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Note: Although the first edition of Israel and Palestine: A Common Historical Narrative has been published, the document undergoes continuous refinement through ongoing stylistic and scholarly review. Text on this page may be changed from time to time as a result of this process.
Israel and Palestine:
A Common Historical Narrative
©2020, The Israel Palestine Project
All rights reserved
Chapter 9 - Never Again: The Holocaust and the origins of Modern Israel
The National Socialist Party (the “Nazis”) gained power during Germany's period of crisis after World War I. Led by Adolf Hitler, the Nazis used propaganda and charismatic oratory emphasizing nationalism and anti-Semitism to win allegiance and overpower Germany’s Weimer Republic government, taking power in 1933. After restructuring the economy and rearming the military, a totalitarian dictatorship based around the Führer (“leader’) was established. In his book Mein Kampf, the Nazi Manifesto, Hitler presented racist ideas that praised the superiority of the Aryan race and denounced the Jews as the source of evil in the world.
Progressive “legal” persecution of the Jewish population in Germany began immediately after the Nazis assumed power in 1933. The Nuremberg Laws issued in 1935 stripped Jews of citizenship and all remaining civil rights. In introducing the laws, Hitler first used the term “Endlösung” (or “Final Solution”), threatening annihilation of the Jews if the laws didn’t work. The persecutions turned violent in 1938, with organized pogroms across Germany known as Kristallnacht (or “Night of Glass”, a reference to broken glass in the streets) in which Jewish homes and shops were attacked and vandalized, many Jews killed, and over 30,000 temporarily sent to concentration camps as having been “responsible” for the violence. The persecutions of the 1930’s, culminating in Kristallnacht, made it clear to many Jews that they were left with no choice but to leave Germany and surrounding European countries.
The programmed extermination of European Jewry began in earnest with the first organized mass killings of Jews (and other populations) by death squads in 1941. The Final Solution evolved quickly into a complex, sophisticated and extremely efficient system comprised of ghettos, transportation lines, and special trains to take Jews from their homes to concentration camps, where the prisoners were forced to work to exhaustion and then face their deaths in gas chambers. Camps such as Auschwitz, in Poland, were later established solely for the purpose of mass execution. In addition to forced labor and gassing, other deaths were caused by systematic starvation, individual executions, and cruel medical experiments. This sophisticated killing machine accomplished the systematic execution of six million European Jews, over a third of the Jewish world population at the time. Millions of others – gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, the sick and the handicapped – were destroyed as well.
In Palestine, both among Jews and Palestinians, news of what was happening in Europe was hard to obtain. Gradually, news filtered through to the Yishuv of the ghettos, massacres and concentration camps. As most of the Yishuv had emigrated from Europe, many had extended families trapped in Nazi-occupied lands. However, as horrifying as the news was, they were powerless to do anything about it. The political leadership could only look forward, determined to welcome survivors once the war was over and to create a haven of safety for them.
When World War II ended in 1945, the world was shocked and outraged over and the horrific reality of the ghettos, death camps and concentration camps where so many millions – mostly Jews – had suffered and died. In the shadow of Auschwitz and the worldwide sense of responsibility and pangs of conscience that followed, the establishment of a national Jewish homeland was seen as the appropriate and urgent remedy, to ensure that Holocausts would never happen again. It was in this spirit of “Never Again” that the prominent Zionist leaders of the time, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, put forward the idea of the creation of the modern state of Israel.
Palestine was now seen as a potential haven for the Holocaust’s survivors, crowded in refugee camps across Europe. Aided and recruited by Zionist organizers (who recognized the potential of refugees adding to the population of the Yishuv), survivors began to find their way to Palestine on crowded and often decrepit and unstable ships, aiming for freedom however they could get there. However, upon arrival, an ugly reality confronted them: the British decrees, through the MacDonald White Paper, to drastically limit Jewish immigration. The world witnessed the distressing horror of ships crowded with Holocaust survivors sinking and other ships trying to land in Palestine but being turned away by the British. Some refugee ships successfully ran the British blockade and thus arrived in Palestine. Other survivors later made their way into Palestine secretly and illegally.
Many Palestinians said later that the Jewish Holocaust survivors should go back to Europe. However, European anti-Semitism did not end with the Nazis. As one example, the one million Jews who survived the war in Poland experienced a pogrom in the city of Kielce in 1946, one year after the war. It was thus untenable for surviving Jews to return.
Among Palestinians, the genocide of the Holocaust was not widely known, and for many, the reports of the killing of 6 million Jews could not be truly absorbed. One million was a more believable figure. Others regarded it as a real and tragic event, but felt it was used to justify their own displacement and the denial of legitimate Palestinian rights for self-determination. In later years, some Palestinians began to assert that the Holocaust had been used as a total or partial fabrication to gain support for Jews as ultimate victims and to validate their rights over the rights of others. This victim status has been used by Israel, they claim, to justify actions of land confiscation, extension of settlements, and expropriation of water rights in the West Bank.
The Holocaust (known in Hebrew as the Shoah, or “Destruction”) became a rallying point for the creation of the Jewish Homeland, eventually culminating in United Nations Resolution 181, partitioning Mandate Palestine. In later years, Palestinians have come to feel their own tragedy of the Nakba (see Chapters 10 and 11) has been minimized or denied, while the Holocaust has been given overwhelming attention.
Among Jews, the Holocaust left many survivors feeling that Europe could offer them nowhere to live, no place to find real safety and security. Many immigrated to the United States and other countries. For others, the choice was to settle in what would become their new homeland, the future State of Israel. The project of integrating thousands of traumatized Holocaust survivors into a society that prided itself on action and the pioneer spirit of the Sabra was difficult. Many native-born Israelis and those who had made aliyah (Jewish migration to Israel) in previous years shunned the survivors: they symbolized weakness, the "sheep that had gone to slaughter". It has taken the State of Israel many years to come to terms with the Holocaust and there are those who say the task is not yet done.
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