If Jews around the world do not want Holocaust history distorted, then perhaps we should examine how we create our own myths — and lay those distorting myths to rest, once and for all. One such myth is particularly egregious, since it deals with Israel and the Holocaust.
A day after the United Nations Holocaust Commemoration on Jan. ‘8, an e-blitz from Barbara Wind, the director of the Holocaust center at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, contained the following statement:
"Amb. Dan Gillerman spoke eloquently, saying that if Israel had existed[,] the Holocaust would have been averted. (This will be the theme of our "One School Remembers" exhibit that will be on view Apr. 6-May 3.)"
The Israeli diplomatic corps has been promulgating this myth for years — a luxury it can afford with ‘0-‘0 hindsight. Shimon Peres made a similar statement when he became the president of Israel a few months ago. These statements fly in the face of reality and don’t help Israeli credibility one iota.
Who can compare the Yishuv with today’s Israel? Eighty years ago, there were approximately 350,000 Jews, many of them refugees from Europe, living in Mandate Palestine, surrounded by millions of hostile Arabs. The Jews bought the land they lived on — until the British stopped them. Many of those Jews, who came in the first wave of pioneers, returned to Europe between the wars because they had nothing to eat. For those who remained, the economy was a disaster, and there were virtually no guns, no army and certainly no planes or tanks to use for self-defense.
There were 17,000,000 Jews in the world when World War II began, most of them in Central and Eastern Europe, and many in Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. In that war, the Nazis and their collaborators (including the Italians under Mussolini) caused the deaths of almost 60,000,000 people, including our own 6,000,000 Jews.
Could little Israel have stopped the Holocaust? Could she have absorbed 17,000,000 refugees or even 6,000,000? Today’s Israel has capacity, reach, and scope that she didn’t have then — and couldn’t imagine having during the days of her birth.
The State of Israel wasn’t even an idea until the late 19th century — so how could its 350,000 Jews have managed to defend itself against the Axis assault on Mandate Palestine? They couldn’t. Even the British empire was at serious risk when confronted with the German war machine, and all of Europe practically collapsed like a house of cards within months of the Nazi onslaught. Poland fell in less than a month; Denmark, France, Belgium, Holland, and other countries far more powerful than Palestine fell even more swiftly.
When Ben-Gurion proposed that the British recruit thousands of Jews in special units in the war against the Nazis, the British rejected the request. Only after the situation deteriorated, and the Germans gained ground, did the British agree to establish the Jewish Brigade — 5,000 troops. And even then, many Zionists refused to fight the Nazis and their collaborators because it meant helping the British.
When France fell in 1940 and the Italians aligned with the Germans, Syria and Lebanon came under the control of Vichy France. The 30,000 Jews in Syria became victims of the same Nazi laws promulgated in Europe. Businesses were Aryanized and Jews were interned in camps. Henri Dentz, the Syrian high commissioner, planned to open concentration camps. Thankfully, in 1941, the British and Free French forces seized control before he could do so. Members of the Palmach — Moshe Dayan (who lost an eye in the campaign), Yitzhak Rabin, and Yigal Allon among them — participated in the Allied invasion against Vichy Syria, thus preventing the deportation of the Syrian Jews. (But success still did not allow Jewish entry to Palestine.)
In 1940, Italian planes were stationed in Rhodes. On July 15, they bombed Haifa. Nine days later, another bombing left 50 dead. In September, the Italians invaded Egypt and also bombed Tel Aviv, leaving more than 100 dead and many wounded, with extensive property damage. The Yishuv was already a German target. As an official Jewish state, "Israel" would have attracted a much larger invasion. (For the record, the Jews of Rhodes were deported in 1944.)
In April 1941, the Germans invaded Libya, causing British fear of an impending invasion of Palestine. By the end of May, German General Erwin Rommel reached the Egyptian border and the mighty British Empire retreated. During that same week, the Balkans, Yugoslavia, and Greece fell to the Germans. Among the POWS were 1,500 British soldiers from the Yishuv. That same month, a Palmach sabotage mission to Vichy Lebanon failed.
On June 10-1′, 1941, the Italians returned and bombed Haifa and Tel Aviv. A year later, Rommel crossed Egypt to El Alamein, 60 miles from Alexandria. People were terrified the British would abandon Palestine, leaving it to the Germans — who had already made their deals with the mufti of Jerusalem to deport the Jews.
When the Germans invaded Russia and headed for the Caucasus, there were fears of an invasion from the north. A state of emergency was declared and plans were made to fortify the Carmel, just in case. Palmach units were sent south toward the border with Egypt and to the sea, to prevent Axis attacks — the equivalent of sending a little Dutch boy to stick his finger in a dyke to stop a flood.
It wasn’t until October 1943, when British Gen. Bernard Montgomery attacked Rommel’s army, that the German threat to Egypt and Palestine ended. That month, the Russian victory at Stalingrad marked the beginning of the fall of Nazi Germany. And that, and only that, stopped the German juggernaut.
So even if there would have been an official state of Israel (which would have been even tinier than it was in 1948, since Trans-Jordan was not an option if the West wanted its oil), how would it have possibly absorbed millions upon millions of impoverished Jews who would have flooded the area? With no infrastructure or space or even enough potable water, who would have been able to care for those millions of displaced Jews?
And when all the established countries of Europe, including Russia, couldn’t stop Germany until it self-destructed, do we really believe tiny Israel could have saved 6 million Jews and prevented the slavery of millions more?
Jeanette Friedman is a freelance journalist and editor who founded Second Generation North Jersey in 1979. She lives in New Milford.