Hiroshima and the World: Tragedies Bestow No Privilege

by Yakov M. Rabkin

Yakov Rabkin
Born in September 1945 in Leningrad, the Soviet Union, Yakov Rabkin is a professor of History at the University of Montreal in Canada. He earned his Ph.D. at the Institute for the History of Science of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow in 1972. After his emigration in 1973, he studied Judaism at religious institutions and in private sessions with rabbis in Montreal, Baltimore, Paris, and Jerusalem. His publications look into relations between science and politics, science and totalitarianism, and science and religion. He is often invited to comment on international issues, including the Middle East conflict, in printed and electronic media. Professor Rabkin’s most recent book is A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism. This book has appeared in several languages.

Tragedies Bestow No Privilege

World War Two introduced mass destruction of cities and their populations. Half of the building in which I grew up had been destroyed by a bomb during the siege of Leningrad. As kids we played in the ruins, which shows that a child can turn anything into a toy. These childhood memories came back later, on a bicycle ride with my own children in Belgium. Vast spaces were covered with hundreds of thousands of tombs of fallen soldiers from France, Germany, Canada, India and many other countries, whose governments had sent them to World War I. “What were they fighting for?” asked my youngest son. “Hard to tell,” was my answer. Indeed, we know in minute detail how that war was fought but not why it began and for what purpose it consumed millions of lives.

Last summer, I took my youngest daughter to Bobruisk, Belarus. It is there that the advancing German army gunned down my father’s grandparents, alongside all the town’s Jews, in 1941. My father had ample reason to demonize the Germans but he never did. Nor, having endured the entire 900 days of the siege in Leningrad, did he glorify war. A Soviet citizen deprived of religious education, he nevertheless remained a carrier of the Jewish tradition. I came to recognize this when I began to study how traditional Judaism relates to war.

Use of Force

Jewish tradition is largely non-violent despite the fact that the Hebrew Bible teems with violent images. Far from glorifying war, Jewish tradition identifies allegiance to God, and not military prowess, as the principal factor in the victories mentioned in the Bible: “It is not by strength that man prevails” (Samuel I 2:9) is the dominant message. Destruction or tragedy are seen not as signs of military weakness but, rather, as divine punishment for transgressions committed by Jews. Though it does not excuse the enemy, this tradition emphasizes introspection rather than revenge, self-improvement rather than finger pointing.

Important identity changes have occurred among European Jews since the 19th century. While some remained traditional, others abandoned religious practice and espoused Zionism, a political movement inspired by European nationalism, which took shape at the turn of the 20th century. Zionism, an overt rebellion against Jewish tradition, sought to produce a brawny, assertive, unsentimental man, rooted in the land and ready to fight for it. This was a drastic departure from traditional Jewish values. Zionism gained support mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, where anti-Jewish violence was then frequent. Most Jewish intellectuals and rabbis at the time flatly rejected Zionism. Some warned that to build such a state for the Jews in Palestine could bring nothing but fresh disaster. However, fewer and fewer Jews were willing to hear their voices, particularly after the Nazi genocide of Jews in Europe. Western powers, either complicit in or indifferent to this genocide, were relieved to see European Jews depart for Palestine, and voted to let Zionists establish a separate state in spite of the opposition of the local population and of all the surrounding states.

Quite a few prominent Jews, such as the philosopher Hannah Arendt, the theologian Martin Buber, the philosopher Ernst Simon, and the physicist Albert Einstein, warned against the danger of exclusive ethnic nationalism espoused by the Zionist movement. This is why, in the wake of the Second World War, they supported the idea of a common state for all inhabitants of Palestine: Arabs and Jews.

Incessant Conflict

However, those who dominated the Zionist movement drew a different lesson: for them the Nazi genocide was a consequence of the Jews’ military weakness. They waged a successful military campaign, which squashed all hope for peace by turning nearly 800,000 Arab inhabitants of Palestine into refugees. The new State of Israel was thus plunged into incessant conflict.

This outcome was predictable. Before the 1948 war was over, Arendt had foreseen the perils of establishing an ethnocracy that would chronically rely on military force:

"And even if the Jews were to win the war, … the 'victorious' Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defence… And all this would be the fate of a nation that--no matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how far it extended its boundaries--would still remain a very small people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbours."

These words have lost none of their poignancy. Israel’s overwhelming might has not brought her peace. Nuclear weapons fail to protect bus passengers from a suicide bomber. They are of little use in policing the occupied Palestinians. They are unlikely to be used against neighbouring Arab states, whose governments have neither the will nor the conventional capacity to threaten Israel. However, Israelis--aware of the opprobrium their country’s behaviour causes all over the Middle East and the Islamic world--continue to feel an existential threat, this time attributed to Iran.

The Iranian Threat

Even though Iranian leaders continue to declare that their country does not seek nuclear weapons, many Israelis fear an Iranian nuclear attack, and some even compare their current predicament with the Holocaust. Dismissing Israel’s nuclear arsenal as “unusable,” they fear Iranian missile strikes against Israel’s population centres and estimate that the casualties may reach the number of victims claimed by the Nazi genocide. Since Iran has not attacked another country for about 300 years, geopolitical arguments cannot make this threat believable. This is why a massive propaganda campaign was launched in 2006 to portray the current Iranian president as a new Hitler. The campaign is conducted by Israel’s right-wing politicians, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman, with the ready help from the Israel lobby, a coalition of Christian and Jewish Zionists in several Western countries.

While Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, its neighbour Pakistan, like Israel, is not, and is possesses a real, not imaginary, nuclear arsenal. Just as Arendt prophesied, there may be no end to existential threats if Israel stays her course and refuses to redress the injustice done to the Palestinians since 1948. Yet, rather than address this fundamental injustice, and thus admit the political character of the conflict, generations of Israeli leaders have blamed the resistance of the Palestinians on their culture and religion.

This reinforces the argument of the clash of civilizations that right-wing governments around the world have embraced. There is little wonder that these governments constitute the backbone of Israel’s unconditional support in the world, an attitude, which, however, is not shared by the citizens of these very countries. Apparently, political manipulation of collective guilt for the Holocaust has outlived its usefulness. Public opinion surveys reveal that people around the world tend to look negatively on countries whose profile is marked by the use or pursuit of military power. This includes Israel and the United States, who habitually use military force, while Japan and Germany are viewed more positively.

The ruins of Hiroshima, just as the ruins in which I played as a child, testify to the fallibility of men, not of Americans, not of Germans, but of all men. Nor does the tragedy make the victims righteous. The violence chronically perpetrated by Israel, which claims to be the legatee of the Holocaust and the collective representative of the Jews, proves this beyond doubt. To help bring peace to the region one should no longer treat Israel as a collective victim of the Nazi genocide and a culmination of Jewish history, but as a country with its own history, interests and values.

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