Hapoel Harsair described the Nazi persecution of the Jews as “punishment” for their having tried to integrate into German society instead of leaving for Palestine. Now they would have to run in panic, “like mice in flight,” the paper said.

The Revisionist paper Hazit Haam used even stronger language: “The Jews of Germany are being persecuted not despite their efforts to be part of the country but because of their efforts.”

Ideological Complicity

It appears that many in Palestine were ideologically and psychologically complicit with the Nazi catastrophe, Segev writes, because Zionism itself was founded on the belief that Jews had no future in Europe, that the emancipation of the Jews would fail and that the only solution to anti-Semitism was a sovereign state. Moshe Sharett declared: “The Zionists do not mean to exploit the horrible tragedy of the Jews in Europe, but they cannot refrain from emphasizing the fact that events have totally proven the Zionist position on the solution of the Jewish problem. Zionism predicted the Holocaust decades ago.” Davar went so far as to publish an article describing the extermination of the Jews as “punishment from heaven” for not having come to Palestine.

In Palestine, many Jews had contempt for the European victims of Nazism, not sympathy. “Negations of the Exile,” writes Segev, “took the form of a deep contempt and even disgust with Jewish life in the Diaspora, particularly in Eastern Europe, which was characterized as degenerate, degraded, humiliating and morally corrupt. In their tragedy, Diaspora Jews seemed even more repellant…The disparagement of European Jewry was heard often, even when everyone already knew everything and when Auschwitz had become a household wordé

“The resentment against the victims of the Holocaust recalled the way Zionist poets such as Haim Mahman Bialik had depicted the victims of an earlier pogrom: ‘They fled like mice, hid like bugs, and died like dogs over there, wherever they were found.’ Even then the emphasis was on there. Had they come here earlier, it would not have happened to them.”

Eventually, the negative view of the victims of the Holocaust receded and a deepening identification with the Holocaust began to grow. This was aided by the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann. Even before that, Israel made peace with the new West German government and negotiated a restitution agreement for the victims. This, Segev declares, represented a “piece of Zionist irony.” He notes that, “The money from Germany was supposed to express the victory of Zionism and revenge against the Nazis, but many of those who filed for compensation based their claims on the argument that they would not have left Germany if they had been allowed to stay. Hence, they should be seen as political refugees, whose lives in Israel were something less than they would have been in Germany.”

Over time, Israelis began to see parallels between themselves and the Holocaust. They abandoned the Zionist notion that they were “new Jews” free of the ghetto mentality that supposedly characterized the Diaspora, and started to view themselves as the latest in a line of Jewish victims. The Holocaust, once considered a shameful trauma, instead came to be seen as the defining event of the new state.

Finally, the Holocaust came to be used as a weapon against Israel’s Arab adversaries, who came to be identified with the Nazis. Prior to the 1967 war with Egypt, Eliezer Livneh, a well-known commentator and former Knesset member for Mapai, wrote in Ha’aretz: “It is more than the Strait of Tiran that is at issue now. What is at issue is the existence or nonexistence of the Jewish people. We must crush the machinations of the new Hitler at the outset, when it is still possible to crush them and survive…Neither the world nor the Jews believed in the sincerity of Hitler’s declarations…Nasser’s fundamental strategy is the same as Hitler.”

During his term as prime minister, Menachem Begin repeatedly invoked the Holocaust as a justification for his policies. He often compared Yasser Arafat to Hitler, referring to him as a “two-legged beast,” a phrase he had used earlier to describe Hitler. Begin compared the PLO’s Palestine National Covenant to Mein Kampf. “Never in the history of mankind has there been an armed organization so loathsome and contemptible with the exception of the Nazis,” he said.

On the eve of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, Begin told his cabinet, “You know what I have done and what we have all done to prevent war and loss of life. There is no other way to fight selflessly. Believe me, the alternative is Treblinka, and we have decided that there will be no more Treblinkas.”

A few weeks after the war in Lebanon began, Begin responded to international criticism of Israel, Segev points out, “by repeating a premise that his predecessors had shared: after the Holocaust, the international community had lost its right to demand that Israel answer for its actions. ‘No one, anywhere in the world, can preach morality to our people,’ Begin declared to the Knesset.

