Zionism and the Cult of Death
by Richard Silverstein
26 Feb 2005


Yes, this is a provocative and even polemical title and it certainly runs counter to the notion that the purpose of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel was to save Jewish lives and ensure the survival of the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Holocaust. But Baruch Kimmerling’s Nation Magazine article, Israel’s Culture of Martyrdom, presents a profoundly illuminating thesis which argues that martyrdom plays a critical role in the Zionist credo. His first paragraph gives you a good sense of his argument:

Nations like to imagine themselves as unique, but one belief they have in common is that it is noble to die in their name. Death and redemption are the themes of almost every form of patriotism. In the case of Israel, however, the connection between nationalism and death is especially visceral. For the Jewish state is a nation that emerged from the ashes of a project of extermination, and that sees itself as the best defense against the renewal of violent persecution. Zionism, the state’s ruling ideology, is a triumphal creed shadowed by death. 

One must add that Israel is not alone in observing this “visceral” connection between nationalism and death. One must look no farther than Serbia and the nationalist fantasy inculcated by Slobodan Milosevic into his countrymen which helped feed Serbian genocide against the Kosovars. For Serbians, the defeat and martyrdom of their hero, Prince Lazar in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo to stop the Ottoman advance into Europe marks a pivotal moment in Serbian history. To this day, Lazar’s martyrdom is worshipped and exalted by all Serbians, but especially by ultra-nationalists like Milosevic and his ilk.

One might well argue that the martyrdom ethos has had an equally corrosive effect in Jewish and Zionist tradition. In fact, Kimmerling quotes historian Idit Zertal as saying (in terms of Jewish history): “ancient graves produce fresh graves.” There are so many examples: Masada, the Bar Kochba rebellion, the Holocaust. And then there are the series of martyrdoms that helped produce modern day Israel–the very first one being Trumpeldor’s death at Tel Hai (very similar to Prince Lazar’s death at Kosovo Polje) during which battle he is reported to have said: “”It is good to die for our country” (reminding me of Nathan Hale’s “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”). Kimmerling again paraphrases Zertal on the significance of Trumpeldor’s martyrdom within the context of modern Zionism:

[His death] marked the beginning of a cult of death among Israeli Jews. The “new Jewish man,” in this ideology, was ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, to die defending his land and people, in stark contrast with Diaspora Jews, who would later be depicted as weaker souls who went “like lambs to the slaughter” in the Holocaust. The voices arguing that it is better to live for one’s country than to die for it were accordingly stifled and silenced. It is deeply ironic that the very same society now claims to be shocked by the “martyrdom culture” in the occupied territories. 

There are a number of arguments advanced by unquestioning supporters of Israel which seek to disparage Palestinian claims to humanity and nationhood. These arguments invariably drive me to drink because they are repeated and rehashed ad nauseum as if by repeating them often enough they will somehow magically be proven true. One of these is the argument Kimmerling alludes to–that Palestinians do not value life, either those of Israelis or their own. Otherwise, why would they keep sending suicide bombers to blow themselves up? Kimmerling reminds us that often when we are disgusted by a supposed moral “defect” in an enemy we have no farther to look than ourselves to see similar defects reflected in our own behavior.

Kimmerling discusses the enormously complicated role played by the Holocaust in the establishment of the State. While this event permeates the consciousness of all Jews, Zionist leaders like Ben Gurion were not above manipulating world opinion and the survivors themselves in order to advance his own Zionist agenda. Kimmerling reminds us of this chilling statement by Israel’s first prime minister:

“if I knew it was possible to save all children of Germany by their transfer to England and only half of them by transferring them to the Land of Israel, I would choose the latter, because we are faced not only with the accounting of these children but also with the historical accounting of the Jewish people.” 

Here is a perfect example of nationalist ideology standing in the way of life and common sense. Lest you think that Ben Gurion’s comments were mere rhetoric, there are numerous examples in which he prevented rescue of Holocaust survivors because they would be sent to nations other than Israel. In another self-serving gesture, Ben Gurion also suggested granting symbolic citizenship to the six million “in effect, turning them into martyrs for the Jewish state.”

