The Holocaust and the Creation of the State of Israel Part III: The Role of the Zionist Lobby

Evyatar Friesel in a very important article for the Shoah Resource Center at Yad Vashem, “The Holocaust: Factor in the Birth of Israel,” wrote the following opening paragraph:

“It is widely believed that the catastrophe of European Jewry during World War II had a decisive influence on the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. According to this thesis, for the Jews the Holocaust triggered a supreme effort toward statehood, based on the understanding that only a Jewish state might again avoid the horrors of the 1940s. For the nations of the world, shocked by the horror of the extermination and burdened by feelings of guilt, the Holocaust convinced them that the Jews were entitled to a state of their own. All these assumptions seem extremely doubtful. They deserve careful re-examination in light of the historical evidence.”

On the other hand, in 2002, Tomer Kleinman had argued that, “The establishment of the State of Israel would have been possible without the Holocaust due to the Zionist movement, however the reparations from the Holocaust given by West Germany gave Israel the resources necessary to survive. In this paper I will argue that the Holocaust played an important role in the founding and long term visibility of the State of Israel in three respects: The Holocaust motivated large numbers of immigrants to move to the new country, providing the necessary population; secondly, the Holocaust enabled Israel to pressure Germany into supplying the economic base necessary to build infrastructure and support those immigrants; and finally, the Holocaust swayed world opinion so that the United Nations approved the State of Israel in 1948.”

I will argue below that it was not primarily the Holocaust but the efforts and manipulations of the Zionists combined with the rejection of the Jewish refugee remnant by the West after the war that motivated large numbers of Jewish refugees left in Europe before 1948 to move to Palestine. There were 100,000 Jewish refugees left from the concentration camps in Europe. Another 150,000 Jews fled other parts of Eastern Europe and ended up in the refugee camps. What was to be done with them?

German reparations may have helped sustain the new state, but given that those reparations did not kick in until 1952, they had nothing to do with the creation of Israel. They may also have had little connection with guilt, but that is a story for another time. What is most important, as I shall argue in the next blog, guilt over the Holocaust had virtually nothing to do with swaying world opinion so that the United Nations supported and approved the creation of the State of Israel in 1947.

Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, claimed that without Auschwitz, there would be no Israel. This is the same Nahum Goldmann who, even before the Holocaust, despaired of the possibility of Israel coming into being because so much of European Jewry was about to be wiped out. In contrast, Michael Wolffsohn (“Eternal Guilt? Forty Years of German-Jewish-Israeli Relations”) argued that the creation of the State of Israel was primarily due to the political, economic, social and military achievements of its founders. I agree with Wolffsohn.

This does not mean that the Holocaust played no role. But it was WWII, not the Holocaust, that weakened the British. Further, guilt over the Holocaust played no role. But that is for the next blog. In this blog it is important to clarify whether the Zionist leadership at the time played on that supposed guilt and believed that guilt played a role. Certainly, much later, particularly after the Six Day War, and perhaps even earlier, after the Eichmann trial, the Holocaust was internalized to become part of the Israeli and Jewish identity. However, previously, the Holocaust had been identified with diaspora helplessness, with the indifference of the international community, with placing severe limits on what the Zionists could accomplish, and reinforced the sense that the Jews had to determine their own destiny.

I want to examine my major concern – whether the Shoah had a decisive influence on the establishment of Israel in 1948. In this blog, I focus on the complementary thesis that it was the Holocaust that ignited the supreme effort to create a Jewish state and prevent the re-occurrence of genocide ever again, at least to the Jews. Further, did the leaders of the Zionist movement use the Holocaust in substantial ways to gain the support of the international community?

The ultimate goal of the Zionist lobby was to create a Jewish state in Palestine. It pursued that goal through gradualism during the fifteen years after the Arab pogrom in 1929 by building up the institutions of state within the Jewish community in Palestine as it sought the transfer of power and authority from Britain, the mandatory power. In reality, the idea of war both with the Arabs and with the British authorities, over time, replaced the idea of gradually obtaining independence from the colonial authorities.

Palestine was not Canada. The relatively moderate voices of Chaim Weizmann and even Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky gradually gave up on trust in Britain to advance the cause of Jewish independence. That shift took place with the Peel Commission Report under the British and its increasingly restrictive measures on immigration. Before then, a Jewish majority in the land could be expected by 1947 or, at worst, 1952. Why not then be patient?

Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 vindicated the Zionist belief that there was no future for Jews in the diaspora. Initially, Nazi policies enhanced the efforts of Zionists to negotiate with the Nazi government to allow immigration in exchange for Jewish assets (ha’avara or transfer) and the use of part of those assets to settle the Jews in Palestine. Criticism of this policy led to the assassination of Dr. Chaim Arlosoroff who had negotiated the transfer agreement.

During WWII with the powerful barriers to immigration, after WWII with the destruction of European Jewry and with the virtual closure by Britain of access to Palestine even by the remnant of Jewish refugee survivors from that war, the Zionist leaders grew more restive. Time was no longer on their side, especially given the record of radical rejectionism by the Palestinian Arab leadership even to the 1939 British White Paper that before the war had imposed such severe restrictions on Jewish migration to Palestine.

Chaim Weizmann had written a letter to the British High Commissioner to Palestine suffused with despair. Not gradualism for the over half million Jews in Palestine, but revolution as Chaim Arlosoroff had adumbrated a decade earlier. The new mantra – by our hands alone – grew. No help could be expected from Britain or the wider western world. Or, at least, no help unlinked to self-interest. In 1941, David Ben-Gurion formulated plans for the rapid immigration of millions of Jews from Europe to Palestine at the end of the war.

Chaim Weizmann in London in a 1942 article, “Palestine’s Role in the Solution to the Jewish Problem,” argued that Jewish migration to Palestine would once and for all solve both Europe’s problem with antisemitism and the need of Palestine for a far larger and more robust Jewish population. The Biltmore Program of May 1942 reflected this shift in perspective, this shift from patience to urgency. Only a few months later, however, the dimensions of that urgency would become much clearer. Nevertheless, even in the Biltmore Program, a central emphasis was placed on control of immigration and an outright rejection of the 1939 British White Paper. The creation of a Jewish commonwealth was urgent. The days of Zionist pussyfooting had ended even before the Holocaust was massively underway. There was no mention of an imminent program of Jewish extermination, only of Nazi persecution.

Chaim Weizmann stood out in expecting about 25% of European Jewry to “die” during the war, but preparations had to be made to ensure the remaining four or so million could get to Palestine as rapidly as possible when the war ended. Among the top Zionist leadership, however, to the best of my knowledge, only Nahum Goldmann contemplated the almost total destruction of European Jewry. While Weizmann’s focus was on shifting allies towards support for large Jewish immigration to Palestine, David Ben-Gurion worked at preparing the ground for their reception in Palestine.

Then the plan for extermination dawned upon and spread throughout the world spawning rage, desperation and largely surrender of any reliance on the goyim to help save Jews – with marked exceptions noted. But they were seen as exceptions. The bystanders did that, just stood by as they would in 1994 in the Rwandan genocide. The Jewish diaspora and the Jewish community in Palestine both came to realize how limited their options and range of actions were.

A feeling of relative helplessness hung over the Jewish community. The desperation projected itself as anger at, rather than trust in, the international community. Determination to do what could be done both to bring the European Jews home to Palestine, however many remained, and to prepare for war and independence after the end of WWII, now propelled the Zionist effort. The leaders no longer wore rose-coloured glasses of any tint. Debates went on over realistic steps, not over goals and means.

Those debates went deep. There was a purported deal with Adolf Eichmann to allow one million Hungarian Jews to leave for Palestine in exchange for trucks and other commodities needed in the German war effort. Lord Moyne, the British Minister Resident in the Middle East, evidently responded to that proposed deal: “What can I do with a million Jews?” At the same time, while there was a debate over whether the offer was genuine and despair over the British response, the Zionist leadership tore itself apart over the issue while the Stern Gang simply went on to assassinate Lord Moyne. In that sense, even debates over practicality tore into the Zionist leadership and weakened and even prevented a united front.

Given the huge loss of life in the Holocaust, the Zionist lobby after the war was more or less largely united on one issue – the best they could now realize was partition. They lacked the numbers to occupy all of Palestine and the strength to combat both Britain and the Arabs. The Holocaust had made it impossible to create a Jewish majority in Palestine. Accepting partition became a necessity even if the Zionist Right refused to surrender it as a goal. Nevertheless, the past brave rhetorical posture remained the prevailing stand.

