The Complexity of the Jewish Narrative in Our Times
Dr. Michael Berenbaum


At various times during his distinguished career, the late Abba Eban would say, “a withdrawal to the borders of 1967 is a withdrawal to the borders of Auschwitz.” Heads would nod. The audience understood what he meant. This statement has been reiterated time and again by current Israeli Finance Minister and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a similar response from his audience. Yet, at face value the comparison is ludicrous. How does one equate Israel with its dominant air force and armored corps with the absolute and complete powerlessness of the Jews at Auschwitz? The comparison is not possible and yet it still works. Why?


Despite the fact that Israel’s enemies—and even its allies—see it as a regional military superpower and a potential economic powerhouse whose standard of living —prior to Intifada II—matched those of prosperous European countries, the sense of vulnerability that so defined Jewish existence during the Holocaust has not left the Jewish people. Israel does not see itself as others see it, primarily because it experiences itself today, three score years later, through the lens of the Holocaust.


From its inception, Israel conceived itself and described itself as the solution to the conditions that led to the Holocaust. This idea was central to its self-understanding and is the centerpiece of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.


The Jewish people were home now. With the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews were no longer the guests of any host nation; they had come home and that home would welcome all Jews, especially those fleeing persecution. Such a self-consciousness endured deeply enough to rescue Soviet Jewry and to welcome Ethiopian Jews whose ties with the Jewish people had been severed millennia ago. Yet, Israel provided them a home and encouraged their rescue. It was the only time in history that black Africans were transported to freedom.


Israel had learned from the Holocaust that powerlessness invites victimization.


Israel was non-apologetic about seeking power. It understood that an empowered people must have the means to defend itself. For a time, it viewed the powerlessness of the Jewish people during the Holocaust as a shame and sought to define itself in continuity with the heroic resistance fighters who fought bravely and courageously in the ghettos of Warsaw, Vilna and Bialystock and even in the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor and Treblinka. Only a people ready, willing and able to defend itself could survive.


Israel had learned from the Holocaust to despise dependence. Thus, it sought its independence.

Dependent Jews were murdered, betrayed and abandoned. The clear solution was to become independent, fully capable of determining its destiny. In the aftermath of World War I, Jewish leadership fought for Jewish rights by seeking to protect minority rights within majority culture. In the aftermath of the Shoah, Jews sought a more radical solution to their condition: an independent state with an army, a flag and a passport.


Israel assumed that independence and power would transform the Jewish condition and end Jewish vulnerability. Jews would become a normal people. So desperate was Israel to achieve this sense of normalcy that the normalization of relationships became a precondition to the peace treaty with Egypt forged by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David. It was presumed that normalization would also end antisemitism. And many who experienced the sense of pride in being Jewish, the sense of respect that came with Israel’s victory in 1967, thought that indeed they were right.


The narrative of Jewish history was thought to be simple.


From Auschwitz to Jerusalem, from homelessness to our own homeland; from borders that were closed, slammed shut to fleeing Jews, to gates that were open to receive all Jews; from powerlessness to Zahal, the Israel Defense Forces that could defeat armies poised for Israel’s destruction, that could reach even into Uganda and Ethiopia to rescue Jews; from dependence to independence; and from vulnerability to security. David Ben Gurion once said: “I don’t care what the nations—the goyim think—I am concerned with what the Jews do.” Those Jews of a certain generation who lived through the first generation of Israel’s independence were raised on these expectations.

Yet the Jewish narrative is never simple. The Jewish reality is ever more complex.


Israel became independent precisely as the world became interdependent—politically, militarily and economically. Even an empowered Israel—in possession of nuclear weapons—found itself replicating the dependence of Jews in exile. For 72 hours during the Yom Kippur War, the fate of Israel was reliant on the good will of an American president who was antisemitic, on an American secretary of defense who had converted from Judaism to Lutheranism, and on an American secretary of state who described himself as being “of Jewish origin.” President Richard Nixon, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had to decide on the re-supply of arms, which had run dangerously low. Even an empowered Israel was desperately vulnerable.


In the 1970s, with the raising of oil prices and the energy crisis, and again in the new millennium with Intifada II, we have learned—painfully so—that Israel cannot only quench the fires of antisemitism but also fuel those flames.


And in the past several years we have learned that Israel’s power is its weakness and its weakness is its power.


Let me explain. We are used to thinking of Jews—and the world may be comfortable thinking of Jews—as powerless. And in the battle between the powerful and the powerless, people tend to side with, and believe, that justice lies with the powerless.


In reality, Israel is powerful, a regional military superpower. It is now Goliath strange as that may sound. But in history, with the exception of a few miraculous occasions, it is far safer to be Goliath. The powerful giant wins far more often.


The weakness of Israel is its strength.


Again, let me explain. Israel has quite often refused to accept the collateral damage of engaging in aerial warfare and hence it fights—most especially in the spring and summer of 2002—in hand-to-hand combat where the visuals are powerful, the losses on both sides direct and the political aggravation and criticism significant. It also refuses to casually dismiss the losses in its own population—civilian or military—as the cost of doing business in a difficult region where the ability to inflict and withstand bloodshed is essential to survival. So at moments Israel is weak precisely because of its strength of values.


Nothing angers Israel more than the comparison between Israeli behavior and the Nazis. The Jews were victims of systematic state-sponsored slaughter conducted relentlessly from 1941 to 1945 as the priority of a totalitarian state. To compare Israel to Nazi Germany is to reveal that one understands nothing of the Holocaust. It is a manifestation of deliberate ignorance at best.


All this is not to defend a continued Israeli military presence in the West Bank—which I have opposed since 1967 and which I continue to oppose for demographic reasons directly related to Israel’s self-interest. We cannot have a democratic and Jewish state if the Jews are a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Jews do not have to rule over a people who do not welcome our rule. Such statements should in no way be seen as condoning reprehensible Palestinian behavior or political judgments.


One final word about power which contributes to the painful paradox of our times:


In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the oil boycott of the ’70s, many feared that power in the last quarter of the 20th century would be in the control of natural resources. In fact, it turned out that power was in the management of information and the education of the population. And in this Israel and the Jewish people are superpowers.


From the Shoah, we learned that powerlessness invites victimization. It was thought that an empowered Jewish people, with an army and a state and the willingness to employ its power on behalf of Jews, could guarantee Jewish survival.


Today we know that power merely transforms the capacity to struggle for survival; it offers no guarantees.


A new generation, reared in these most complex of times, will have to confront with new eyes the twin revolutions of modern Jewish history—the Holocaust and the rise of the State of Israel. They will be empowered by the base of knowledge that scholars have developed over the past generation. The reality we—and they—confront is not easy. The history we inherit is complex. The task of making sense of that history is all-important, ever more urgent.


Dr. Berenbaum is the Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust. He is the author and editor of 13 books, scores of scholarly articles and hundreds of journalistic pieces on the Shoah. This fall he will publish two books, A Promise to Remember: The Holocaust in the Words and Voices of Its Survivors and Matrydom: The Psychology, Politics and Theology of An Idea.