A Corrupt History of Israel – Beginnings

A Corrupt History of Israel – Beginnings


Howard Adelman

Gregory Baum began chapter 20 of his memoir, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway, with the following: “After the Holocaust, Christian churches were prompted by their historical guilt for the contempt they have shown to Jews and Judaism to support the State of Israel and to refrain from criticizing its treatment of Palestinians. After the Second World War, yet a second historical guilt, their approval of the colonial conquests of the European empires, moved the churches to offer moral support to the anti-colonial struggles of peoples in Asia and Africa, eventually including the Palestinian people. The churches then affirmed their twofold solidarity, with the Jewish State and with the Palestinian people.” (149)

Ignoring the historical conflation of decades of history, immediately after WWII, did the churches express guilt over the Holocaust? Did that lead those churches to support the creation of the State of Israel? Did they refrain from criticizing the treatment of Palestinians then because of this guilt? I can only refer to this last question very tangentially. I will have to ignore the question of whether the churches felt guilty about colonialism at that time.

The theology in the declaration could not have bothered them because the declaration is notably devoid of any theological references. The Torah is significantly not cited to support the declaration of independence. Rather, the following foundational elements are cited:

  • The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people
  • That land shaped their spiritual, religious and political identity
  • On that land, Jews first enjoyed statehood
  • On that land, Jews developed their national cultural values
  • From that land, Jews contributed to world civilization both universal values and, more specifically, the Bible
  • When dispersed, Jews never lost faith in the quest for return over two millennia
  • Further, over those years, Jews not only prayed for return but strove in every generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland
  • More recently, tens of, hundreds of thousands did return and the population of Jews had reached 600,000
  • In that return, they made deserts bloom and created a vibrant community
  • In that return, they revived the Hebrew language

The declaration then went on to detail both its practical and ethical aspirations: financial independence, cultural enrichment, peace, justice, self-defence, progress. Did the churches in general, whether driven by guilt over the Holocaust or not, celebrate the revival of statehood for Jews or even one or more of the accomplishments of the revived Yishuv? Did they express their strong opposition to the plans and moves of the Arab armies to invade the nascent state the very next day? Did they acknowledge the legal right to establish a Jewish state by the United Nations that had taken back Mandatory Palestine from the British, who had served as a trustee? Did they support partition and the creation of an independent Jewish state? More specifically, ignoring some of the hyperbole and exaggerations in the Declaration, was there any reference to guilt over the Holocaust, the European catastrophe in which six million Jews were massacred, as motivating any possible support? In the light of this unprecedented event, did the churches by and large support the natural right of the Jewish people “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state” even if many nations did not then enjoy such a right?

It took the Catholic Church twenty years afterwards to even repudiate antisemitism in Nostra Aetate. But even then, the official Churches and even the major dissidents remained silent concerning the right of Jews to have their own state – a silence that was only confronted just before the Cold War ended. In its 1985 Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church (1985), the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations distinguished between theological and political considerations. Christians, they advised, should understand the deep religious significance of the land of Israel to Jews and Judaism. Though international law was increasingly used to challenge Israel’s occupation of majoritarian Arab areas after 1967, the principles of international law (later cited as the basis for dealing with the occupation) as distinct from religious attachments, were not used to acknowledge the right of creation of a Jewish state. Certainly, the birth of Judaism in Israel many centuries ago conferred no right. Neither did the development of their ancient nation-state, the continuing attachment of Jews to the land when they were dispersed, or the miracles of their return, revival of the Hebrew language and initial economic development suggested as justifications.

The church had its own political interests and it objected to either a Jewish or a Palestinian monopoly over Jerusalem. Winning this point was a trade off by some Catholic countries that was used to push UNSCOP, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, to recommend that Jerusalem remain an international city independent of both an Arab and a Jewish state with rights established for all three religions. Rather than guilt propelling the Catholic Church to support the nascent Jewish state, the Church was intimately involved in the messy business of politics in a flawed and failed effort to retain a strong political foothold in Jerusalem, a political foothold lost many centuries earlier when the Crusaders were defeated after an occupancy of two centuries.

