Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust by Shabtai Teveth
Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust
by Shabtai Teveth
Harcourt Brace. 310 pp. $30.00
Three years ago I wrote a harsh review for the weekly Forward of a book called The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust by Tom Segev, an Israeli journalist turned popular historian. Segev’s book was in large part an attack on the leaders of the Jewish settlement (Yishuv) in Palestine during World War II, and especially on David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency Executive, for being either shockingly unconcerned or callously instrumental in their attitude toward the murder of European Jewry.
In my review of the book I dwelt particularly on this thesis, citing as an example of Segev’s dishonest argumentation a passage deliberately fostering the illusion that a March 1942 Hebrew newspaper editorial minimizing the dimensions of the Holocaust had appeared months later than it did. Although I suspected The Seventh Million of containing many more such misleading sleights of hand, I was not well-read enough in the period to spot most of them.
Shabtai Teveth, an Israeli journalist turned serious historian, and a biographer of David Ben-Gurion, is well-read in it—and has confirmed my suspicions. With Tom Segev’s book as his main target, he has mounted a devastating counterattack not just on Segev himself but on the entire phenomenon of what he calls the “Jewish revisionism” of “Jews blaming Jews for not having rescued Europe’s Jews from the Holocaust” and even “for helping the Nazis bring about the Holocaust.” In doing so, he has shown how a disparate coalition of historical revisionists who otherwise have little in common—right-wing critics of Ben-Gurion and his colleagues, left-wing ideologues in Israel and elsewhere, ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists, post-Zionist “new historians”—have joined over the years to cite and repeat each other’s distortions, thereby creating the impression of a formidable body of scholarly literature sustaining their claims when in fact there is none at all.
One of the many examples that Teveth analyzes is that of the so-called “Europa Plan,” as part of which, in the first half of 1943, negotiations were conducted with a high-ranking SS officer named Dieter Wisleceny who had offered to stop the shipment of 2.5 million Jews to the death camps in return for $2-3 million. A go-between in these talks was the ultra-Orthodox Hungarian rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel, who later wrote a book accusing the Zionist leadership of sabotaging the plan. To support his case, Weissmandel cited a letter he claimed to have seen that had been written to Zionist activists in Slovakia by a field worker in Geneva named Nathan Schwalb; in that letter, Schwalb allegedly explained to his colleagues that Zionism, in order to sting the world’s conscience after the war, needed not live Jews but dead ones, and that the sum of money he was enclosing was intended to provide solely for the private escape of the letter’s recipients.
Weissmandel’s accusation was first picked up and widely circulated after the war by his ultra-Orthodox brethren. It was then repeated by the parliamentary opposition in Israel in connection with the Rudolf Kasztner trial in the mid-1950’s, which involved charges of Zionist-Nazi complicity in Hungary; it formed the basis of the anti-Zionist drama Perdition (1986), written by the non-Jewish English playwright Jim Allen; and it is accepted as factual by Segev. Yet as Teveth shows, not only was the SS officer almost certainly a swindler who had no intention, let alone capability, of making good on his promise; and not only did the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine, despite its awareness of this, try hard to come up with the money (a sum equivalent to a far larger amount today, and not easily raisable under wartime conditions when ordinary travel and mail were disrupted), but Schwalb himself worked tirelessly on behalf of the Europa Plan. He never wrote the letter which Weissmandel insisted he had seen.
Or take the notorious “Trucks for Blood” episode in mid-1944, which involved a real (if not necessarily sincere) Nazi offer, apparently originating with Adolf Eichmann and made to a Hungarian Zionist named Joel Brand, to trade a million Hungarian Jews for 10,000 trucks to be supplied to the Germans by the Allies. According to Segev in The Seventh Million, even if
the Jewish Agency was unable, by itself, to deliver 10,000 trucks to the Nazis . . . it would seem that [it] did not do all it could to lead on the Germans behind the backs of the British. . . . [It] was time for a great bluff. The Yishuv leadership could have disobeyed the British orders [not to deal with Eichmann’s representatives] and negotiated secretly with the Nazis . . . but nothing was done.
As Teveth documents, however, from the moment Brand landed in Istanbul in mid-May until his release from British preventive detention in Cairo in October, when there were no longer any Hungarian Jews left to save, the Jewish Agency made frantic efforts to have him sent back to Hungary with an Allied acceptance, real or pretended, of Eichmann’s offer. The British, who were perhaps more afraid of a million Jews with nowhere to go but Palestine than of the use the Germans might make of the trucks, would not even let the Agency’s “foreign minister,” Moshe Sharett, meet with Brand, much less return Brand to Budapest to try to string Eichmann along. Even to bluff one needs some cards; Ben-Gurion had none.
In case after case like this, Teveth demonstrates that, despite assertions to the contrary, the Zionist leadership in Palestine did what it could, and that if it saved pitifully few Jews, this was because there was pitifully little it could do. Without an army, air force, navy, or diplomatic corps; with no means of reliable contact with operatives behind Nazi lines; with hardly any money; with no support from, or leverage on, the world’s governments and little interest on the part of the world’s press; totally dependent for the simplest logistical support on hostile or uncaring British officials in Jerusalem and London; exposed until the battle of El Alamein in late 1942 to Rommel’s threatened conquest of Palestine, which would have sent them to the gas chambers too, the half-million Jews of the Yishuv were reduced to reading of the slaughter in Europe with clenched teeth. Ben-Gurion spoke for his and their anguish when he cried out to the nations of the world in a July 1944 address:
What have you allowed to be perpetrated against a defenseless people while you stood aside and let them bleed to death, never lifting a finger to help? Why do you profane our pain and wrath with empty expressions of sympathy which ring like mockery in [our] ears?
