In August, the Israeli government completed the eviction of eight thousand settlers from the Gaza Strip, which it had occupied since 1967. In a desperate attempt to thwart the government's action, the settlers' crusade adopted an insignia meant to link the pullout with the Holocaust: yellow stars of David and tattooed numbers on the arm. During the actual removal, many of the settlers reenacted scenes they had seen in holocaust films or museums: parents and children raising their hands, crying and shouting on the way to the luxury buses that whisked them off to Israel. Soldiers and police were cursed as Nazis, and senior army officers were likened to Hitler. This was one of the ugliest manipulations of the memory of the Holocaust witnessed in a state that perfected such manipulation as a diplomatic tool in its struggle against the Palestinians and as a forger of a new Jewish identity.
Idith Zertal's excellent book follows the history of the manipulation of the Holocaust from the inception of Israel to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Zertal's book is part of a revisionist scholarly literature in Israel, variously dubbed "post-Zionism," "new history," and "critical sociology," that emerged in the late '80s, all in one way or another part of a critique from within of Zionist conduct in the past and Israeli policies in the present. If some scholars retrenched into patriotism and nationalism after the outbreak
of the second intifada in 2000, others, such as Zertal, continued energetically and courageously to challenge the Zionist narrative and to reconstruct Palestine's and Israel's history from a humanist and pluralist point of view.
The preferred objects of these critiques were the 1948 war and the treatment
of the Mizrachi and Palestinian citizens; the Holocaust has been, for the most part, too sacred for many intellectuals to touch, let alone examine (Tom Segev, Moshe Zuckerman, Ilan Gur-Ze'ev, and Yosef Grodzinsky were among the few who did). Their works, and this book, have shown how crucial research on the Holocaust memory in Israel (and its political manipulation) is for the understanding of the contemporary scene in the land of Palestine. Their works have exposed the manipulation of the Holocaust memory that pervaded all walks of life in Israel and thus provided us with a more complete picture of the way Zionist identity was constructed and how it has affected its future "benefactors" and, more important, its prospective victims.
Originally published in Hebrew, Zertal's book was brought out by a mainstream publisher in Israel despite its bold engagement with the controversial subject of the Zionist and, later, Israeli uses and abuses of the Holocaust memory. This attests both to the author's former position within the local press—she was previously editor of Haaretz's prestigious supplement—and to her determination to stick to her critique even in the "time of the cholera" that engulfed Israel after 2000 (as she has been commended in the editorial description on the Hebrew book's dust jacket).
The book's original title was The Nation and Death, and to my mind that should have been retained in the English version. It raises many associations, such as that of Paulina Salas, the heroine of Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden, who survives a totalitarian regime and years later meets the man who tortured her to the music of Franz Schubert's string quartet (which gives the play its title). Schubert's piece was inspired by a popular song, written by Matthias Claudius, in which the heroine has a dialogue with Death, in its purest form. Paulina faces a more concrete death from the past—that of her tormentor. Both the old song and the modern play expound on the human obsession with, and captivation by, Death (as does Roman Polanski's later film adaptation). Dorfman also presented the dilemma of a personal retribution sought by his heroine against an allegedly more commonsensical—and cynical—collective desire of her society for restitutional justice.
In Zertal's book, ironically, the personal search is for restitution and the national one for retribution. This is very much an essay on a necrophilic nation, obsessed and possessed by death, and particularly the death camps of the Holocaust: unable to comprehend the atrocity and yet quite able to use and abuse its memory for the sake of its political aims.
It is also a fine work of history, retracing the origins of this obsession and its dire consequences. This journey into the past juxtaposes the Jewish state and its political elite against the individuals who survived the inferno and chose to become citizens of Israel (or were forced to do so). Indeed, the institutionalization of the Holocaust memory in Israel and the treatment of the survivors are the two main themes of the book. But a third one emerges halfway through, which in fact deserves a book of its own: the impact of the manipulation and instrumentalization of the Holocaust memory on the attitudes toward, and perceptions of, the Palestinians in Israeli society.
The backbone of the institutionalization of the Holocaust memory in the young Jewish state was the construction of a selective narrative that would adapt the history of the Holocaust to the strategic and ideological demands of Israel. Two themes were important in this respect: first, juxtaposing the new "brave" Jews of Israel with those who went "willingly" to the slaughter in the European extermination camps, and second, nationalizing, or Zionizing, the rebellions, particularly the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as precursors of the resurrection of the Jews as a new nation in their "redeemed" homeland. In the words of Benedict Anderson, who inspired much of the theoretical framework of this book, "The ancestor of the Warsaw uprising is the state of Israel."
When these two themes are taken together, it is clear that the Jews who participated in the uprisings were constructed by the young Jewish state as "proto-Zionists" and not, as Primo Levi and others saw them, as people who wished to choose their own kind of death in the face of massive extermination. In her thick description, Zertal draws many insights from this particular motif in the official instrumentalization of the Holocaust memory. I will mention only two intriguing remarks: one concerning the fusion of Zionist Palestine and the rebellious Jews during the Holocaust, and the other about the Jewish state's struggle against anyone who dared to challenge this retrospective "emplotting."
