Thursday, May 13, 2010

Was the Yishuv Indifferent to the Holocaust?


The notion that the Zionist leadership in the Land of Israel and yishuv society as a whole reacted with indifference to news of the extermination of European Jewry during the Second World War has become almost a commonplace among non-specialists in the subject. In the past two decades, critics of contemporary Israel and the enterprise of Zionism in history, have led the charge in alleging that the yishuv took little interest in the victims of the Holocaust because of its ingrained negative view of Diaspora Jews (shlilat ha-golah) and single-minded devotion to the enterprise of state-building. Tom Segev's The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (1991, English translation published in 1993) unfortunately strengthened this sentiment. Although his book is still a classic - composed in beautiful prose like all his works and revealing a wealth of insights about Israeli society, its third chapter, "Rommel, Rommel, where are you?" paints an exaggerated picture of Zionist callousness toward the plight of European Jewry.

The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust

A new work by the Israeli historian Yosef Gorny significantly challenges the revisionist accounts that emerged in the 1990s about the yishuv and the Holocaust. The book, entitled קריאה באין אונים:העיתונות היהודית בארץ ישראל, בבריטניה, בארצות הברית ובברית המועצות לנוכח השואה, בשנים 1939-1945 ("Helpless Cry: The Jewish Press in the Land of Israel, Britain, the U.S., and the Soviet Union during the Shoah, 1939-1945," was published in 2009 and has now been reviewed in Ha'aretz by Dina Porat. The reviewers herself is the author of a pioneering related work, The Blue and the Yellow Stars of David: The Zionist Leadership in Palestine and the Holocaust, 1939-1945 (Hebrew version in 1986; English translation published by Harvard University Press in 1990).

Gorny's book lays to rest the myth that the Jewish press in the Land of Israel ignored the victims of the Holocaust or that the yishuv's inhabitants and its leading personalities were indifferent to the fate of European Jewry. According to Porat,

Reading and comparing the various newspapers show that the Jewish press, both within and outside the Land of Israel, covered the Holocaust extensively, with the newspapers here writing about it more. A comparison between Hebrew newspapers Davar, Haaretz and Hamashkif shows that Davar, the Labor movement daily, which has been criticized from all sides (especially by the first to research the issue, S.B. Beit Zvi, in his book "Post Ugandan Zionism on Trial" ), actually published a lot more about the Holocaust than either of the other two papers. At the time, Hamashkif, the Revisionist paper, was incessantly attacking Davar, for explicitly political reasons, to the point that it became an uncontested axiom that Davar was ignoring the Holocaust.

The comparison between the newspapers also shows that they published pretty much whatever information they received about what was happening to the Jews in Europe, including some hair raising stories that were inconceivable at the time in terms of the number of victims and especially the cruelty of the killing methods. Indeed, readers and journalists alike argued during the first half of the war that the many articles describing atrocities were an exaggeration, akin to "spilling blood into the lines of the newspapers," and called on editors to exhibit greater responsibility in the kinds of pieces they published and stop demoralizing the public and creating panic.

The book's title, Kri'ah be-ein onim is a triple entendre, as the word "kri'ah" means both "call" or "shout" as well as "reading" (i.e., the act of reading). It can therefore be translated as either. The phrase "be-ein onim" literally means "without potency," i.e., "powerless" or "helpless." One could therefore translate the title either as "Helpless Cry" (more elegantly, "Cry in the Wilderness") or "Impotent Reading." To add to these possibilities, the plural noun "'onim" (אונים) has a homophone (at least for those Hebrew speakers who do not pronounce 'alef and 'ayin differently), עונים, which means "respondents," - in other words, "Reading/Cry without Response."
The Holocaust in American Life

I see the charge that "Zionists didn't care about the Holocaust during the war" as related to those works of scholarship and political polemic which talk about Holocaust memory having been manufactured after World War II by Zionists or Jewish elites. Alongside the myth that the yishuv was indifferent to the Holocaust, a myth arose several decades ago that American Jews did not really talk about the Holocaust until 1967, and that it only became a major focus of their attention due to Zionist manipulation. That is the heart of the accusations contained in works like Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life and the (far worse) piece of propaganda by Norman Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. These accounts have also been significantly undermined by recent, heavily empirical scholarship, most notably in Hasia Diner's We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962.

We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962


Rebecca said...

Thanks for this survey of recent books - very helpful for me.

ar said...

I probably should get around to reading these books for myself, but do any of them specifically address the Revisionist Zionist position on the Holocaust. I've always felt that the Haganah guys really did try to rescue people(especially by supporting the Kasztner train), but I'm less sure about the Revisionists. I never understood how someone like Shamir, whose parents were unable to get out of Europe, could support Lehi's public positions.

Amos said...

Which of Lehi's public positions are you referring to?

The Revisionists opposed negotiations with the Nazis but they were involved in efforts to smuggle Jewish refugees from Europe into Palestine into the late 1930s. After that, their hands were tied. In the book by Gorny, you can read about their criticisms of Mapai's alleged inaction during the Second World War. I am not sure whether you referred to Kastner as an example of a successful rescue mission or in connection to the position of the Revisionists. As you know, the Kastner train became a major issue for the Revisionists in the 1950s; they were less sanguine about it than you seem to be, seeing it as a failure rather than a success. I am sure there were also political motivations, since Kastner was a Mapai man. Part of the background is surely the Revisionist opposition in this period to reparation talks with West Germany. Tom Segev talks about this stuff in his book.

Revisionist activists in Poland played key roles in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. I don't know how much, if any, coordination there was between the Revisionist leadership in the yishuv and in Europe though.

ar said...

