Zionism and the Holocaust
One of the elements in the row over Ken Livingstone’s suspension from the Labour Party was the suggestion that he made that “Hitler was supporting Zionism”. The allegation that there is an affinity between Nazism and Zionism has been made before by Anti-Zionists. In the late 1980s there was Jim Allen’s play “Perdition”, which was cancelled after protests.
And there was Mahmoud Abbas’s 1984 book, based on his doctoral thesis, “The Other Side: the Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism”, which skirted very close to Holocaust denial as well as alleging “The Zionist movement led a broad campaign of incitement against the Jews living under Nazi rule to arouse the government's hatred of them, to fuel vengeance against them and to expand the mass extermination.”
The poster child for Livingstone and for others making this line of argument is Lenni Brenner, an American Trotskyist of Jewish origin, who has made something of a career out of this and has written several books on the subject, notably ‘Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, which served as source material for Jim Allen’s play.’.
Jewish commentators and historians, and lots of others, have consistently argued that these claims are wrong and deeply offensive, with one suggesting that Brenner’s claims are an ‘antisemitic hoax’.
So what are we to make of this? If we’re against antisemitism should we also be against this sort of thing? How much of this is legitimate historical enquiry and how much is ‘hoax’? Here are seven things that you should know as you make up your mind.
Much of this is not exactly news. Assertions about collaboration between mainstream Labour Zionists and Nazis were well known and much discussed in Israel and elsewhere during the 1950s and 1960s. They formed the basis of the Kastner trial, a libel action brought by the Israel government against Malchiel Gruenwald; they were used as a stick by the right-wing of the Zionist movement to beat the then-dominant Labour Party, Mapai. I have a copy of ‘Perfidy’, a 1961 book by screenwriter and Irgun supporter Ben Hecht, which covers much of the same ground as ‘Perdition’. Hannah Arendt, in her coverage of the Eichmann trial in 1960 also writes in grinding and painful detail about the relationship between Zionist officials in Hungary and the Nazis. This much, at least, is not a ‘hoax’.
Collaboration between Zionists and Nazis was not limited to Labour Zionists. The ‘revelation’ offered by Lenni Brenner includes some fascinating material about the Zionist right and far-right, particularly in the shape of an offer by Lehi (often known as the ‘Stern Gang’) to collaborate with the Nazis and Italian Fascists in fighting against the British Empire. Again, this is well known to Zionist and Israeli historians. No-one says it isn’t true. Few talk about what happened next, either, which was that Lehi pivoted towards support for Stalinism and ‘Hebrew National Bolshevism’, and that while some former Lehi members ended up (like Yitzhak Shamir) embedded in the mainstream Israeli right, others (like Maxim Ghilan and Nathan Yellin-Mor) ended up in the ‘peace camp’.
The relationship between Zionists, antisemites and fascists has often been complicated. Zionism is a Jewish nationalist movement and as such places the Jewish people at the centre of its moral universe. The suggestion that the most ardent Jewish nationalists thought the same way about Jews as did the most notorious haters of Jews is wrong and silly. But it’s not totally devoid of substance.
- Founder of political Zionism Theodor Herzl met with Tsarist Jew-hating minister Vyacheslav von Plehve in an attempt to find a shared interest in the migration of Jews out of Russia.
Right-wing Zionist Jabotinsky admired Mussolini (and his movement was still collaborating with the Italian Fascist regime in the early 1930s), and right-wing Zionists in Poland admired Pilsudski.
Zionists of all kinds have prided themselves on a tough-minded, ‘ends justify the means’ outlook. Ben Gurion said: “If I knew that it was possible to save all the children of Germany by transporting them to England, and only half by transferring them to the Land of Israel, I would choose the latter, for before us lies not only the numbers of these children but the historical reckoning of the people of Israel.” That’s part of the justification offered in defense of the local collaborations during the Holocaust...though it rather begs the question as to why Kastner felt moved to be a character witness for SS man Kurt Becher after the war had ended.
And Zionism has always been a slightly weird nationalist movement; not only was its base located outside the designated national territory, but unlike other ‘folkish’ nationalist movements it was largely uninterested in the national culture of the nation it sought to lead, preferring to create its own ‘new’ culture from scratch.
Collaboration does not characterise the whole of the Zionist response to Fascism and Nazism. Mainstream Zionism put its trust in the British Empire. Its primary strategy for most of the Mandate period was to build up Jewish settlement in Palestine, within the Empire, until such time as there was a Jewish majority and a sovereign state could be established. The main disagreement with the right of the Zionist movement, the Revisionists, was about this. Not surprisingly most Zionists supported the Allied cause in WW2, and there are lots of examples of Zionist involvement (like the Armée Juive, and the Zionists who participated in the ZOB in the Warsaw Ghetto) in the resistance under Nazi occupation. Zionist sources sometimes imply that Zionists were the mainstay of Jewish resistance fighters, when they weren’t. Anti-Zionists gloss over the involvement of Zionists in fighting Nazis because it doesn’t fit the story they want to tell.
Collaboration was not unique to Zionists. Various ‘anti-imperialists’ sided with the enemies of their imperial occupiers. There was Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, which fought with the Japanese against the British. The IRA tried to get support from Nazi Germany. And of course there’s the Hitler-Stalin pact, and the Mufti of Jerusalem’s efforts to rally Arab and Muslim support for the Nazis. In Europe the Nazis found collaborators among the traditional Jewish community leaders - often from people faced with no good choices, and sometimes under conditions of extreme duress or misinformation. This is well documented by Hannah Arendt too.
Nazis and Zionists did not meet as equals. This is perhaps the most important point. Whatever Zionists - and others - did, they did in extraordinary circumstances, sometimes with limited information and without any understanding of how the story would end. That doesn’t exonerate everything, but it’s part of the context, and often missing from accounts about Zionist-Nazi collaboration that suggest it was driven by ideological congruity between the two parties. The Haavara Agreement, between the Nazi regime and the Zionist Federation of Germany, illustrates this.
The Holocaust doesn’t vindicate Zionism. It’s sometimes suggested that the Holocaust is the absolute clinching argument on the subject of Zionism - that the Holocaust proved that Zionism was right. There is a famous quote from Isaac Deutscher: “If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have saved some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.”
But this is beside the point. Zionism was for the most part premised on the idea that antisemitism was ineradicable - a hereditary, incurable psychic aberration, in the words of early Zionist Leon Pinsker. Nevertheless it didn’t see the Holocaust coming, any more than anyone else did. Nor did it have a plan to rescue the Jews of Europe from the Nazis. Although the Zionist leadership in Palestine fought against and sought to undermine the British Empire’s restrictions on Jewish immigration, they did not have - and could not have had - plans for the immediate mass transfer of millions of Jews to Palestine. Instead they sought to gradually build up a Jewish economical and institutional base within Palestine that could one day form the basis - at some time in the future - for a Jewish sovereign state. Even if such a state existed in 1939 its limited military power would not have been able to protect Jews from Nazi plans.
That’s a quick tour round the historical context of ‘Zionist-Nazi collaboration’. There’s lots more detail in the links, and room for sensible argument and differing interpretations. There is plenty that makes uncomfortable reading for Zionists and their supporters, but nothing that justifies the kinds of extraordinary claims made by Livingstone and others who have supported him.