Did the State of Israel Come About Because of the Holocaust?

Lecturer: Elly Dlin
Lecture 9: Did the State of Israel Come About Because of the Holocaust?


At the end of the Second World War there were at least 8 or 9 million displaced persons (DPs) in Europe.  (Some historians make a higher estimate of 11 million).  Liberated Jews from a variety of camps (labour, transit, concentration and death) and from the forced marches to Germany and Austria made up only a very small part of this total - approximately 200,000 people, certainly no more than a few percent.

Millions of DPs had homes and families to which they were most anxious to return and by the end of the calendar year of 1945 most had been repatriated naturally and at their own initiative.  Some Jews (approximately 140,000 or 70% of the 200,000) also returned to their former home, particularly those who were originally from Western Europe, Hungary, Romania and Greece.  

However about 60,000 Jews mostly from Poland and Lithuania (but some others also) totally refused to consider returning to their former homes. They tended to be young, single people who had been through the worst of the Nazi hell and now had no where to go.  Their refusal came from 3 main reasons:

1. PERSONAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL.  They had witnessed their communities turned into graveyards.  Their families and friends were murdered before their very eyes, their homes were ransacked and then burned but not before their possession were stolen as they looked on helplessly.  What did they have to which to return?  How could they be expected to cope with these painful personal memories?

Antonia Rosenbaum in a videotaped interview done in Hebrew at Beit Hatfutzot, Tel Aviv:

We were in that camp for about 2 weeks.  The Americans took very good care of us and did everything so that we would regain our strength and our health.  We were so busy with ourselves that we didn't think about anything else.  It was as if it was all a dream.

Then one day an American officer came and said: We very much want to continue to help you but we cannot...(Y)ou'll all have to go home.  The moment that he said <home> it was as though everything came crashing in on me.  What is home?  Where is home?  Where do I have a home?  Who will I go home to?  And I started to yell: <But I don't have a home!  I can't go home! I have no home to go to!> 

And he simply said: But we cannot continue to keep you.

2.  POLITICAL, SOCIOLOGICAL.  Antisemitism had not been dealt a death blow but was very much alive and well - perhaps even stronger than ever in post-war Europe.  Jewish communities were now populated by the very neighbours who had cooperated in the deportation of the former owners. The new residents had no intention of returning these things to their former owners, and the collaborators and perpetrators of these horror certainly were not anxious to see the return of Jewish survivors who were potential eye-witnesses to what had happened, possible witnesses who could identify those responsible.  

This was true especially in the territories occupied by the Red Army, where the post-war approach to justice, punishment and questions of war crimes and crimes against humanity tended to be settled on the spot with a small caliber bullet to the back of the head.   The collaborators feared what would happen if the Jews talked, so they acted to remove the threats.

351 Jews were murdered in Poland in the 12 months AFTER liberation; 42 in the most well-known of these massacres, the pogrom in Kielce, Poland, in which a young Polish Catholic boy made up a story that he was held by Jews in order to use his blood in a ritual murder.  Was that a society that attracted Jews to return to it?  Had nothing changed?  Could Jews go back to live in the places that were soaked with the blood of their families, their people?  To raise a wedding canopy on their parents' crushed bones? To see strangers sleeping in their sisters' beds or to look daily into the faces of the ones who murdered their brothers in cold blood? 

3.  NATIONAL, ZIONISTIC.  6 million of the 9 million Jews of Europe were dead.  90-95% of those who had lived in the heartlands of the European Jewish civilizations in Poland and Lithuania were murdered, gone.  The Jewish World That Was could not be revived.  The full, rich, vibrant, creative Jewish life of Eastern Europe was dead, and it was not to be resurrected again on this earth.  The growth of a full Jewish life was no longer possible on European soil saturated with Jewish blood.  Nor was it very desirable to again become an identifiable and persecuted minority surrounded by a hostile majority.  For too long Jews had been objects in history.  For too long <they> decided what <we> could do.  When <they> decided that we could enter <their> countries, we came but when <they> decided to expel us, we had to leave.  When <they> decided to tolerate us, we flourished, and when <they> decided to murder us, we died.  

For many survivors (and many Jews of that generation who lived through the war years) the lesson of the Holocaust was that it was too dangerous for the Jewish people to continue to be homeless and powerless.