The real question, then, is not whether there was Zionist indifference toward, much less collusion with, the Nazi genocide. It is what can have motivated and sustained such a horrendous self-accusation among its Jewish and Israeli propagators.
In the case of Weissmandel, by all accounts an honest man who nevertheless “remembered” seeing a letter that never existed, Teveth suggests that—besides being influenced by the anti-Zionism of his ultra-Orthodox milieu—he deluded himself in order to cope with a haunting guilt. Having escaped the Nazis himself by slipping off a train on which he left behind his wife and five children, all of whom perished, he was, by the testimony of those who knew him, a tormented being who prayed for an early death. “Perhaps,” writes Teveth,
the ever-present image of the mother and children on the Auschwitz-bound train . . . [bolstered] his belief that, had it not been for the Zionists, his Europa Plan would have paid off and his wife and children would be alive. . . .
Perhaps; we will never know. On a broader scale, however, unacknowledged guilt among both Jews and Gentiles may have played a greater role in generating various kinds of Holocaust revisionism than is generally ascribed to it. It is perhaps little wonder that a Gentile world unwilling to this day to accept responsibility for its passive role in Hitler’s genocide has resorted to a wide range of guilt-avoidance stratagems. Some of these, like gross Holocaust denial, are openly pathological; others project onto the Jews the qualities and identity of their persecutors, as is the case with accusations of Zionist-Nazi collaboration and—a more popular variation on the same theme—the assertion that Israel today treats the Palestinians as the Germans treated the Jews. Even Holocaust museums (like the one in Washington) that stress their host country’s solidarity with those who died, and pride in having helped liberate a saving remnant of them, serve to repress the past at the same time that they commemorate it.
But what do Jews, at least those with a less tortured personal history than Weissmandel’s, have to feel guilty about? What makes a Tom Segev, or a Hannah Arendt, whose Eichmann in Jerusalem was perhaps the first attempt by a major Jewish intellectual to implicate the Jews in the Nazis’ murder of them, turn so viciously on their own people? Very likely we are dealing with examples of what Ruth R. Wisse, in speaking of the Jewish internalization of anti-Semitic attitudes, trenchantly calls the “desire to dissociate oneself from a people under attack by advertising one’s own goodness.” I am not, seem to say the Arendts and the Segevs, like those petty, narrowly nationalistic Jews who are always whining about their misfortunes to justify their exploitation of others; I am a universalist, a member in good standing of the human race; and the proof is that I have slaughtered the holiest Jewish cow of all, the Holocaust, and brought it as a sacrifice with which to expiate myself.
This strikes me as close to the truth. I would only add that, when it comes to the Holocaust, there is something for many Jews to feel guilty about—and if it is human nature to blame those who produce the greatest guilt in us, then blaming Zionism and Ben-Gurion for complicity in the Holocaust is not all that hard to understand. For the Zionists were the one element in the Jewish world that, in the 1920’s and 30’s, told the Jews of Europe to get out while they could. While the Jewish Left was urging Jews to stay and participate in the anti-fascist struggle; and many of the pious were exhorting them to put their trust in God; and the liberals and assimilationists were confident that the Hitlerite aberration would blow over; and all fulminated against being taken in by the self-serving doom-mongering of the Zionists, they alone consistently spoke of emigration as the only solution and had the prescience to realize, as Ben-Gurion declared in January 1935, that “The disaster which has befallen German Jewry is not limited to Germany alone. Hitler’s regime places the entire Jewish people in danger.”
It is true that what interested the Zionists was primarily emigration to Palestine—the only country, they quite rightly believed, where there was any chance of settling large numbers of Jews; true, too, that even there British immigration policy, increasingly selective in the course of the 1930’s, would sooner or later have put a stop to the flow. But not only could the difference between “sooner” and “later” have saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives; it might, by greatly increasing the Jewish population of Palestine, have forced the British to execute the Peel Commission plan for creating a small Jewish state in the late 1930’s. Had such an independent mini-state, strongly supported by Ben-Gurion as a stopgap measure, been established, the dream of rescuing millions might have been realizable.
But for the most part, the Jews of Europe accepted the arguments of the Zionists’ opponents, who were already then accusing Zionism of feeding off, and even cooperating with, the Nazis. One of the Zionist policies most castigated in this respect was the Jewish Agency’s 1933 “transfer agreement” with the Nazi ministry of economics, which—in technical violation of an attempted Jewish boycott of German goods—enabled hundreds of thousands of German Jews to come to Palestine by exchanging Jewish assets forcibly abandoned and confiscated in Germany for German industrial exports.
Such accusations had, indeed, a twisted logic, for if the Nazis’ rise to power both confirmed Zionist predictions and actively encouraged Jews to leave for Palestine, it was but a small step for anti-Zionists to conclude that the Zionists had an interest in the Nazis’ success, and but one step further to surmise that they must be abetting it. And after the war, still refusing to confront their guilt for having rejected and urged others to reject all of Zionism’s pleas and warnings, some Jews took another step and supported the calumny that, since what had made the state of Israel possible was the Holocaust, the Zionists must have had a hand in that, too.
Shabtai Teveth does not, in Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust, speculate about such matters. Much as Jacob Robinson did in the mid-1960’s in his And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight, a convincing point-for-point rebuttal of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Teveth, in the best courtroom manner, contents himself with demolishing one after another of the charges leveled by Segev and others and leaves it to us to wonder why they are still being made. It is perhaps not so great a riddle.