Europeans, Jews and the Holocaust

The story of Jews, Poles and the Holocaust is not simple.

Of course some Poles cooperated with the Nazis in murdering Jews. Some even murdered Jews by themselves, sometimes even after the Germans were gone. On the other hand, the Poles themselves suffered tremendously from Nazi brutality. Certainly, some Poles saved Jews from the Nazis. And some hunted them down or turned them in. In different ways, Poland’s behavior during the war was both better and worse than that of other countries occupied by the Nazis.

The Nazis tried to erase the Jewish people from the world. They also tried to cripple the Polish nation by murdering  everyone of even the smallest intellectual, cultural or political importance. It was a less ambitious crime than what they did to the Jews, but it was bad enough.

It is true that Polish people were highly antisemitic before, during and after the war, and the reaction by some Poles to criticism of the law recently passed by the Polish parliament criminalizing certain kinds of speech about the period shows that Jew-hatred isn’t gone (even though most of the Jews are: Poland has about 8,000 Jews, 0.02% of its population).

The law criminalizes the use of the expression “Polish death camps.” I can see how this is annoying to Poles, but there is hardly a need for a law to enforce the common knowledge that the camps in Poland were built by the Nazis. Unfortunately, it tries to do more. It forbids anyone (with exceptions for scientific research or art) from saying that “the Polish Nation and/or the Polish State” were “responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.”

The law is stupid, and probably impossible to enforce fairly (what counts as “art?”). You can’t legislate history. What happened, happened. It’s important to know what and how so perhaps it will be possible to keep it from happening again.

But while it is ill-advised, the law is important as an expression of nationalist feeling in Poland, like the nationalism that has been growing in other European countries, reflected in the newfound strength of right-of-center parties in many of them, including France, Austria, Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and others.

Probably the single most important reason for the shift toward nationalism in formerly universalist Europe is the wave of immigration by non-Europeans, particularly Muslims. The threat from outsiders, with their unfamiliar and often objectionable cultures is met with a heightened appreciation of one’s own country, people, culture, religion, attitudes, and so on. Depending on your point of view, this is either healthy patriotism or racist xenophobia.

Given the hostility of many of the migrants to European/Western norms, hostility which sometimes takes the form of terrorism, it is entirely understandable that native Europeans want to shut their doors and strengthen the connections between themselves and their nation. Nationalism is a tool for national self-preservation.

Naturally, the Jew in Europe, always an outsider – indeed, the paradigm case of the outsider within a nation not his own – is not included as part of the native group, even if his people had been living there for hundreds of years. So in countries with a tradition of Jew-hatred – that is, most European countries – increased nationalism is often associated with antisemitism. This leads to a paradoxical and decidedly unpleasant situation for Jews in countries like France, where there are a significant number of violently antisemitic Muslim immigrants, and the Jews who are their targets find themselves dependent on the “natives,” who aren’t always sympathetic.

But could Herzl have been right in his belief that the transformation of the Jews into a “normal” people, living in their own state, would eliminate antisemitism?

Today, for the first time in millennia, more of the world’s Jews live in Israel than anyplace else. This concentration will probably become stronger in the future, as persecution drives Jews out of places like Europe and assimilation reduces their numbers in North America. The status of the Jew in the world is therefore changing from that of an (unwanted) outsider trying to preserve his heritage in a foreign culture, to a citizen of a legitimate state, a nation among nations. He may be an expatriate, but he nevertheless has a patria.

This conception is opposed by the enemies of Israel, who believe that the Jewish state is illegitimate, and by those Jews who believe that they can both assimilate to the cultures of their “homes” in the Diaspora and still remain fully Jewish. Often they too are hostile to the Jewish state. But the trend will continue. Like it or not, most Jews in the Diaspora will soon see themselves either as expatriate Israelis or merely “persons of Jewish extraction” with ethnic food preferences.

While Muslim/left-wing anti-Zionism (the “red-green alliance”) is becoming the most common and serious manifestation of Jew-hatred in the world, traditional “right-wing” antisemitism is becoming more and more the province of the mentally disturbed fringe, both in Europe and North America. The nationalist movements in Europe are beginning to see that they have more interests in common with Israel than with her enemies, while the Israeli government is less ready to condemn them when, for example, they venerate historically antisemitic figures as heroes. The Polish government is clearly not interested in having a diplomatic crisis with Israel over the Holocaust speech law, and Israel isn’t pushing it.

The presence of anti-Jewish elements in Polish (and other European) nationalism isn’t a permanent obstacle to relations with Israel. Both sides see it as a bump in the road that can and will be overcome.

Perhaps in the long term, the enemies of Diaspora Jewish culture, antisemitism and assimilation, will reduce the population of “persons of Jewish extraction” outside of Israel to irrelevance, and then national interests alone will determine attitudes toward the Jews and their state.

I can think of worse outcomes.

Update [6 Feb 0620 IST]: Changed the description of the law passed by the Polish Parliament to be more faithful to the original Polish text (h/t JC).

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2 Responses to Europeans, Jews and the Holocaust

  1. Roman Blitt says:

    Very thoughtful essay.
    It is astonishing how frequently you succeed to articulate my own reflections and feelings.
    And all this despite the difference in background and a course of life.
    Thank you

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    Efraim Zuroff who has been dealing with Eastern European reactions to the Holocaust for many years points out that the government of Israel has for years done little or nothing to combat the kind of far worse Holocaust denial practiced by countries whose people cooperated far more actively in the killing of their Jews such as Lithuania, Croatia, Hungary, Ukraine. Nonetheless he applauds the Israeli government for opposing this legislation which is a denial of historical truth.

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