Izhak Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, describes what he felt at the moment of liberation:

The (other) people rejoiced and embrace their liberators (but the Jews) stood by crushed and dejected, lone remnants of our people.   That day was the saddest day of my life...The tank crews blowing kisses, the flowers hurled at them, the elation of the crowd, the sense of freedom and liberation, and we (Jews)...standing there amid the crowd, lonely, orphaned, lost, and only too well aware that there was no longer a Jewish people. How could we rejoice?  I was completely shattered!  We had held on through all those hard, bitter years, and now...I could permit myself to be weak...(I)t was not easy to be the last of the Mohicans.  (Martin Gilbert, Holocaust)

These camp survivors were soon joined by about 200,000 more Jews of Eastern European origin.  But they were different Jews; Jews who had fled the Nazis and had spent the war years as refugees in the Soviet Union. They were not strictly speaking survivors of the Holocaust since they had been outside of the areas that had fallen under Nazi control.  They were also very different from the camp survivors in that they retained normal family groups with children and elderly parents.  

This much larger group of Jewish DPs entered Germany (mainly the American zone in the south but some in the British zone in the north), Austria and Italy with the help of the Bricha.  By December 1946 the number of Jewish DPs in Central Europe had grown to 250,000.


This is a very difficult question to answer as it requires a judgment of the <real> motivations of a large and diverse group of people.  On the one hand there is overwhelming prima facie evidence of their attraction to Zionism. 19,193 Jews in the camps were asked where they would like to go now; 18,702 (97.4%) replied Israel.  Some even added that if not there, they would be ready to be sent back to Auschwitz!  On the way to boarding one of the <aliyah bet> ships, a Zionist youth said:

Don't cry, Father.  This train is not going to Auschwitz, but to a place which will prevent Auschwitz from ever happening again.

Given the fact that Zionists were a minority in Jewish communities before the war it is likely that most Holocaust survivors did not start out committed to that ideology. How then can we explain this sudden shift? One explanation is that the basic situation of the DPs pushed them towards Zionism.

The educational director of the Joint Distribution Committee in Germany (a non-Zionist in a non-Zionist organization) explained that

...the events of 1939-45 seemed to discredit completely those philosophies of Jewish life prevailing before the war which were not centered around Palestine.  The Zionists were the only ones that had a program that seemed to make sense after this catastrophe... Without Palestine there seemed to
be no future...Anti-Zionism or even a neutral attitude toward Zionism came to mean...a threat to the most fundamental stakes in their future.

Survivors felt a special responsibility as the last remnant of European Jewry, a community that had paid the ultimate price for being landless, homeless and stateless.  As individuals they had lost their loved ones. As a group they had lost their faith in Europe.  And after the Holocaust, Jews were still unwanted.  No country rushed to amend its restrictive immigration laws to allow them in.

Of course while most DID go to Israel (at least 136,000) as many as 80,000 may have entered the USA.  Many did so for practical or personal reasons, especially to be reunited with family.  And many of those who did NOT go to Israel were the most fervently committed and most ardent Zionists in their Jewish communities. Some Holocaust survivors who initially settled elsewhere eventually came to Israel.  


The Bricha, literally "escape", was both the name of the actual movement of refugees and the name of the loosely structured organization that tried to coordinate it.  The Bricha was begun in Vilna, Kovno and Chernovtsy by survivors, mostly ghetto fighters and partisans, who apparently had acted independently and without initial contact or coordination.  Once begun, they received valuable help from Israeli emissaries and from soldiers in the Jewish Brigade but, unlike some earlier versions of this history, it was neither conceived nor initiated by Jews from Eretz Israel.

The outlook of some of the main leaders of the Bricha (such as partisan Abba Kovner) was that since:

1) the Nazis had treated all Jews alike, the order of the day was to unite above divisions, differences and ideologies;
2) the Holocaust happened once, it can and will happen again since the non-Jews cannot/will not protect the Jews and the Jews are not in a position to defend themselves effectively;
3) the non-Jews have lost the moral right to decide what is best for Jews and it is up to the victims to decide and to act on their best interest, and if that requires that laws be broken, then so be it.


Between 1945 and 1948 some 40,000 Jewish DPs immigrated to North and South America and to Australia.  More probably would have gone had they had the opportunity to do so but their paths were often blocked by regulations carefully designed and scrupulously enforced to keep them out.  Larger numbers of Jews immigrated to those countries only AFTER the State of Israel was established.  With the Jewish DP problem already solved many of the restrictions to entering the Western countries were dropped.

