Gregory Baum: Orthodox Jewish Hesitation About Zionism

Corrupt History II – Gregory Baum on Pre-Independence Zionism

  1. Orthodox Jewish Hesitation About Zionism

by

Howard Adelman

In my analysis of the claim that Christian churches supported the creation of the State of Israel because of “the historical guilt for the contempt they have shown to Jews and Judaism,” I tried to indicate that the Roman Catholic and prominent Protestant theologians a) expressed no such guilt in 1945-1947 and b) were not strong supporters of the creation of the State of Israel. In this blog, I want to go back earlier. Gregory Baum contended in his memoir that, “the distant cause of the seemingly irresolvable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is Hitler’s genocidal anti-Semitism and the Final Solution engineered by him. Before Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, Zionism was a small movement in the worldwide Jewish community.” (p. 151) Was the rise of Hitler and his genocidal ambitions and practices responsible for the emergence of Zionism as the dominant ideology of the Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s?

Though this position includes a sliver of truth, an examination of the various propositions making up this claim reveals a much greater distortion. The claim consists of eight theses which I first offer as quotes and then reconfigure as sub-claims:

  1. “Orthodox Jews had religious hesitations with regard to Zionism: the promised return to Jerusalem, they believed, would be a religious event, an act of God, not the result of a secular movement supported by political power.”
  2. “If there had been no Hitler and no Auschwitz, Zionism would have remained a small movement.”
  3. Further, a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine.”
  4. Those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”
  5. “Because of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the self-understanding of Jews changed: looking upon their historical situation in the Diaspora as precarious, they now supported the aim of the Zionist movement – the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, a safe haven for Jews experiencing persecution in their country.”
  6. “Now Zionism attracted vast numbers of Jews to Palestine.”
  7. “The mass migration, supported by the international Jewish community, led to the creation of the Jewish State.”
  8. That mass migration led, “inevitably to the conflict with the Palestinian population.”

It is one thing to make erroneous claims about Christian support for Israel and its origins. It is a calumny for a non-Jew to rewrite history without empirical support when speaking of the dynamics of the Jewish community. These eight theses, briefly stated, summarize the conceit of liberal universalists critical of Zionism, criticism that goes well beyond any just criticism that the government of Israel has earned. These universalists may be religious or secular, they may claim to offer a “balanced” view, but the foundation of their critique is deeply rooted in their alternative history, history, while sometimes having a thread of truth, is ultimately devoid of substantive empirical support. The eight theses are as follows:

  1. The Orthodox Jewish (OJ) Thesis:

The non-support of Zionism by Orthodox Jews before the Holocaust.

  1. The Hitler/Holocaust (H/H) Thesis:

H/H were jointly responsible for the creation of Israel.

  1. The Few Thesis:

Only a “few thousand” Jews lived in Palestine prior to H/H.

  1. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis:

The local Arab population only opposed Jewish migration when there were large numbers.

  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM):

Only because of H/H, did Zionism become prominent in the diaspora.

  1. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM):

The shift from a minority to a majority position led to large scale migration to Palestine.

  1. The Creation Thesis:

Mass migration led to the creation of the State of Israel.

  1. The Conflict Thesis:

Mass migration led to the conflict with the Arabs.

Quite aside from the distortions of history, there are several contradictions among these claims. For example, there is the claim first that Hitler and the Holocaust (H/H) were responsible for the creation of Israel and, second, mass migration was responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. One might argue that this contradiction is only apparent since if H and H were responsible for mass migration, therefore mass migration was secondarily responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. However, a historical examination quickly reveals that they are disconnected; the distortion in making the connection is revealing. We can examine whether this initially apparent causal contradiction can be overcome by empirical evidence.