It also took the Protestant churches decades after the state was declared to recognize both the importance of the land of Israel for Jews as well as the principle that Jews were entitled to self-determination. For the first time in 1980, the Rhineland-Synod stated that, “the continuing existence of the Jewish people, its return to the promised land, and the establishment of the state of Israel are a sign of God’s faithfulness to his people.” Theology, not guilt, seemed to provide both the rationale and the motive.

Did those Zionists who issued that Declaration of Independence even appeal to guilt over the Holocaust as a reason to support Israel? Not at all. The Shoah is mentioned to show why it was urgent to take action concerning the 250,000 refugees left as a residue of that catastrophe and the plan to solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates of Israel wide to Jews needing as well as wanting to immigrate. The problem of the homeless refugees that no country then wanted motivated some Churches to support the State of Israel.

By the end of the century, the Evangelical Church in Germany conceded supporting the State of Israel with “just borders,” but the context suggests that even this belated statement was not heart-felt, but was offered to balance the Church’s concern with Palestinian refugees. However, we are here concerned with the late forties and not the post-1967 period so it might be helpful to look, not at official church doctrine and proclamations, but at Protestant dissident theologians who led the movement of reconciliation between Christianity and the Jewish community. To that end, to end this blog, I will summarily examine the views of Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth.

Whatever the many versions, Martin Niemöller became most famous for the following famous poem that he wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

In some versions, incurables and Jehovah Witnesses were included alongside Jews. The general interpretation is that it is incumbent upon us all to defend those whose rights are initially attacked because, eventually, I too will find myself a victim of an oppressive regime. Unwillingness to take risks was not an excuse.

However, there is a more cynical interpretation, not based on Niemöller’s intent but on his behaviour, namely always ensure that the minority group next to you (Jews) is protected because otherwise you will be next. This black humour was suggested by Niemöller’s own history as a dissident in Nazi Germany who spent seven years in a concentration camp under a protective detention order which permitted his access to books and writing material, a period in which he requested release to serve in the German navy.

Niemöller was sent there, not because he defended socialism – he was a supporter of national socialism, voted for Hitler in 1933 and initially enthusiastically supported the Nazis coming to power,– not because he defended trade unionism, because he initially supported the Nazi coup and the destruction of the trade unions for he had always criticized Weimar Germany for its softness on communism, and not even because he opposed the Nazi persecution of the Jews, for he only opposed that persecution when it came to Jews baptised by the Lutheran Church. As he himself wrote in 1933 when he organized the pastors’ emergency federation (Pfarrernotbund), which became the foundation of the Confessional Church that stood in opposition to the official church when in 1934 it endorsed Nazi racist persecution of Jews, the fourth point in the founding charter objected to the Nazi ousting of ministers as ministers when they weere of Jewish lineage (Judenstämmlinge). Antisemitism became objectionable only when it was racial and affected the principle of baptism and conversion. Throughout the thirties, Niemöller continued to insist that Jews were guilty of killing Jesus and, without subjecting themselves to baptism, were deservedly being punished.

When he was released from prison after the war to eventually become president of the Hessen-Nasau Lutheran Church in 1947 and an extremely popular preacher in America, his revised theology was then stated most clearly in the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt (Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis) published months after his release. Did he express any guilt about the Shoah? Did he express any support for Zionism as an expression of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination? No. The collective guilt for which he insisted Germans accept collective responsibility was for the destruction in Europe generally and Germany more specifically. His criticisms of Nazi Germany remained restricted to the objections to interference in Church affairs. He insisted that he, and most Germans, were NOT guilty about the Shoah since he along with most Germans were ignorant of the scale of the atrocities and shocked by the event. Because of that ignorance, Germans had no cause to feel guilty about the Shoah.