In the buildup to the War of Independence, the Jews of mandatory Palestine desperately needed manpower for the future fights against the Arab nations. They began recruiting from the DP camps. But when voluntary recruitment fared poorly, Zionist leaders persuaded the camp leadership to compel able-bodied men and women to enlist in the Haganah “through a variety of means, among them firing employees from their jobs; evicting tenants from their houses; denying food supplies; arrests and beatings; and the threat of ostracism from the community.” Ben Gurion was not above brutalizing the victims once more if it meant they would help ensure the survival of the Jewish state.

Then there is perhaps the most crucial use to which Ben Gurion put the Holocaust in the first decade or so of the State: the Eichmann affair. When most people think about Israel’s kidnapping, trial and execution of Eichmann, the entire series of events seems eminently reasonable and fair: a notorious Nazi killer gets his just desserts. Yet the issues are much more complicated than they appear on the surface.

Despite his ambivalence about the Holocaust and its victims, “Ben-Gurion sought to turn the Holocaust into the central pillar of Israeli identity and to use it as the main basis upon which to legitimize the Zionist project. The Eichmann case [w]ould be used as a tool to equate Israel’s Arab enemies with the Nazis. The trial helped cast Israel as the representative and savior of world Jewry.” Kimmerling calls the case “a show trial” which at first seems an unduly harsh judgment. But not in the context of Ben Gurion’s Machiavellian manipulation of any and all events for the benefit of the Zionist idea: “The trial was [first and foremost] a grand attempt to shape Jewish and Holocaust history and memory by a single man, Ben-Gurion, and it had far less to do with the task of proving Eichmann’s guilt.”

The Israeli prosecution outlined the events of the Holocaust for the trial’s world audience emphasizing that Jewish resistance consisted solely of Zionists. There was no mention of Bundist, Communists or even Betarniks. For Ben Gurion, they did not exist. Never mentioned by the prosecution were the heroic exploits of Marek Edelman, Bundist leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Edelman rejected the calls for mass suicide on the part of the remaining Jewish fighters and instead escaped through the Warsaw sewers to freedom. Afterward, “he rejected the very idea that one could draw “lessons” from the Holocaust, as well as the notion that Zionism provided the “answer” to the Jewish question.”

Kimmerling notes that the Eichmann trial provided a historical template by which Israelis would see the events of the 1967 War (coming only five years later) as an “‘existential threat’ of Holocaust proportions [instead of] a secular war over disputed land.” This in turn rallied world Jewry around the cause of saving Israel at all cost. Certainly, if Israel’s existence is imperiled, then there can be no questioning of Israel’s policies or motives in its conflict with the Arabs. Yet another corrosive effect of the cult of martyrdom.

Kimmerling places recent events in Israeli politics (the struggle leading up to Gaza withdrawal) within this context by analyzing right-wing Israeli abuse of the Holocaust:

Almost every Israeli politician who has tried to make peace with the Arabs has been likened to Neville Chamberlain, or as a “Nazi” whose secret desire is nothing less than the annihilation of the Jewish people. Any “concession” to the Arabs signals the destruction of Israel, the end of Zionism and the end of the Jewish people. Another symbol often seen at right-wing demonstrations is the yellow Star of David, the single most emotive symbol of Jewish victimization. If Ariel Sharon is Israel’s prime minister today, it is in large part because of this right-wing campaign of vilification against supporters of a negotiated peace with the Palestinian people. Now, it seems, it is his turn to be demonized as his proposed evacuation from the Gaza Strip settlements comes to be labeled as a process aimed at making the Land of Israel judenrein–i.e., cleansed of Jews. 

One of the primary rallying cries for modern Zionism in the wake of the Holocaust has been according to Kimmerling: “Never forget.” But he adds (quoting Zertal) one can “remember too much.” Kimmerling masterfully sums up his argument thus:

The obsessive commemoration of the Holocaust and of Jewish victimhood has blinded much of the Jewish community to Israel’s real position in the world and to the humanity of the Palestinian people. The result makes ever more distant a reasonable political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is the victory of death over life, of the past over the future. To be sure, there are periods in the history of a nation when ultimate sacrifices are necessary. [But] the question in Israel today is whether this heroic period has come to an end or whether the prevailing ideology of the 1948 war will last another hundred years until the entire “Land of Israel” is “liberated.” To choose the former option is to grant priority to the lives of Israel’s citizens, Jewish and Arab. To choose the latter is to remain a community of victims, joined in a mythical communion of Jewish sacrifice in an eternally hostile gentile world. Tragically, most of the organized American Jewish community seems to prefer the mythic option, a course that can only lead to disaster. 

Amen to that.