If mass migration was responsible for both the creation of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Arabs, if mass migration was a result of H/H, then that mass migration must have taken place after WWII and, therefore, both the creation of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Arabs emerged only after WWII. This provides a key timeline for Gregory’s thesis as a stand in for a great deal of religious and secular anti-Zionism and the key events leading to the creation of the State of Israel. I will get to this point in subsequent blogs, but this blog will focus on the first thesis.

The OJ thesis contends that among Orthodox Jews there was little support before the Holocaust. In our contemporary period, only a very small group of ultra-Orthodox Jews (Neturei Karta – Guardians of the City, originally, for a very short period, Chevrat HaChayim) maintain that the creation of Israel before the messiah arrives is a sin. The recapture by force of the Land of Israel is a violation of divine will. The members of Neturei Karta number less than 5,000; no more than two-three hundred, led by Rabbi Moshe Hirsch in Israel, partnered with Moshe Ber Beck in Monsey, New York, are active anti-Zionists. (Hirsch served in Arafat’s cabinet as Minister of Jewish Affairs.) What about the period before the Holocaust?

This sect is not rooted in Hasidism. Rather, its adherents follow the practices of the Gaon of Vilna and trace their roots to Lithuania and Hungary. Neturei Karta is a Litvish sect. Their arrival and resettlement in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century preceded the rise of Zionism. Rabbi Kook, a leading Orthodox rabbi, recognized that return to Israel was first promoted by disciples of the Gaon of Vilna. Nevertheless, very early on he endorsed political Zionism as a secular movement leaving it to the land to determine who was deserving of it.

The fundamental moral force hidden in [the Zionist movement] … is its motto, the entire nation. This nationalism proclaims… that it seeks to redeem the entire Jewish people. It does not concern itself with individuals or parties or sectors…. And with this perspective, it reaches out to the land of Israel and the love of Zion with a remarkable bravery and courage.

Most Orthodox rabbis at the time did not follow his lead. In 1937, Rabbi Amram Blau of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem, an activist in Agudat Israel (a political party of Orthodox Jews founded in Poland because of opposition to Zionism), left the latter movement because of its increasing rapprochement with secular Zionism. He was joined by Rabbi Aharon Katzenelbogen from New York. Together, they founded Neturei Karta in 1938. This clearly suggests that well before the Holocaust, only a tiny minority of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism in 1937.

This did not mean that in 1937, Agudat Israel became Zionist. Rather, it moved from the anti-Zionist camp to become non-Zionist. The roots of Orthodox anti-Zionism, as does ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism, go back to the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. In the late nineteenth century, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik was anti-Zionist. So was Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson of the Lubavitcher Hasidim. A number of prominent Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews were not simply hesitant about Zionism; they were strongly opposed to it at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1937, the Central Committee of Agudat Israel claimed an independent Jewish state would endanger Orthodox Jewry. It did not argue, as Neturei Karta did, that the return to Jerusalem had to await the messiah. Instead, it argued in terms of “pollution”; secular Zionism was a threat to Jews defined as a holy people. They offered to support the resurrection of the Jewish state only if its achievement was accompanied by Torah law becoming the foundation of the legal system in the state.

Agudath Israel in the Land of Israel rejects outright any attempt at despoiling the Land of Israel of its sanctity and considers the proposal to establish a secular Jewish state in Palestine as a hazard to the lofty role of the Jewish People as a holy nation. Agudath Israel in the Land of Israel declares that Orthodox Jewry could only agree to a Jewish state in all the Land of Israel if it were possible for the basic constitution of this state to guarantee Torah rule in the overall public and national life.

In the UN debate over partition, Agudat Israel urged the General Assembly to vote against partition. There is thus a thread of truth in the claim that Orthodox Jews, anti-Zionists and non-Zionists, opposed the creation of Israel and Zionism, even after 1937 and even during the UN vote for partition in November of 1947 after the Holocaust. With the creation of Israel, members of Agudat Israel became supporters of the government, but refused to take any seats in the cabinet lest the movement be perceived as pro-Zionist.