Niemöller in his speeches around the United States made no reference to the Shoah, made no reference to any support for the creation of the State of Israel that I could find, but rather highlighted the resistance by the Confessing Church, a minority of Lutherans, to the Nazis. That resistance was based on his insistence on the absolute sovereignty of Christ as the backbone of the Confessing Church to which he had given witness. Non-converted Jews could be murdered, but “the Word of God can’t be bound and can’t be murdered.” His emphasis was on Christian brotherhood and not reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism.

These observations are not new. Eleanor Roosevelt made them at the time. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of The Temple in Cleveland, Ohio did so as well. Silver criticized Niemöller because he had not opposed Nazi racism, only Nazi persecution of the church. Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress at the time, noted that Niemöller never once objected to the Shoah let alone felt any remorse or guilt for what had taken place. And Niemöller was a dissident.

Karl Barth, another founder of the Confessing Church, and acknowledged as one of the most significant pioneers in attempting to reconcile Christian theology with Jewish beliefs, is another matter. In Stephen Hayes book, Prospects for Post-Holocaust Theology (1991) he claimed that, “it is not an exaggeration to say that Barth’s understanding of Israel had had the kind of influence on Protestant theology that Nostra Aetate has had on Catholic thinking about Israel.”

Unlike Niemöller, Barth had always opposed the general antisemitism of the Nazi regime and not only its effects on the autonomy of the church. “He who is a radical enemy of the Jews, were he in every other regard an angel of light, shows himself, as such, to be a radical enemy of Jesus Christ. Anti-Semitism is sin against the Holy Ghost. For anti-Semitism means rejection of the grace of God.” Barth went further. He saw in Israel [note, not the state but the people, Am Israel rather than Eretz Israel] “a new sign of God’s presence in Jewish history.” However, his support for Israel as a people was, for him, a sign of God’s revelation, not out of any guilt for the Shoah. His support for Israel fitted within his pioneering work in reconceiving the relationship between Christianity and Judaism in terms of a “double covenant” and celebration of the Jewishness of Jesus, but this should not detract from the fact that he still believed that Jews had been divinely punished for their rejection of Jesus and he remained critical of rabbinic Judaism.

I need not go into any detail into the theological presumptions behind his views. For Barth, man and God were not involved in a dialectical relationship whereby God as well as humans changed because of the encounter for the preservation of the covenant, Christianity depended on God alone and his embodiment in the person of Jesus as his “eternal mode of being” whereby Jesus takes on the burden of human sinfulness. “It is incontestable that this people as such is the holy people of God: the people with whom God has dealt in His grace and in His wrath; in the midst of whom He has blessed and judged, enlightened and hardened, accepted and rejected; whose cause either way He has made his own, and has not ceased to make His own, and will not cease to make His own.”

This acceptance of Jews as having an independent covenantal relationship with God was extremely enlightened thinking at the time, but in his conception even that relationship remained a matter of grace rather than a legal and ethical contract between two parties. Further, God’s relationship to the Jews was but a precursor and precondition for the realization of God’s historic promise to all humanity. This proposition became a foundation for the subsequent Christian strong support for the State of Israel as a precondition for the Second Coming. But not for Karl Barth himself. In Karl Barth, a respect for differences emerges, but no real understanding of or sympathy for either Torah Judaism or political Judaism in the form of Zionism. This will, in turn, subsequently lead to the position of the World Council of Churches which finds in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but one more case of Jewish obduracy and its continuing rejection of Jesus as divine. Israel remains the disobedient servant of God responsible not only for the oppression of the Palestinians, but for the continuing schism among humans preventing the Second Coming.

The end of WWII and the revelations of the Shoah did not in general produce in Christian churches guilt for its occurrence or a commandment to support the nascent state of Israel, but rather the recognition of the profundity of radical evil which struck Jews more extensively than any other group, but for which Jews were ultimately responsible because, as elected witnesses to God’s revelation, they still rejected the sacrifice of Jesus. Thus, champions of Christian-Jewish dialogue, of Christian acceptance of Jews having an independent relationship with God, such as Rosemary and Herman Reuther, could, in 1989, publish The Wrath of Jonah which sympathized and supported the State of Israel, but detailed the oppression of Palestinians.