"Which of Lehi's public positions are you referring to? "

I guess it wasn't necessarily public to there members, but I was refering to positions like the one described on p. 255 of this ( book (I realise that it's not 100% reliable, because Hitchens at that point was a follower of Edward Said and some of the quotes come to him through the conspiracy lover Israel Shahak, but the letter to Hentig is pretty much the same as what I read in Sachar's history of Israel.)

I was refering to Kastner, because as far as I know he was the only member of a Jewish organisation who actually got Jews out of one of the death camps. I know some Revisionists, like Hillel Kook, did try to organise rescues, but as far as I know they were unsuccessful. It also seems like the members of each of the Revisionist groups (Hatzohar and the circle around Jabotinsky himself, Irgun and Lehi) had different positions.

Noah S. said...

Amos, I'd be curious to hear where in particular you think Segev exaggerates in chapter three of The Seventh Million. As far as I can tell, he included lots of documentation of reports in the yishuv's press, as well as acts of public mourning for Jewish deaths in Europe. His question is not whether people mourned, but how (and how much before turning to other things).

Amos said...

Not sure why you're busting my balls about this. Let's go back to what I said:

Although his book is still a classic - composed in beautiful prose like all his works and revealing a wealth of insights about Israeli society, its third chapter, "Rommel, Rommel, where are you?" paints an exaggerated picture of Zionist callousness toward the plight of European Jewry.

I think that despite Segev's references to press reports, acts of mourning, and announcements, the general tenor of the chapter is that "[t]he newspapers show an ebullient society: notices of sports events and fashion shows, of end-of-season sales and a wide range of other entertainments - all in the shadow of the horrors of Europe" (p. 77)). The chapter begins with a Tel Aviv theater's performance of "The Good Soldier Schweik" shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland and concludes that "Most of the yishuv paid no attention" (p. 81).

My point in the original post was that the new study by Gorny contradicts the impression one might have from Segev about life going on as usual. Of course, life did go on "as usual" - as it always does, but it is an exaggeration to say that yishuv society was indifferent, insincere, and not steadfast enough in its consciousness about what was happening in Europe.

Noah S. said...


I bring it up because we have to acknowledge the motivations of the different authors here, in a field of Israeli history where the researchers are rarely politically neutral. Gorny is not exactly in the Critics-of-Israel Fan Club. I wouldn't use the word apologetic, but his research smacks of a certain defensiveness. In The Seventh Million, Segev was trying to expose and dispel the Zionist myth of the yishuv as a welcoming refuge for non-Zionist European persecutees. Gorny, former head of the Chaim Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism, is trying to expose and dispel the new "post-ZIonist" myth of the yishuv as the opposite.

Of course, how one labels these scholarly interventions in a blog post reveals something of one's own stance toward contemporary Israeli politics.

I believe the pressing issue with the yishuv and the Holocaust is not primarily the motivations of the yishuv's newspapers editors. As Dina Porat writes in her Ha'aretz review of Gorny, why WOULD they withhold reports of the Holocaust? The question is how the newspapers were being READ, and that is what Segev was trying to get at in his book. He based much of his argument, also in chapter three, on the impressions of German refugees who fled to the yishuv and felt that the suffering of non-Zionist Jews was in some way de-prioritized. Was his journalistic net, which spreads far beyond newspaper reports, not wider than Gorny's historical study?

Amos said...

Whatever their political positions about the state of Israel and Zionism may be, neither Gorny or Segev are simply inventing things.
Segev's book was a critique of yishuv pre-state and state organizations as well as of yishuv and Israeli society. I think many of its critiques have been accepted, but I believe that Gorny introduces more nuance into the picture. I think it is fair to say that Segev, as part of his effort to critique the previously accepted narrative of Israel's history, may have overstated his case.

A study of the major yishuv newspapers like Gorny's reveals a great deal about how people related to ("read") the events in Europe during the war. This was a society in which most people belonged to political organizations of some sort, and where each party had its own reporting and criticized the positions of its opponents. I think that for this kind of society, newspapers of the various movements, which were important political organs, are truly representative.

Over the past two decades we have seen an explosion of critical work about "Zionist" attitudes toward Arabs, mizrahim, Eastern European diaspora culture, the Yiddish language, and Holocaust refugees. I think much of this work was important. But we are now at the point where certain interpretations are turning into new orthodoxies. The interest in "post-Zionist" historiography (a meaningless term today, I believe) coincided with an increase in liberal North American Jews' dissatisfaction with Israeli politics and society as well as with the proliferation of alienated, secular leftist Israeli intellectuals at universities inside the country and abroad.

This complex needs to be shaken up again, with new interpretations of the evidence and, if possible, other illuminating sources, as the new narrative risks becoming as complacent and self-serving as the old one. This is why I spoke so positively about the work of Gorny and Hasia Diner.

Noah S. said...

These distinctions are important. I didn't mean to bust your balls, I did object though to the title and tone of the post, which might give to the casual reader the impression that "revisionist historians" (a nasty title), as a collective, claim that the Yishuv was "indifferent" to the Holocaust, full stop. I also still hold that mere reports of mass Jewish deaths in Europe do not tell us as much as close readings of editorials would.

I'm not sure that Segev overstated the case, because I haven't read enough in Yishuv sources.

Amos said...

I didn't use "revisionist" in the vulgar negative sense. Holocaust "revisionists," who should really be called "negationists," may have tried to usurp this term, but I think many historians still use it (with reason) to refer to a common phenomenon in academic historiography, where narratives are built and then critiqued with "revisions" until a "revisionist" narrative emerges.

Yosef Gorny's book is based on both reporting and editorials as well as letters to the editor.

Noah S. said...

I would say the goal of revisions to mainstream historical myths is not to create a "revisionist" narrative but a more accurate narrative. If you call them "revisionist" narratives, you run the risk of suggesting they are politically motivated and thus less objective. See Zinn.