This has two implications. It means the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust did not convert this group of Orthodox Jews and the Hasidim to support Zionism. Secondly, if the followers of Hasidism and Agudat Israel constituted a majority of religiously practicing Orthodox Jewry, then Gregory would be correct about the OJ thesis even if incorrect about the H/H thesis. However, Ezra Mendelsohn in his essay, “Jewish Condition in Interwar East Central Europe” in the volume, The Vanishing World of Lithuanian Jews, noted that, “The vast majority of Lithuanian Jews, according to the census of 1923, identified themselves as Jews by nationality.” (81-82, my italics) It was in the 1920s and 1930s that Zionism was transformed into a political force, a force subsequently accelerated with the rise of Hitler. In spite of Agudat Israel and in spite of the anti-Zionist sentiments of Hasidism, the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe, led by the enlightened Orthodox leadership in Lithuania, supported Zionism. Even when Jewish socialists (Bundists) and communists were added to the mixture, supporters of Zionism possibly constituted the largest plurality amongst Jews in Eastern Europe.

In addition to Agudat Israel, most Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews were opposed to Zionism, and were opposed well after the creation of the state of Israel. Since 80% of Haredi Jews perished in the Holocaust, one might argue that this could imply that the majority of ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism. That thesis seems to be reinforced when it is recognized that Ahavath Zion, a pro-Zionist Orthodox party, never made any inroads with the Hasidim. In the nineteen twenties, the party was also opposed by the majority of Orthodox leaders. However, it garnered a significant following among rabbis and the populace in smaller communities. By the time of the accession of Hitler to power in 1933, excluding the ultra-Orthodox, the majority of sentiment among the Orthodox community in Eastern Europe favoured Zionism.

What about the prominence of Zionism among Jews in North Africa and in the Muslim states of the Middle East? The immigration of Jews from Yemen in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and in 1911 preceded large-scale migration of Arab Jews to Palestine, though the majority would only arrive with Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-1950. The first evidence of Zionist activity in North Africa can be traced to Tunisia in 1902; Ahavat Zion was established there in 1913. About the same time, stirrings of Zionist activity began in Morocco. It is true that Zionism never became a majority movement among traditional practicing North African Jews until after WWII, and even then only after the creation of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that in 1933, a majority of North African practicing Jews sympathized with Zionism, in spite of the fact that Zionism was a European ideology and almost all its leaders were of European origin. The shift to identification with, as distinct from sentiment for, Zionism may have begun with the Holocaust, but it only became reified with the creation of the State of Israel based on sentiments already widespread in 1933.

The same pattern was evident in the Middle East. In 1928, young Jews may have joined Maccabi sports organizations, but the Chief rabbi in Baghdad and the Jewish establishment opposed Zionism then. Even though sentiment among the masses began to shift in favour of Zionism, only a few thousand Iraqis migrated to Palestine in the 1930s under the auspices of the Jewish Agency. Many more came on their own. However, there is a record of an official shift even before the Holocaust in 1941-1942 before the Holocaust, though it took the Holocaust for the European leadership in Zionism to pay significant attention to Jews in the Middle East and then only with a condescending eye and “segregationist” policies, but that is another story.

What about Jews in America? Reform Judaism is the largest denomination in North America. They came very late to the table. Initially, Progressive Reform Judaism rejected Zionism as a nationalist ideology at odds with its ethical universalism. When they came around, it was not after the rise of Hitler. It was not after the Holocaust. It was not even immediately after the creation of the State of Israel. It was only after the sixties when the consciousness of the Holocaust became imprinted among Jews. Further, only in the Miami Platform of 1997 was this made official as Reform Judaism celebrated the rebirth of Am Israel, the Jewish people in Israel. But even then, it was conditional upon self-determination being exercised on universal principles of human rights, respect for minorities and preservation of democracy and the rule of law.