“A similar statement was included in the resolution adopted by the cabinet after the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut…In a letter to President Reagan, Begin wrote that the destruction of Arafat’s headquarters in Beirut had given him the feeling that he had sent the Israeli army into Berlin to destroy Hitler in the bunker.”

“Hitler Is Already Dead”

In response to Begin’s repeated invocation of the Holocaust to defend his policies in Lebanon, author Amos Oz responded: “Hitler is already dead, Mr. Prime Minister. Adolf Hitler destroyed a third of the Jewish people….Often I, like many Jews, find at the bottom of my soul a dull sense of pain because I did not kill Hitler with my own hands. I am sure that in your soul a similar fantasy hovers. There is not and never will be a cure of this open wound in our souls. Tens of thousands of dead Arabs will not heal this wound.

“But, Mr. Begin, Adolf Hitler died 37 years ago…Hitler is not hiding in Nabatea, in Sidon or in Beirut. He is dead and gone. Again and again, Mr. Begin, you reveal to the public eye a strange urge to resuscitate Hitler in order to kill him every day anew in the guise of terrorists…This urge to revive and obliterate Hitler over and over again is the result of a melancholy that poets must express, but among statesmen it is a hazard that is liable to lead them along a path of mortal danger.”

Some in Israel seem to learn a universal lesson from the Holocaust and apply it in creating a more humane society. In February 1983, the Knesset held a debate on “Fifty Years Since the Nazi Rise To Power-The Day and Its Lessons.”

Yair Tsaban (Mapam), a leader of the Israeli peace movement, said that the most important lesson of the Holocaust was the universal one: “To be on guard, to be alert to every sign of the erosion of democracy, to every inclination toward dictatorship of any type, in any clothing, even if populist or pseudo-leftist. This lesson is accompanied by another lesson: the terrible peril involved in the conjunction of the destruction of democracy and the rise of dictatorship with the cancerous growth of unrestrained, overpowering nationalist madness.”

Others in Israel, however, are learning a different lesson. Young Israelis are sent to visit the Nazi death camps in Europe and are taught a largely narrow and nationalistic lesson.

Segev cites a special booklet, a message for teachers and guides, written by Avraham Oded, the Ministry of Education’s director of youth, which includes the following passage: “As we stand beside the death furnaces in the extermination camps, our hearts fill with resentment and tears come to our eyeséYet while we weep and suffer pain and sorrow over the destruction, our hearts fill with pride and contentment at the great privilege we have of being citizens of an independent Israelé

“We swear before our millions of murdered brothers, ‘If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.’ And it is as if we hear the souls crying to us. ‘In our deaths, we have commanded you to live. Preserve and defend the State of Israel as your most precious possession.’ Then we answer with a full heart, ‘May the State of Israel live forever.'”

Discussing what he believes is the manipulation of young people through these death camp visits, Segev provides this assessment: “Nothing better illustrates the change that has occurred in Israel’s attitude toward the Holocaust than the journey of these students, members of the third generation, to Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz. It was a pilgrimage to the Diaspora.

“Here was a Zionist irony. A single generation after the founding of the state, Israel was sending its children into the Jewish past abandoned by its founding fathers, who hoped to create a ‘new man,’ free of the ghetto past. The young people were sent to seek out what secular Israeli society was, apparently, unable to offer them, roots. The trip was a ritual laden with emotion and symbols and a sometimes bizarre obeisance to what Saul Friedlander once described as the union of Kitsch and death…

“It exuded isolationism, to the point of xenophobia, rather than openness and love of humanity. The attempt…to include the Holocaust’s universal lessons in the instruction had been almost completely abandoned.”

Recently, Allan Nadler, the former director of research at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and an associate professor of Jewish studies at Drew University, attended the “March of the Living.” At a ceremony on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau he heard Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declare that, “The Nazis failed…we won.” Netanyahu then expounded on the “lessons” of Auschwitz to the 7,000 participants.

Writing in The Forward (May 22, 1998), Dr. Nadler laments that, “To my regret I was among them. For Mr. Netanyahu, as for many Israelis, the Holocaust is as uncomplicated as it is tragic. Its lessons are the lessons of Zionist historiography.

