Do you remember Tom Lehrer, the composer/comedian/mathematician? I have long loved his music, which I discovered as a young boy when exploring my parent’s record collection.
A recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz set spinning in my head one of Lehrer’s LPs this Christmas and to the embarrassment of my children I broke into song, serenading them with the refrain from Lehrer’s satiric gem National Brotherhood Week (1965).
Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.
My fertile mind however, added an additional line — “And Haaretz does too!”
Hates the Jews that is.
How else can one explain this article, “The Myth of the Warsaw Ghetto” published last week in the leftist Israeli daily? Writing on the website of Commentary magazine, Eugene Kontorovich summarized the article’s thesis, stating that Haaretz believed that if:
the fighters had not been so uppity, if they had not made a fuss–then the Nazis, who had already murdered 500,000 Jews of Warsaw, might have let the remaining 50,000 live. Maybe! It is not a new argument. Rather, the author amazingly resurrects and endorses the arguments of the Judernat, the Jewish collaboration government of the Ghetto. With every new deportation, they urged restrain with increasing urgency–maybe they will let the rest of us live, and if you fight, all the past deportations would be a sacrifice in vain.
Haaretz’ story discusses the controversy over the number of Jews who fought and the number of Nazis killed, and also offers its view of the political and national symbolism of the Warsaw uprising for modern-day Israel. The article concludes:
The 50,000 or so Jews who remained in the Warsaw Ghetto after the transports of 1942 had survived, as in other ghettos in occupied Poland, largely because they worked in factories for Germany. Many of these factories were owned and managed by Germans, who negotiated with the German authorities and the SS to hold on to their workers.
In light of all this, the Jews’ belief grew that somehow they could survive. They had two bad options: Flee the ghetto to the hostile Polish side or continue working in the German factories. Both options meant living day to day in the hope the war would end quickly.
At the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews survived in Poland and Germany. In Warsaw alone the number of survivors is estimated at about 25,000. Death in battle, as the ghetto fighters planned, did not keep with the intentions of the vast majority of Jews remaining. … Thus the question has never been raised: What right did a small group of young people have to decide the fate of the 50,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto?
Commentary was scathing in its response. Haaretz had:
shown that it exists in a world entirely divorced from any Jewish consensus, and cannot claim the title of loyal opposition. It has crossed all prior bounds of decency and published a criticism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, calling it a “myth,” and accusing its heroes of being responsible for the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto. Despite disagreements on diplomatic, territorial, and religious issues, the memory of the Holocaust–its heroes and victims–had been the great unifying porch in post-War Jewish consciousness. Now the Holocaust is fair game too.
There can be no more terrible case of “blaming the victim” than laying any responsibility for the liquidation of the Ghetto at the feet of the fighters. It is true, the Jewish “communal leadership”–and the rabbis–opposed the uprising. That is what made it brave. The Judenrat had no right to decide if residents of the Ghetto died in gas chambers or fighting for their freedom.
Fascinating stuff — but where is the Get Religion hook? It comes in the absence of any mention of religion in the Haaretz story, ascribing all of the symbolism and memory evoked by the Uprising in political and ideological terms. No faith component to this story is offered. And, the Holocaust I would argue was one of the most profound events in terms of its impact of Judaism and Christianity in the modern era.
Commentary‘s statements too are incomplete on this point. Was it true that all Jewish religious leaders supported the Judenrat in opposing the Uprising? This thesis is challenged by a recent article in the Jerusalem Post.
“The last rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto” states that the campaign of extermination by Nazis prompted a rethinking of traditional Jewish responses to persecution.
In a meeting of the Warsaw Jewish leadership in January 1943, Rabbi [Menachem] Ziemba declared that traditional martyrdom in the face of persecution was no longer a viable response. He argued that “sanctification of the Divine Name” must manifest itself in resistance to the enemy. “In the present,” Ziemba told the ghetto leaders, “we are faced by an arch foe, whose unparalleled ruthlessness and total annihilation purposes know no bounds.
Halachah [Jewish law] demands that we fight and resist to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sake of Sanctification of the Divine Name.”
My impression from the Haaretz article of Jewish self-hatred is given a political twist by Commentary.
Ultimately, the article’s target is not really the Holocaust. The author objects to the glorification of the glorified by the Zionist movement in the early years of the state. Perhaps the fighters should have awaited deportation and seen themselves as “sacrifices for peace,” to use the buzzword of the Second Intifada.
No doubt this is why Haaretz has, somewhat oddly for a newspaper, chosen to revisit the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The newspaper has long tried to persuade Jews in Israel that they need no longer fight–they can trust someone to save them. John Kerry is coming to Jerusalem next month with just such a pitch. In order to advance their political agenda, the newspaper does not stop at besmirching one of the proudest pages of our history, nor at aligning themselves with the most shameful, the Judenrat.
The sanctified memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not based on its military significance, its size–or its conformity to the Zionist ethos. Rather, it is the considered, consensus judgment of Jewish history that the fighters were right.
While I would not go so far as Commentary in calling this article “vile”, it is deeply problematic. Here I speak not of the questions of how many Jews fought, how many Nazis died, and how the Uprising shaped the new state of Israel’s psyche — the problems laid out by the Commentary piece. Rather it is the question of historical revisionism and journalism.
Viewing one of the seminal events of the modern era in political/secular terms, ignoring facts and views that challenge a thesis renders the story incomplete.