I have not even counted the Jews of the Soviet Union. It is not difficult to see that among worldwide Judaism, Zionism was indeed a minority movement among Jews in 1933. But so was Marxism. So was Bundism, secular socialism. So was Reform Judaism itself which was only predominant in North America. There was simply no majoritarian ideology then among Jews.  However, Zionism was not a small movement in the worldwide Jewish community in 1933. There is great deal of difference between not being a majority movement and being a small movement.

Further, Orthodox Jews in Europe opposed to Zionism in 1933 were not just hesitant in their support for Zionism. The establishment part of the Orthodox movement in 1933 was openly opposed. This was true of virtually all Hasidic sects. However, by 1933, among the Orthodox populace in Eastern Europe, a majority sentiment identified with Zionism, with many also supporting competing ideologies at the same time. Even then, although the establishment was still officially opposed, only a very small minority among them based opposition to Zionism on requiring the messiah to return as Gregory claimed.  Gregory was and remains wrong in each of the particulars of this thesis.

Gregory Baum – Israel’s creation depended on Hitler and the Holocaust

Corrupt History II – Gregory Baum on Pre-Independence Zionism

  1. The Hitler/Holocaust Thesis

by

Howard Adelman

Gregory Baum wrote, “If there had been no Hitler and no Auschwitz, Zionism would have remained a small movement.” In yesterday’s blog on Orthodox opposition and support for pre-independence Zionism, I pointed out a number of factors which suggest that, although Hitler, and to a minor extent, the Holocaust itself, had an impact on the creation of Israel, both were relatively minor factors with mixed effects, a position much against the widespread beliefs in both those critical of Zionism and its defenders, though not among most scholars.

One positive, if horrific fact, supporting the thesis is that 80% of the ultra-Orthodox – who strongly opposed secular political Zionism – were killed in the Holocaust. The slaughter of the Hasidim reduced a major source of diaspora opposition to Zionism and may even have increased the percentage of Jews supporting Zionism.  Of course, this is not generally what is meant when writers claim that without Hitler, there would have been no Israel. They really refer to enhancement of the motivations of Jews and guilt created by the Holocaust among bystanders. (“Understanding for Zionism and sympathy for its cause has waned in Western countries as the memory of the Holocaust has receded” – the Herzl Institute.) However, there is only miniscule evidence for this thesis. Nevertheless, the historical facts offer some data to suggest why the thesis could possibly be correct.

Though Ken Livingstone (Mayor of London 2000-2008) claimed that Hitler had supported Zionism, this is false news. However, there is a second argument that might suggest that Hitler enhanced the Zionist cause. On 25 August 1933, Nazi Germany and Zionist German Jews signed the very controversial Haavara (transfer) Agreement. The Anglo-Palestine Bank under the direction of the Jewish Agency had been part of the negotiations. Allowing German Jews to use a portion of their assets for Jewish businesses in Palestine to purchase German goods permitted German Jews, if they resettled in Palestine, to be compensated by those Palestine businesses. In six years between 1933 and 1939, Germany was able by this means to export about US$35,000,000 worth of goods. Jews who went to Palestine were able to recover about $US100 million of their assets. However, while a significant injection, this represented a very small part of the productivity in Palestine between 1933 and 1939. Far more than that was lost as a result of the 1936-1939 Palestinian uprising.

The deal also facilitated the migration of 60,000 Yekkes from Germany to Palestine under what today is known as an immigration investor program. Whatever the support for Zionism in Eastern Europe, among German Jews, there had been very little support in 1933 for Zionism. Their numbers represented about 2% of the German Jewish population and this is a significant source of the belief of Gregory Baum that Zionism was a small movement.

