Children of the State

Yitzhak Laor

  • Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood by Idith Zertal
    Cambridge, 236 pp, £19.99, October 2005, ISBN 0 521 85096 7

In 1950 the Israeli parliament passed the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law, the first constitutional expression of Israel’s belief that it must act as the heir of the Jews murdered in Europe. This status won international recognition only gradually, thanks by and large to West Germany’s decision not only to pay compensation to the victims of Nazism but also to pay ‘reparations’ to the state of Israel. In her excellent book, Idith Zertal reviews some of the trials of Jewish collaborators who had immigrated to Israel after the war and were indicted under this law. These survivors were victims too, but the law required that their victimhood be suspended. Nevertheless, they were all given light sentences, as if the judges themselves had some reservations about the law.

A far more critical case followed, however, when a man called Malkiel Grunewald, who had lost his entire family in Hungary during the war, issued a series of pamphlets accusing Israel Kastner, a spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, of collaboration. During the war, according to Grunewald, Kastner had met Eichmann, travelled all over Germany, and arranged transport out of Occupied Europe for more than a thousand privileged Hungarian Jews. Grunewald’s own family, too unimportant to be saved, were deported to places from which no one returned. Kastner had known about these places but, as part of the deal he had struck with the Nazis, had kept this knowledge from his fellow Jews. After the war he testified at Nuremberg on behalf of his SS contact Kurt Becher and saved him from being hanged.

Instead of indicting Kastner, if only to allow him to be found innocent, the attorney general chose to file a libel suit against Grunewald. What followed turned into the political trial of David Ben-Gurion and his party, to which Kastner belonged. Grunewald was acquitted. Kastner, the German-born judge wrote, ‘had sold his soul to the devil’. In Zertal’s view this was the beginning of Ben-Gurion’s downfall. Worn out by the scandal, he ordered Mossad to kidnap Eichmann and to bring him to Israel for what Zertal and other Israeli scholars, following Hannah Arendt, have called a show trial.

Holocaust memory is the safest, or at any rate the least controversial, Israeli collective experience, at a time when the rest of our national values are under threat. To be a good Israeli some forty years ago meant doing something for the state – ‘for the nation’, ‘for the Jewish people’. Now, to be a good Israeli means to see ourselves as the only protagonists in our story. This has been a gradual process, and its grotesque culmination came in the spring of 1993 when Major-General Ehud Barak, then IDF chief of staff, stood in uniform at Auschwitz and said at the climax of his speech: ‘Had we only arrived here 50 years earlier …’

The Holocaust is by now a central element of ‘Israeliness’. Zertal sees it not just as a ‘spiritual’ entity, but as a material institution as well. She begins with the way the Zionist elite chose to ignore its survivors: ‘martyrdom’ was reserved for the dead. Dead victims are far more convenient for myth-making, ceremonies and political speeches.

Zertal describes three occasions when the pre-Israel Zionist elite turned defeats into heroic myths. First, an incident in 1920, when settlers near the disputed border between the French and British colonial powers (the border between what is now Lebanon, Syria and Israel) were attacked by armed locals. This quickly became a legendary tale of the land of Israel being redeemed by force of arms, work and death. The protagonist of the story was Josef Trumpeldor, whose actual last words were a Russian curse, something close to ‘motherfucker’, but the version we all grew up on was: ‘Never mind. It’s good to die for our country.’ The second heroic defeat was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and other similar rebellions against the Nazis. The third was the boarding of the Exodus in 1947 by the British navy to prevent its 4500 passengers, Jewish refugees from Europe, from landing in Palestine.

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