'Who Are We—Humans, Jews, or Zionists?'

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The other day I mentioned that I'd picked up Tom Segev's The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust. As the subtitle indicates, it's basically a history of how Jews in Palestine (and later Israel) grappled with The Final Solution. But the history begins before that, in the 30s, when Hitler comes to power in Germany. Segev is an excellent historian—One Palestine Complete is top-notch—and really excels at giving you some sense of the nation-builders without lapsing into cheerleading or caricature.

Segev is at his finest discussing The Havaara Agreement—a deal between Zionist and Nazi Germany to allow Jews to emigrate into what was, then, more a nation than a state. The dilemma is familiar to some of us: Should German Jews continue the fight against antisemitism in Europe or should they separate and give up trying to convince people who have long hated them? Segev quotes a columnist  articulating the conflict as follows:

The difference between the Exile and Zion is that the Exile. fighting for his life, wishes to overcome the evil Haman in his country...[The Exile] wants the Jews to remain in Germany despite all the troubles and persecutions and victims...Zion wants to uproot them. It washes its hands of a war with Haman, which in its eyes is but a Sisyphean task, its whole interest being only in legal and illegal immigration, despite all the anguish and sacrifice on the way to Zion.

David Ben-Gurion goes on to say that there is war within the heart of every Jew—to assimilate or to separate. This characterization was rejected by Ben-Gurion's opponents, but the nationalist/integrationist line (for lack of better phrasing) is the essential dynamic in Havaara. Though it's only the 1930s, there are people in the future state of Israel who see the coming darkness. Ben-Gurion reads Mein Kampf and declares that "Hitler's policy put the entire Jewish people in danger." Ze'ev Jabotinsky claims that, "The Third Reich's policy toward the Jews calls for a war of extermination."

Segev makes it clear that you should just as likely regard these wisdom in the context of Zionist interests. In Germany's blatant anti-Semitism, Israel's founders see a boon to their efforts to populate their nascent state. They obviously don't want to see German Jews exterminated. But they do see German bigotry as useful confirmation of what already believed—cold water to awaken one's brethren from the "assimilationist" dream. Thus in Haavara, interests dovetail: The Nazis get rid of their hated Jews. And the Zionist state gets more hands to cultivate the land

Statecraft is never pretty. The responses to Haavara ran the gamut. Jabotinsky objects to dealing with Hitler, even as his Revisionists movement looks kindly upon the Italian fascist. (There was a similar phenomena in America which Ira Katznelson details in Fear Itself.) There are even those who admire Nazism, if it could be stripped of its Jew-hatred. "Were it not for Hitler's anti-Semitism, we would not oppose his ideology" claims Zvi Eliahu Cohen. "Hitler saved Germany." So much of this comes down to the cold, chilling calculus of trying to build a nation. From Ben-Gurion:

If I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half of them by transporting them to Palestine, I would chose the second—because we face not only the reckoning of those children, but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people.

I came to this book to watch how one portion of a larger family dealt with the legacy of great crime committed against them. I haven't gotten that far. But what I am getting is something more than I expected. Segev's Israel is not an idea nor a symbol, but a collection of textured, conflicted human beings.*

*Fixed some of the labeling in this post to avoid historical conflation.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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