The Haavara Agreement strengthened Zionism on the ground in Palestine. However, it also set a precedent for breaching the anti-Nazi worldwide Jewish boycott imposed on Germany, a boycott instigated by the persecution of Jews with the firing of Jews from the government, the boycott of Jewish businesses, and the quotas imposed on Jewish enrolment in schools and universities. While the agreement led to the rescue of a significant number of Jews, it also created a deep chasm within the Zionist movement, a rift that some would argue seriously weakened it because of this schism. As Edwin Black wrote, “The Transfer Agreement tore the Jewish world apart, turning leader against leader, threatening rebellion and even assassination.” My interpretation is that the damage caused was more significant than the benefits, but it is a claim that is hard to make, for most of the 60,000 Jews might not have otherwise been saved.

Supporters of the H/H thesis also claim that Hitler and the Holocaust greatly increased the sympathy for Zionism. However, the reality was that the general antisemitism prevalent throughout Europe before Hitler even came to power had made Zionism a much stronger movement in Eastern Europe than most of its competitors even though it had an insignificant impact among German Jews. Zionism was NOT a small movement in 1933.

Further, the evidence seems to be clear that in 1933 there was already a movement among Orthodox Jews to support Zionism. This movement initially opposed  the community establishment and prominent rabbis that culminated in 1937 in Agudat Israel, an Orthodox political movement, formally shifting from an anti-Zionist to a non-Zionist position. On the other hand, even after Hitler, even after the Holocaust, Agudat Israel opposed the United Nations motion in November 1947 recommending partition and the creation of a Jewish state. If Hitler and the Holocaust had been so consequential in the creation of the State of Israel, then a major political party representing certainly the leadership in the Orthodox community would have shifted to support the creation of Israel. But they did not. So at least in this area, there is clear evidence that the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust had no major influence on Agudat Israel’s support for Israel.

One argument supporting the claim that without Hitler there would have been no Israel is based on the fact that WWII so weakened the British economy and military capacity after the war that Britain was unable to defeat the Zionist rebellion. On a broader scale, this position really credits Hitler for the dissolution of the British Empire, ignoring the worldwide forces behind the principle of self-determination quite independently of both Hitler and British power.

There is another argument that claims that the Holocaust benefitted Israel. As a result of the Holocaust, Germany paid Israel reparations and those reparations helped Israel to grow economically. But this happened after Israel was created and may indeed have played a role in ensuring the economic viability of the state. But it is not an argument supporting the claim that the Holocaust helped bring Israel into being. It is difficult to understand why the claim is so widely accepted that, “the Holocaust motivated large numbers of immigrants to move to Palestine” thereby creating a critical population mass. I will deal with this latter claim, namely that the Holocaust motivated large numbers of Jews to move to Palestine, in a separate blog on migration.

Further, roughly half the population of Israel came from Arab and other Middle East states. Their move to Palestine started before the Zionist movement developed tracks and mostly continued without formal Zionist help. But the really large movement came after the creation of the State of Israel. If Hitler and the Holocaust were the major sources for this movement, then the effort of Jews from Arab lands and other Middle East countries (Turkey, Iran) would have increased enormously after the war and put enormous pressure on the British attempt to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine. There was no significant pressure from Jews in Arab lands and in Iran and Turkey. The push came after the state was created, suggesting strongly that the creation of the state, for various reasons, stimulated the large migration from these sources. Migration pressure from this source did not result from the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust to influence the creation of Israel. Quite the reverse! The creation of the State of Israel instigated the mass migration.

Even within the major denomination of Jews in the New World, the sympathy for Zionism in Reform Jewry only took off well after WWII, well after the Holocaust. The latter two may have had an influence, but the evidence suggests that the Six Day War was really the turning point. The reason is that, in the build up towards that war, Jews who did not identify with Zionism identified with their fellow Jews under threat of annihilation and even feared that Israel would lose and the Jews would be slaughtered. Thus, solidarity with live Jews under threat acted as a much greater catalyst than the dead Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust, though the Holocaust had begun to haunt world Jewry as well as the rest of the world. But by then, Israel was already nineteen years old.