In the official construction of the collective memory, the uprisings were located
in the narrative of Palestine. Everywhere—in Warsaw and in the north of Galilee—brave Jews stood in the face of their enemies. "The flame of rebellion has been ignited in the ghettos in the name of Eretz Israel," declared Zalman (Rubashov) Shazar, who later became Israel's president. The rebels drew courage from the Jews who had withstood Arab attacks in the 1920s, and the brave Zionists drew courage from
the rebels in Europe. This reductionist approach, explains Zertal, was not just
a cynical construction of a tale; it also served a psychological need to comprehend the Holocaust: "By [the rebels'] acts, the impossible and inconceivable became both possible and conceivable."
Benedict Anderson remarked that it is best to nationalize dead people, since they cannot claim an identity different from the one ascribed. One can imagine how troublesome, then, was Marek Edelman—a leader of the Warsaw uprising, a member at the time of the non-Zionist Bund organization, and after the Holocaust a Polish socialist—who was alive and kicking. It was bad enough that Edelman did not fit the image that the official cultural producers of Israel wished the leaders of the rebellion to have; worse, he actively contested it. He wrote a book on this subject in 1945 that appeared in Hebrew only in 2001. He disliked the way he and his friends were portrayed visually and textually—"None of them had ever looked like this . . . they didn't have rifles, cartridge pouches or maps; besides, they were dark and dirty." Hardly the ideal type of Aryan-like handsome young Jews seen in the Israeli museums of the Holocaust and in the pictures decorating official texts.
Edelman explained that for him the uprising was a humane choice of how to die. But death was not a simple issue for the ruling party in Israel, which was busy shaping the collective will of a society of immigrants and colonizing a population and area that resisted violently against it. The leaders felt a need to hierarchize death: idealize one type and condemn another. Death in rebellion against the Holocaust was commendable, death without resistance was questionable. Death for the sake of the nation was to be the sublime act
of humanity. In more ways than one, the Holocaust drove Zionism, as a national movement, into an excessive and at times pathological obsession with death—more uniquely so than in other nationalist movements because death here meant, ironically, the prevention of yet another Holocaust.
Edelman was dwarfed and ignored in the official Israeli texts and representations of the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt, who, in the wake of the 1962 Adolf Eichmann trial, challenged head-on the Israeli (mis)representation of the Holocaust and its crude manipulation, was even more fiercely rebuked and to a degree demonized. Arendt not only philosophized about the historical narrative but, far more important, contemplated the moral implications of nationalism, Judaism, and evil. She offered an alternative humanist and universalistic view of the Holocaust and Judaism in the contemporary word. Much in Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood is devoted to Arendt's critique and to her opponents in Israel. Zertal seeks in hindsight to consolidate her own deconstruction of the manipulation by relying heavily on the deep epistemological and philosophical layers that Arendt set down almost a half-century ago.
While scholars and historians were recruited to challenge any alternative representation of the Holocaust memory, Holocaust survivors themselves were real victims of this act of official manipulation. This began in earnest in 1947, with the four thousand Jewish immigrants on the ship Exodus—whose "heroic" tale, through Leon Uris's book and the subsequent film, became one of the main media sources
to rally the American public behind the Zionist story. As Zertal has shown previously, the immigrants became pawns in the struggle for the international recognition of a future Jewish state. The wretched survivors demanded, the world was told, to be settled in Palestine, and if not they would rather be sent to the displaced-person camps in Germany. This message was directed specifically at the UN Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP), which in early 1947 took over efforts from Britain to find a solution to the Palestine conflict; that summer the British were in Palestine when the ship arrived. The Exodus affair was meant to prove to unscop that only the Judaization of Palestine was the apt solution to what to do with the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. And the gambit was successful. But once the UN decided in favor of the Jewish community and recommended the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, hardly anyone in the Zionist leadership took interest any longer in the fate of the Exodus refugees, who were shipped back to Germany under horrible conditions.
Perhaps this explains Zertal's second theme, that of the survivors' fate in the new homeland. Most of them did not actively challenge the tale told by the state about them and their fate. Their silence was not out of fear; it was a much deeper response to the horrors they had witnessed, as has already been elucidated by Arendt, Levi, and many others. Arendt highlighted silence as a defense mechanism against an inconceivable horror that overpowered "reality and [broke] down all standards we know." Levi pointed to the link between survival and a "privileged" position in the death camps. This uncomfortable conclusion means, in Levi's words, that "We, the survivors, are not the ‘true witnesses' to the Holocaust."