“If only the Jews had listened to the warnings of the Zionist leaders and evacuated Europe for Eretz-Yisrael, Auschwitz would not have happenedéMost important, the rise of the state of Israel is history’s answer and consolation for the catastrophe that befell European Jewry.”

The Netanyahu speech “offended me,” states Nadler. “The Holocaust is rarely confronted in Israel on its own bleak, inconsolable terms. Even the country’s official day of mourning for the Holocaust connects the tragedy with the glory of Jewish resistance and subsequent rebirth…

“The Jewish catastrophe is, in the Israeli national consciousness, deeply and inextricably linked with the subsequent rise of the Jewish state. The March of the Living is carefully orchestrated to inculcate its young participants with this perspective on the Holocaust….But the revival of the Jewish nation in its ancestral land…can never compensate for the loss of the largest, richest and most creative Jewish community in all of Jewish history….

“It is, of course, natural to search for meaning, comfort and redemption in the wake of such tragedy. To confront the Shoah on its own terms is difficult and painful. But to cast it in an ultimately positive light, to emphasize Jewish resistance and ‘bravery’ beyond historical proportion; to insist that at the end of the day, the tragedy has been corrected by the subsequent rise of Israel, is ultimately to distort the disconsolate dimension and incurable nature of what was visited upon our people in this century. Worse yet to use the Shoah as a political weapon as Mr. Netanyahu so clearly did that day at Auschwitz, is to desecrate the memory of its victims.”

Auschwitz, Nadler argues, “is not a place for flag waving, cantorial concerts, political speeches or triumphant nationalism. It is not the place to celebrate Jewish life or to affirm Jewish nationalism or to lecture on the wisdom of the Zionist idea…The only appropriate activity at Auschwitz is mourning. More than any other place, Auschwitz demands of us humility.”

Tom Segev’s book, The Seventh Million, is the first to show the decisive impact of the Holocaust upon the identity, ideology and politics of Israel. It reveals how the bitter events of past decades continue to shape the experiences not just of individuals but of a nation.

Tom Segev concludes: “…consciousness of the Holocaust…played an ever more pivotal role in the ongoing debate over what fundamental values ought to guide Israeli society. It is in the framework of this debate that some have suggested that Israelis would do best to forget the Holocaust entirely, because they were not learning the proper lessons from it.

“Indeed, the ceremonies tend to inculcate an insular chauvinism and a sense that the Nazi exterminations of the Jews justifies any act that contributes to Israel’s security, including the oppression of the population in the territories occupied by Israel in the Six-Day War…The sense that the Holocaust was inevitable, in accordance with Zionist ideology, and the identification with the Jew as victim are liable to lead Israelis to conclude that their existence depends solely on military power, and so to limit their willingness to take the risks involved in a compromise peace settlementé

“Yet it does not follow from the risks inherent in Israeli memorial culture, that Israel would do best to forget the Holocaust. Indeed, they cannot and should not forget it. They need, rather, to draw different conclusions.

“The Holocaust summons all to preserve democracy, to fight racism and to defend human rights. It gives added force to the Israeli law that requires every soldier to refuse to obey a manifestly illegal order. Instilling the humanist lessons of the Holocaust will be difficult as long as the country is fighting to defend itself and justify its very existence, but it is essential. This is the task of the seventh million.”

Alive and Well in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the politicization of the Holocaust and its confusion with the contemporary politics of the Middle East is also alive and well in the United States. After a brutal assault upon him by those who disagreed with his views of the current Israeli government and its policies, Professor John Roth of Claremont McKenna College in California, an internationally respected Holocaust scholar, resigned as director of the Holocaust Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, a post he was slated to officially begin in August.

Michael Berenbaum, who served as director of the U.S. Holocaust Research Center and was project director for the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and is now professor of theology at the University of Judaism and president of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in Los Angeles, declared: “…When Roth walked away, indecency and falsehood triumphed, and we have to continue to live in a Jewish community shaped by character assassination and quiescent to such assaults…

“Professor Roth is a scholar of impeccable credentials. He is the author of more than 20 books in American studies, philosophy, ethics and the Holocaust. In 1988, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching chose him as the nation’s outstanding teacher/scholar for his work on The Holocaust and the American Experience.