What about the effects of the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust on the sympathies of non-Jews? Hitler rose to power in the 1930s. Was there any dramatic effort to stop Hitler from persecuting Jews? Were there strong government boycotts? Did countries open their borders to Jews in flight? If the rise of Hitler had such an impact, why was that impact not translated into some significant action then? There were a number of options available to countries which, at the very least, they could have considered.

During the Holocaust, and certainly afterwards, the West was chastised for not bombing the railroads transporting the Jews to the extermination camps. There is now ample evidence that those in positions of power knew about the transports. I happen to believe, based on my reading, that bombing the railroads leading to the camps by the West was not realistic since the fighter escort craft guarding the bombers would not have had enough fuel to get to places like Poland and back to Britain. But when I was reading documents in the British archives providing background for my research on Jewish refugees after WWII, I never read any evidence that there was a serious study of the alternatives available to interfere with the murder machine, quite aside from whether any of the alternatives was realistic.

Most significantly, immediately after the war, when the Anglo-American Committee visited the refugee camps in 1946, the concern was how to get rid of the refugees. Try to find any significant evidence of guilt over the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust influencing the decision to recommend that Britain allow the entry into Palestine of 100,000 Jews. If countries felt guilt about Hitler and the Holocaust, surely they would either have pressured Britain, a country on the economic ropes at the time, to change its policies and/or resettle the refugees. No significant pressure was applied. By 1947, the Jewish refugees collected in European camps totalled about 250,000.

When I read both the minutes of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine as well as the archival files and memoirs of some of the members, I could not find a hint of guilt about Hitler or the Holocaust, let alone some discussion of both. Instead, a very major concern was again the disposition of the refugees, by then increased to 250,000. I would argue that this problem, as well as the difficulties of any other solution, would lead both the Majority Report that recommended partition and the creation of a Jewish state, and the Minority Report recommending a federation, to see Palestine as a repository for the Jewish refugees.

In 1946, when a survey was undertaken of the Jewish refugees about where they wanted to resettle, the majority indicated Palestine. However, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that representatives of the Jewish Agency manipulated both the refugees and the vote to ensure that outcome. In 1946, though Zionism was certainly a significant movement by then, in spite of Hitler, in spite of the Holocaust, a majority of Jewish refugees did not prioritize Palestine as a place to resettle.

However, this changed by the time UNSCOP visited the camps in 1947. The numbers had more than doubled. But genuine support for Zionism in the camps was now almost overwhelming. Why? Neither Hitler nor the Holocaust held positions as intervening causes. The reason was the recognition that Jews still were unwanted by the nations of the world. Without Palestine, the Jews might remain warehoused in camps for years. They did not anticipate that the West would begin to unlock the gates, especially in North America.

In sum, the evidence suggests that both Hitler and the Holocaust were reasons why the pressures among Jewry decreased in Europe because there were far fewer Jews, both to oppose and to support Zionism. Hitler and the Holocaust did not give Zionism a boost, but severely undermined its efforts by slaughtering 95% of the populations from which it drew its main base of support.  There is no significant evidence that either the Holocaust – which in the 1940s was still little discussed outside legal circles – or Hitler enhanced the Zionist movement in any way. The dedication of Zionists to converting more of the Jewish masses to their cause, their efforts in diplomacy with nations from whom they could get potential support, the military preparations on the ground, and, most importantly of all, the effect of the military victory in the War of Independence after the state had been created, had the most profound influence on support for the nascent state both among Jews in the diaspora and among non-Jews.

Why then the myth that Zionism became a significant movement only because of Hitler and the Holocaust. After all, even Nahum Goldmann, once president of the World Jewish Congress, claimed that “without Auschwitz there would be no Israel.” I will try to answer that question by the time I finish reviewing the other six theses that Gregory Baum put forth. In the interim, the preponderance of evidence undermines the thesis that the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust provided Israel with the resources, the population, and the approval of other nations to come into existence and subsequently thrive.