The most significant impact of the Holocaust survivors on political events in the post-war period was in the expansion of the illegal immigration or <aliyah bet> (<aliyah> means going up to the Land of Israel and <bet> is for the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet; the implication is that it was an alternative to the <first> or legal immigration channel).  Of the 530,000 immigrants who came to Israel before 1948, some 130,000 (25%) came by way of <aliyah bet> i.e. outside of the legal parameters.  Nearly 71,000 attempted to come ashore on the 64 ships that were organized by pre-state undergrounds, principally the Mossad le-Aliya and the Palyam (the naval arm of the Palmach, the strike force of the Haganah).  The most famous of these illegal immigration ships was the SS EXODUS.


Politically conscious Jews soon realized that the most effective means of changing the British policies towards Israel was to pressure the Americans, so Jewish DPs flooded the American zone in Germany.  A crucial piece in this struggle was the report by Special U.S. Presidential Envoy Earl G. Harrison who concluded his inquiry into the conditions of Jews in the DP camps in the summer of 1945 with the blunt and critical statement that:

We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them.

Harrison recommended that the British issue, without delay, 100,000 entry permits for Jews.  When Ben Gurion visited the camps in October 1945 he reminded the Jews that they were not only needy persons but a political force that must be strong in support of the political struggle for Jewish independence.

When the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry unexpectedly recommended approving the immediate settlement of 100,000 Jews in Israel and the British Government obstinately rejected this and insisted on returning the issue to the United Nations, the stage was set for the passing of the Partition Plan on the physical division of the territories.  The vote took place on November 29, 1947.


Whereas politicians often used the Holocaust in their rhetoric and made reference to it in their speeches, it is naive to assume that decisions taken in the plenum of the United Nation are based mainly on moral, humanitarian and historical concerns.  In a world in which states have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests, one should not underrate the role of self-interest.  

The British Empire was fading.  The Indian sub-continent was gaining political independence at the very same time as Israel and without having gone through a Holocaust.  The Russians and their allies may have dreamed of a pro-Marxist base in the Middle East from which they could advance their program for world revolution.  Fishing in troubled waters offered them more hope for successes than a region that was stable.

Did Liberia have Jewish interests uppermost in their minds when they voted YES on November 29 or was their vote due more to the pressures exerted upon them from the Goodyear Tire Company, the major provider of their foreign capital and the main buyer of their export crop, rubber?  If the Holocaust was the key factor in the policies of the United States of America, then how can we explain that the actual decision to support the partition of Palestine was only made in the week prior to the vote?


It is true that the British were getting quite a bad press from their mishandling of the Jewish refugee issue.  And their naval training exercises were totally disrupted as the most powerful fleet in the world was using up precious fuel rations to chase down little boats crammed full of refugees.  The Cyprus camps were full and there was no longer any convenient place to send more Jews.  No one wanted them and the decision to send them back to where they came from - Germany - was a grave error in public relations. And even the fiasco of the EXODUS, 2 more ships holding 15,000 more <illegal immigrants> were making final preparations to set sail for the Land of Israel.  Meanwhile there was an increasingly popular uprising in Palestine of Jews who were determined to kick out the British occupation troops.

But the State of Israel did NOT come about because of the Holocaust! 2,000 years of yearning and prayer and 50 years of intensive Zionist activities preceded it and was essential to the State becoming a reality. Imagine the Holocaust happening BEFORE a single kibbutz was built, before a flourishing Jewish culture had been reestablished in Israel, and without armed Jews fighting to defend themselves in the Land.  Would any one have supported Jewish sovereignty in that situation?  Surely not!

If anything the Holocaust almost destroyed the natural hinterland of the Zionist movement and nearly <solved the Jewish problem> in a lethal fashion.  Had the Nazis fulfilled their intentions and all of the Jews of Europe and the Middle East had been murdered in the Death Camps would anyone have argued for the pressing need of an Independent Jewish State for the Jews of America or Australia?

But even more so, the State of Israel did NOT come about because of the Holocaust because it did NOT come about as a result of a resolution passed in New York.  Had the Jews lost the 1948-9 War of Independence, no Jewish State would exist.  And the Holocaust played no significant role in the military victory over the Arabs.

At most the Holocaust was a contributing factor to the timing and circumstances of the struggle for independence.  It certainly affected the kind of Jewish State that was created, its population mix, its self-perception and its world view.  But the events that underpin its creation are located elsewhere.





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07 Jul 2008 / 4 Tamuz 5768 0