Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Homeland and Holocaust - Notes on Judaism from a Baha'i Perspective

Secularization of western European society did not solve the "Jewish Question"; anti- Semitism continued. The French Jews, who regarded France as the most secular and tolerant society in the world, were profoundly shocked in 1894 when Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was wrongly accused of espionage. Dreyfus was sent to prison on the Devil's Island in the South Atlantic, and when evidence of the guilt of another officer surfaced the army refused to admit its mistake. French society was torn into two parties for over a decade, and one party was openly anti-Semitic in its literature. Anti- Jewish riots broke out in most major French cities. In Algiers—capital of the French colony of Algeria—the entire Jewish quarter was sacked. In the rest of Europe anti-Semitism was encouraged as well, and openly anti-Semitic politicians began to be elected to legislative positions. It became clear that anti-Semitism would not die simply because society had abandoned much of its religious trappings

Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), a Jewish journalist who was allowed to cover the Dreyfus trial, took up his pen and wrote The Jewish State, the book that launched the modern Zionist movement. Herzl worked tirelessly to promote Zionism, dying young as a result. Eastern European Jews embraced it with particular enthusiasm, for persecution there was growing and citizenship in a secular state was not a reasonable expectation. In western Europe Zionist congresses debated the idea of setting up a Jewish homeland in Palestine and began courting contacts with diplomats. When World War One converted Palestine from an Ottoman Turkish province to a British protectorate and British policy came to favor establishment of a "Jewish home" in Palestine, the political conditions for migration to Palestine were set.

Palestine in 1917 had at most a hundred thousand Jews, out of a total population of 600,000. Many were refugees from pogroms in Eastern Europe; some were religious scholars who were totally uninterested in a Jewish state. The British did not allow unlimited immigration and Zionism at first had little momentum, and thus few potential immigrants. All land had to be purchased from the Arabs, who charged as much as the market would bear. As more Jews came to Palestine the price of land spiraled upward. Eastern European Jews who voluntarily migrated to Palestine were often secularist and Marxist; they founded the kibbutzim, which remain among the world's few successful socialist experiments.

By the end of the 1920s the Jewish population of Palestine had risen to a mere 160,000, and anti-Jewish violence promulgated by angry Arabs became a more serious problem. Jews began to organize military units to defend themselves, units that were broken up by the British. In the 1930s, with the rise of Naziism in central Europe, immigration to Palestine rose sharply; in 1935 alone 64,000 Jews arrived. Arab resistance grew and the British began to face the breakdown of the mandate. Arab and Jewish states, increasingly became inevitable.

The deterioration of the safety of Jews throughout most of Europe accelerated the process. In the Russian Empire tens of thousands of Jews were killed in early the 1920s, for they were heavily involved in the Russian Revolution as Marxists. Under Stalin, who was fiercely anti-Semitic, Marxist Jews suffered terribly and the religion was virtually banned. But the spread of Naziism represented far more serious a threat. In some ways systematic anti- Semitism in Germany was surprising, for violence against Jews had ceased a century earlier and Jews were thoroughly integrated into German science, literature, and philosophy. Germany was winning half of the Nobel Prizes being awarded; and a third to a half of the German Nobels were being won by Jews. But the lost of the First World War was a terrible blow to German pride and needed an explanation; blaming the loss on the Jews was persuasive to many. The collapse of the German economy in the early 1930s required a scapegoat and pushed the country to desperation. It elected a demagogue in one of the first national elections it had ever held. Hitler had an obsession against Jews and as a result Naziism bolstered its nationalist theories of racial superiority of the Germans with arguments of Jewish genetic inferiority and conspiracy theories of Jewish dominance of the German economy. Even before Germany began military action it began to crack down on its Jewish population. Two hundred thousand Jews fled Germany for France, Holland, and countries beyond Europe.

Creation of a powerful German military machine and its use to conquer France, Poland, and much of the Balkans and the western Soviet Union brought much of European Jewry under German authority. Nazi-occupied Poland alone had 3.3 million Jews, and Hitler could do anything with them he pleased. Labor camps where Jews and other non-Germans were reduced to slave labor were built, then concentration camps. When the Soviet Union was invaded the Jewish populations of occupied Soviet cities were rounded up and shot in the hundreds of thousands. While some two and a half million Soviet Jews fled the German armies, a million and a half remained behind, and most were killed.

In 1941 the first gas chambers were constructed. Ironically, as the tide clearly turned against Germany, Hitler and his generals put a higher priority on the "Final Solution" to the Jewish problem than on prosecuting the war. Trains carrying Polish, German, and other Jews to death camps were given priority over military trains carrying soldiers and supplies to the front. Ninety percent of Poland's Jews were gassed, shot, or worked to death. At Auschwitz alone over two million human beings were gassed and incinerated. The war saw the cold-blooded killing of six million Jews, almost two thirds of the total in Europe.

The horror produced two results of lasting significance. One was the Nuremberg trials and the creation of international law against genocide. The second was awareness of the need to create a Jewish state. Not only were Jews convinced it was essential, but international sympathy made Jewish migration to Palestine easier. The result was an explosion of the Jewish population of Palestine. When the British sought to prevent Jewish immigration a campaign of terrorism—coordinated by young men like Menachem Begin—forced them to reverse their policy. The Czech government agreed to sell arms to the Jewish agency (the coordinating agency of Jews in Palestine), which began importing weapons via a clandestine airfield. When the British surrendered their mandate in 1948 to independent Jewish and Arab states, Israel was prepared to defend itself against Arab invasion. The Jewish question was replaced by the Arab question, for hundreds of thousands fled the land that became Israel. But the Jews reestablished their own sovereign state, for the first time in over two thousand years.

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