In sum, in the aftermath of WWII there was no demonstrable guilt for the Shoah even among the minority of Christians in continental Europe who opposed Hitler, and no support for Israel based on that guilt. Christian Zionists were the exception; they dated back to a period before the emergence of Jewish political Zionism in the late nineteenth century and continued to support Israel as a state up to, during and after the creation of Israel. But both the mainline Catholic and Protestant churches, and even the reforming dissidents, including some within that group who recognized the Shoah as an expression of radical evil (das Nichtige) in our time, did not express any guilt for the Shoah or any support for Israel based on that guilt or even mention the Shoah, though the Shoah would subsequently have an enormous impact on Christian theology, especially in post-Holocaust theology.

But not when the State of Israel was declared.


With the help of Alex Zisman





Howard Adelman

This is the fourth review in my series on biopic movies. I reviewed The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything which I saw last week. Though very different, those films both used the structure of a summer romance almost to a “T”. They were both films about the will of humans to become gods, intellectual gods in the cases of Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking. Women were crucial intermediaries in the film to enable ordinary humans to gain access to heroes who transcend ordinary human endeavours.

Saturday evening I saw Wild. In my blog review of Wild with Reese Witherspoon, I explained that the movie about an indomitable human will as well was, however, structured as a spring comedy rather than a summer romance. The emergence of a hero – in this case, a heroine – who revives from a long night of sinking into hell to emerge triumphant is inspiring. She is resurrected, not as a god, but as a living human being with whom we can identify. This movie had a fatal weakness in not adequately portraying the period in which the heroine succumbed to the powers of darkness.

The movie Unbroken, directed impressively by Angelina Jolie, that we saw last evening belongs to a very different third category adapted also from a book about an indomitable human will. It is an autumn elegy, however, rather than a summer romance or a spring comedy. The film is an arduous tale of descent into darkness, but begins in a gradual process of the hero becoming triumphant. The story presented is of the birth and rise of the hero from youthful “innocence”, spiced up with a degree of high spirited delinquency and insubordination. Instead of being portrayed as the “Terror of Torrance”, the town in California where he grew up, he is pictured as a pre-teen troublesome delinquent of sorts. Louie Zamperini comes across as an Italian Huck Finn, as American as can be, but born to an Italian mother and father living in California. Watching the movie, it is difficult to reconcile what you see with the fact that Louie Zamperini was already fifteen when he took up running. Though we are told by his brother that he was headed for a life of crime, I personally was never convinced about the claim. The film was never structured to make that portrait credible.

However, straying from the “true” story both at the beginning and at the end, except for condensation, is the exception. The story is told with realistic exactitude. To convey how it is done while conforming to a particular aesthetic trope, I have to describe the plot. SPOILER ALERT. If you have not seen the film, cut out now and read only the last line of this review.

Louie Zamperini grows from a young high-spirited boy into a small town hero in spite of the prejudice in the California town against Italians. He does this because he is an extremely fast runner. His career as a runner really takes off when, in his junior year in high school when he competed in the national interscholastic athletic games, he ran the mile in 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds, then a record that stood for almost two decades. Thus began the third phase of his rise to become an Olympic gold medal winner. He was instantly placed on the 1936 Olympic team where he came from behind to win the 5,000 metre XI Olympiad in Munich, Germany, running the last lap in a record time of 56 seconds, a record I believe that has never been surpassed. At the time, Louie was only overshadowed by Jesse Owens, the Black American athlete who captured four gold medals.  But those three phases of the movie only took the first 15-20 minutes of the film.