“As to the attackers, the Talmud asks who is a powerful person-one who makes an enemy a friend. I wonder what our sages would say of one who shamelessly and without foundation labels a friend an enemy?…This is a sad day for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and an even sadder day for public Jewish life in the United States.”

In another instance of confusing the Holocaust with Middle East policy, a controversy has emerged over the best-selling book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Harvard Professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Goldhagen argues that the Germans’ collective history of homicidal anti-Semitism led inevitably to the Holocaust.

Many Holocaust scholars have been critical of some aspects of Goldhagen’s work and a book, A Nation On Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth by Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Bird, was recently published by Henry Holt & Co.

According to The Jerusalem Report (Aug. 3, 1998), Abraham H. Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, sent a letter to Sara Bershtel, the book’s editor, urging her to drop it because Finkelstein’s “irreversibly tainted, glaring” anti-Zionist bias “disqualified” him from commenting on the Holocaust. “The issue,” Foxman suggested, “is not whether Goldhagen’s thesis is right or wrong but what’s legitimate criticism and what goes beyond the pale.”

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, according to The Report, “went over Bershtel’s head to Holt publisher Michael Naumann, a longtime friend. Wieseltier, too, cited Finkelstein’s anti-ZionisméBoth Foxman and Wieseltier asserted to the publisher that their concern was less with defending Hitler’s Willing Executioners than with ‘upholding scholarly standards.’ ‘There’s an encyclopedia of criticism on Goldhagen’s thesis by thousands of reputable scholars,’ Foxman told The Jerusalem Report. ‘All we asked was why did a mainstream publisher have to turn to the fringe for two ersatz scholars-a notorious anti-Zionist and a little-known scholar with few credentials.”‘

The Jerusalem Report declared: “‘Ersatz scholars’ may be stretching it. The German-born Bird (a noted war crimes researcher in Canada), who did her Ph.D. on the SS and the Nazi police at Stuttgart University and a post-doctorate at MIT, is the foremost authority on the German Ludwigsburg archives where Goldhagen conducted his primary research. Finkelstein, who holds a Ph.D. on the theory of Zionism from Princeton, admits to being no Holocaust expert but asserts his exegesis on Goldhagen’s internal contradictions requires no expertise beyond common sense.”

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, likened Holt & Co. to “garbagemen” for deciding to bring out the book. Jonathan Mahler of The Forward compared the publisher’s decision to that of St. Martin’s Press, which in the early 1990s decided to publish British revisionist historian David Irving’s biography of Joseph Goebbels, but backed down after lobbying from Jewish groups .

Michael Neumann, the Holt publisher, declared: “Clearly, there was a campaign of hardball politics to stem publication of this book. The interpretation of the Holocaust has left, it seems, the realm of remembrance and entered the realm of lobby politics.”

The book’s editor, Sara Bershtel, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, disputes Foxman’s view that the “issue is not whether Goldhagen’s thesis is right or wrong but what’s legitimate criticism.” She declares that the issue is precisely whether Goldhagen was right or wrong and wrote back to Foxman to say so.

She says she is “frightened, angered and appalled” by Foxman’s attempt to interfere with her editorial freedom. “It’s a model of censorship when you don’t even care if someone is right or wrong and you want to slap that person down.”

Professor Finkelstein, who teaches at New York University and Hunter College, says he is being criticized for his previous books on Israel rather than his thesis concerning Goldhagen. Finkelstein, whose parents are survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, is the author of two books on Israel’s Palestinian policies in which he charges that Israel is guilty of human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza which “besmirched the memory of the six million Jewish martyrs.”

The Jerusalem Report states: “It’s because of those books that, from the moment Holt approached him and Bird about a book, the project has lurched from one altercation to the next.”

To make the Holocaust a political issue in today’s debate over the Middle East is to trivialize one of the greatest horrors in the annals of history. Sadly, there are many both in the U.S. and in Israel who are prepared to do just that.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.