At the first postwar Zionist Congress in Basel almost two years after the war had ended, partition was still officially rejected as the Zionist program and the delegates bravely, but knowingly unrealistically, still insisted on a Jewish state throughout Palestine even though in their hearts they had largely come to believe that such an objective was impossible. Some supported the goal as a transactional exercise, others as nostalgia and still others as a stubborn resistance to reality.

And the Holocaust not yet widely known by that name? It did not offer a moral platform for any of the Zionist factions. The issue was practical – getting the survivors in the camps that Western countries would not take to Palestine. A survey in 1946 indicated that only a minority, perhaps a significant minority, (25-30%) wanted to move to Palestine. By 1947, with the propaganda efforts of the Zionist leadership, with not a little manipulation of the voting and, even more, efforts to ensure that it was Zionist leaders from the camps who met visiting delegations, the Zionist leadership had transformed support for migration to Palestine in the refugee camps from a minority to an overwhelmingly majority position.

In 1946, Palestine had not been the reservoir of hope for most Jews in the camps in Europe. Earl G. Harrison had written a famous report on Jewish refugees in Europe. Then he told Harry Truman that the belief that “Palestine was the sincere choice of the mass of Jewish survivors” was unsubstantiated. The anti-Zionist Socialist bloc called for return to Poland. Joseph J. Schwartz, a committed Zionist, had accompanied Harrison, but even he was unable to convince him that most Jews in the camps wanted to go to Palestine. However, between 1946 and 1947, the increasing oppression in Europe, the renewal of pogroms in Poland, the resistance of Western states to resettle the Jews, meant that Palestine had become the only viable hope for the vast majority of Jews in the camps.

The strategy was simple. There was no emphasis on the Holocaust. There was no emphasis on guilt. There was only the stress on the fact that Western countries did not want the detritus of WWII and that the only option was migration to Palestine. This was the line Shertok and others took before the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry in 1946 and was voiced even more strongly in representations to UNSCOP in 1947.

Abraham J. Edelheit in a journal article, “The Holocaust and the Rise of Israel: A Reassessment Reassessed” (Jewish Political Studies Review 12:1-2, Spring 2000) argued that the Holocaust and the creation of Israel were not just historical coincidences, the first exemplifying Jewish powerlessness and the second the appropriation by Jews of the tools of power, but that the first acted as “a catalyst that speeded up the national building project” and significantly altered the scale and timetable of Zionist activities so that independence was attainable in a matter of years rather than in decades.” European Jewry turned to mass aliya, an emphasis on Zionist priorities and the transformation of Zionism from one among many options for Jews to the central organizing principle in all surviving communities.

My argument as been that the Holocaust limited the scope of the Zionist project, that the problem of the remnant of Jewish refugees was the catalyst that sped up the quest for independence, not the Holocaust, and that the focus on aliya for the remaining remnant of European Jewry was a product of rejection by the West, not guilt, and of the skills of political and practical organizing of the Zionist leadership who desperately needed more fellow Jews from what they viewed now as a very limited reservoir if they were going to confront both the Arabs and Britain in war.

Nahum Goldmann began his 6.5-hour oration in Montreux, Switzerland in June 1948 on precisely the issue of the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry and the emergence of the State of Israel. Was there a causal relationship between destruction (harban) and birth (tekuma)? Was the Holocaust a necessary cause and the key catalyst without which there would not have been an Israel?

In answering this question, it is clear that I have restricted the reference of the Holocaust to the actual extermination of European Jewry from 1942-45 and not the whole period of Nazi persecution beginning in 1933. The period between 1933 to 1939 did increase the rate of aliya, particularly up until 1935, did shift Zionist goals from gradualism based on British cooperation to self- determination based mostly on Jewish self-help and a more urgent outcome, and was critical in ensuring that Zionism became a central agenda item for Jewish communities around the world. However, these efforts and outcomes were not based on an appeal to the Holocaust or use of the Holocaust as a guilt trip on the rest of the world. They were based on the existence of the DPs in the refugee camps.

But were the DPs not the result of the Holocaust? Yes, but the critical factor was not the program of extermination that turned them into DPs but the impossibility of their return to their homelands from which they fled or the possibilities of their resettlement in the West. The blockage on solutions was far more important than the causes which led to their becoming refugees.  Further, if not for the Holocaust, one might have expected 15% of European Jewry to relocate to Palestine in the period from 1935-45, or almost a million Jews, not the 250,000 Jews left in camps by 1947.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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