The descent into hell then begins, first in a B-24 Liberator on which Louie was a bombardier. A B-24 was the same plane that Jimmy Stewart flew in WWII in the European theatre. The portrait of the plane itself with its .50 caliber machine guns sticking out of its tail, both its sides, the nose and the top of the airplane is alone worth the price of admission to the movie. The plane is literally shot to hell by Japanese fighters as it flies through flak alley. It manages to return to base full of bullet, anti-aircraft and shrapnel holes and has to crash land because the plane has lost its braking system. The scenes are all harrowing, but they are only appetizers for what is yet to come.

In what I thought was the same resurrected plane, but evidently was not, the derelict they do fly fails. One engine failed on the left side, but the flight was doomed only when the engineer accidentally killed the other engine on the left side. Because of the chaos and terror inspired by the condition of the flight, I cannot tell you for sure how this incident was portrayed. In any case, the crash was NOT due to any error by Louie, a fact “true to life,” but deficient in terms of an autumn elegy. I would have made a change here rather than at the beginning or end of the film for aesthetic reasons. For narrative purposes, though certainly not for historical verity, it would have been helpful to suggest that the crash might have been the result of the bombardier’s error.

The crew crashes into the sea. There is little emphasis on the long flights the B-24 crews had to fly from Hawaii to bomb Wake Island captured by the Japanese, except by Louis describing the ocean as large. It is an understatement. Further, instead of the normal trope in which the fall is in some part due to a failing of our hero – after all, many if not most planes in the Pacific theatre were lost because of pilot or navigator errors  –  the implicit implication projected is that a superior officer sent the crew aloft in a faulty aircraft, not at all uncommon in WWII. Serving on a B-24 Liberator was considered to be a sentence to flying in a coffin.

Except for three of them, the other crew members all died in the crash. Louie survives even though for a period he was trapped as the planes fuselage sunk by what I believe was a strap, but the sequence was unclear. The scene of his swimming tens of feet upwards to the surface is visually beautiful as well as allowing the viewer as well as Louie to breathe once he reaches the surface. The three survivors locate two rafts and climb aboard, but the search aircraft flying overhead fails to spot them.

In the next period of his trial, now at sea rather than in the heavens, the three survivors of the aircraft lie in their raft in the blistering sun. They drift for days and lack food and water after their initial rations are gone, relieved periodically by a caught fish and some captured rainfall. The bait for catching the fish is an albatross they grabbed that had used their craft as a resting place. They kill and eat the albatross only to end up sick and vomiting over the sides of the raft. They do use the remainder as bait to catch fish. They are then threatened by different kinds of sharks that circle their raft, but they manage to capture one and it provides an important source of food. As they lie burnt and blistered from the sun, at one point, their rafts are shot up by a Japanese fighter plane who strafes the inflated dinghies so they are forced to dive overboard and swim among the sharks. There is even a violent storm at sea. So we progress rapidly from one terrifying scene to the next, one trial to the next, all guaranteed to give the viewer nightmares for nights to come. One of the airmen does not survive, the one who initially stole extra rations for himself. The remaining two Americans give him a burial at sea. Louie is one of the two.

Our hero contrasts with the two others, one who succumbs to temptation and eats the rations and is the first to die, and the second, the pilot of the aircraft, who is injured but survives with the help of our hero. Will the hero survive the forces of nature? We know he will. The only interest is how and the tension produced at each challenge. But far worse is about to come. In retrospect, the ordeal of surviving at sea begins to appear as a picnic compared to the suffering they would endure as prisoners of war. How the actors became so thin with their ribs showing had to be the result of a combination of self-sacrifice for their art on their part and camera tricks. However, in spite of this obvious effort, Louie never appeared bone-thin or skeletal enough for me.

After 47 days at sea, the two survivors are finally found and rescued. But it is by a Japanese naval vessel. The third phase of the fall into hell takes place first in a prisoner-of-war camp for allied soldiers near Tokyo. This is purgatory. However, before they arrive there, they are thrown into pits the size of a dog kennel and apparently only given some mush to eat. It is difficult to know how long they were confined to those small spaces, but if the viewer is at all claustrophobic, they should close their eyes during this scene. The trip to purgatory makes purgatory itself seem in part as a relief.