But beyond the impossible and traumatic existence, possibly out of reach of any description or analysis, those of the survivors who made it to Israel could
not obstruct but rather had to collaborate with the official memory construction and manipulation. Ex post facto, they were Zionists during the Holocaust, whether they liked it or not, and if the survivors did not take an actual role in resistance, they were second-rate Zionists. Worse, unless they belonged to the leadership of the communities (the Judenräte), which were incorporated into the ruling elite of Israel, the survivors were at risk of being judged for their activities in the camps. Some were brought to trial for being ex-Capos (which is perhaps understandable) or for collaborating under coercion—in order to survive—in any of the hideous ways made available by the Nazis to the inmates. This insane persecution of survivors was the result of the wish to bring the Holocaust itself to trial—with very limited success. Only in 1960 did the Israelis succeed in capturing an arch-Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, and in staging a show trial, which was more a didactic move than a search for justice. But most of the architects of the Holocaust were dead, gone, or judged at Nuremberg, and in the absence of other arch-Nazis, alleged collaborators were targeted. Such was the case of Elsa Trank, a Jewish survivor who for a while was a forced supervisor of a bloc in Auschwitz, and as such indeed contributed to the misery of her fellow prisoners. Zertal's assertion that a trial like that of Trank was part of the struggle of Israel to occupy safely the role of the ultimate and exclusive representative of the Jewish Holocaust needs further elaboration and thought. She is, however, absolutely right to bring in great detail Trank's story as a chapter in the history of the relationship between the state and the survivors.
The Zionization of the struggle left out the daily heroic struggle of those who "just" survived. The main stage for conveying this message was Eichmann's trial. The impact of his trial on the institutionalization of Holocaust memory appears in this book very much as it did in Arendt's seminal work. But here Zertal offers an additional angle. She connects the trial to the third theme, the equation of Arabs and Palestinians with the Nazis. Her research exposes how the case against the Palestinians evolved out of that of Haj Amin El-Husseini, who as an exiled leader of the Palestinians foolishly flirted with Hitler and Mussolini in the insidious hope of forming an alliance against Britain and its pro-Zionist policy. Palestinians, however, were not the only target of this attempt, which was orchestrated and directed by Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion during the Eichmann trial and coincided with crucial elections for his party. Also under fire was Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. "The danger of the Egyptian tyrant is like that which afflicted the European Jews," Ben-Gurion said in the Knesset to help prepare the ground for an aggressive war against Egypt in 1956.
The manipulation of the Holocaust memory in this respect served two purposes: The obvious one was the Nazification of the Palestinians, with the ultimate example being Menachem Begin's comparison of Arafat in Beirut to Hitler. One of the many illuminating examples of this Nazification praxis, already provided by historian Peter Novick, is El-Husseini's entry in the pro-Israeli Encyclopedia of the Holocaust—an entry longer than any other personality apart from Hitler! (Himmler and Goering apparently paled in comparison to the crucial role played in the destruction of the European Jews by a pathetic Palestinian leader who served as a broadcaster to the Arab world from Berlin during the war.)
A less obvious objective was the discourse used by the political elite in order to move the public to support any crucial decisions taken in the struggle against the Arab world. From vindicating the brutal killing of Palestinians in 1948 and later in the war against Palestinian infiltrations; through the instigation of public panic on the eve of the 1967 war; to the justification of official intransigent positions on peace after the war; to the present oppressive policies against the Palestinians in the occupied territories, Holocaust memory was the most useful and accessible means of silencing criticism and pursuing a policy
of belligerence. The price, as Zertal shows toward the end of her book, has been high—the fanatical settler movement in the territories Israel occupied beginning in 1967 exploited the Holocaust memory to justify an expansionist, theocratic, and racist version of Zionism that eventually turned against the state itself.
The book is a bit anticlimactic, to my mind, when it links Rabin's assassination and the trajectory described hitherto in its concluding pages. The murder indeed grew out of the fanatic fringes that expanded through Israel's oppressive policies, which were no doubt justified by the Holocaust memory, but the killing of Rabin was the least of their explicit, and the state's implicit, crimes. What they and the army have done to the local population—in the name of the Holocaust memory—is for me the crescendo of Death and the Nation.
In August of this year, those who were evicted from the Gaza Strip and moved into four-star hotels in the Negev complained that the proximity of railway lines to the hotels reminded them of Auschwitz. So now we are in the grotesque stage that probably no longer appeals to most Israelis as sincere or authentic. But we are still left with the chilling remark of Aryeh Caspi—a Haaretz journalist who died recently and prematurely—that, unfortunately for the Palestinians, so long as the state's policy toward them is less than genocidal, anything else is morally justifiable.
The repertoire, short of Nazi extermination, has since then become quite clear, but it is this excellent book that underlines why we should be fearful of worse to come, in the name of the Holocaust, inside Israel and Palestine.
Ilan Pappe is senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Haifa University. He is the author of A History of Modern Palestine (Cambridge, 2004) and The Modern Middle East (Routledge, 2005).