However, what makes purgatory worse is not the dreadful conditions of their captivity. The camp is certainly totally inhumane, unprotected by the laws of war and unrelieved by Red Cross supervision and parcels and letters from home. The prisoners seem not to be able to wash, take showers or obtain a change of clothes. One has to imagine the stench. However, even worse than these conditions is the commander of the camp, “Bird” as he is dubbed, a real person (Mutsuhiro Watanabe) but merely an exemplification of the different interrogators and guards Louie had to endure.

This camp commander conforms perfectly to the stereotype of a prisoner-of-war Japanese “officer” – in fact, the story makes clear that he was never recognized as an officer commander. He is cruel, sadistic, insecure but determined through the use of force to exact respect. He zeroes in on Louie, especially when he learns that Louie was an Olympic gold medallist. We watch and believe we are now really viewing the living hell Louie had to endure, but the situation becomes even worse. There is an interruption in the suffering as Louie is transferred to Tokyo in the hopes that his Japanese captors could induce him to become a radio propagandist for the Japanese. They fail. Louie as a true hero refuses to trade his filthy camp enslavement for good food and housing in exchange for becoming a Japanese propagandist. This merely sets up the contrasting aftermath of the final descent into real hell itself.

The worst scene in purgatory takes place when the officers in the camp are forced to line up and punch Louie in the face. This was, in fact, a ritual ordered by Bird, but in actuality non-coms were forced to punch allied officers in the face. Though dubbed “a true story” and conforming mostly to the real story, the script writers and director did take some liberties. I applaud the liberty taken here but believe they should have taken more.

The prisoners have to wait for a period until they are moved to even worse conditions as slave labourers for the Japanese. The commander had been transferred first. The prisoners had some hope of relief. However, they are subsequently transferred over the mountains to a place we know not where in a descent into hell where the captives are forced to be mules for carrying coal to load on waiting carriers. Even worse, it is Bird who is in charge. The descent into hell is even deeper than we could imagine and that is without Angelina Jolie choosing to depict the camp overrun with legions of vermin and bugs. I am not sure the viewer could have stomached that.

The third phase of purgatory and the fourth phase of hell take up the bulk of the film. If you think being shot up in a flying fortress is the height of terror, if you think being lost at sea on a life raft for seven weeks surrounded by sharks is a horrific experience, the viewer does not know what purgatory and hell really are until we watch our hero being beaten by a Japanese commander determined to break his spirit. As we watch the demonic ritual of torture and punishment grow worse with the passing of time, even though we believe surely nothing can be worse than this, our fears, our pains, our resentment and our anger grow with these shifts.

The war is clearly almost over. With the announcement of the end, the prisoners are marched to the river and told they could finally bathe. One suspects a trick and that they are being marched towards their slaughter, for rumours abounded that the Japanese would have to kill them all to keep their inhumane treatment a secret and prevent the prosecution of the Japanese officers as war criminals. I myself expected to see the film end with a mushroom cloud where the film shows how the Japanese also suffered from hell. Instead, after the war ends, the prisoners simply march through a bombed out city with unkempt Japanese in a terrible state collecting the dead and searching for food.

The film could have gone on to depict the worst hell of all, Louie’s triumphant return and then descent into the pains of a post traumatic stress disorder. Instead, we viewers presumably had enough. Besides, such a view might spoil the vision of ultimate evil set off against the will and endurance of good and valiant Americans. For me, the ending was a let down just as the reference to the past was in the movie, Wild. If Jolie had been half as brave as she seems in real life or even a quarter as brave as Louie Zamperini seemed to be, a much stronger and more aesthetically honest ending might have turned the film into a classic.

A great film of its genre, but one that falls short in the end!