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A response to Norman Finkelstein’s interview

Even in its most reactionary form, Zionism before the second world war was one of the voices of oppressed Jews facing the growth of violent anti Semitism as a mass movement everywhere.

John Rose
8 May 2016
Icchak_Cukierman.jpg

'Antek' Zuckerman testifies for the prosecution during the trial of Adolf Eichmann. USHMM, courtesy of Israel Government Press Office. Wikicommons. Some rights reserevd.The Zionist Nazi “negotiations” which featured in Norman Finkelstein’s interview in last week’s OD were of course in one sense part of a pattern of Zionist leaders approaching influential world leaders to make their claims on Palestine. Their list included some extremely unsavoury characters, the German Kaiser but especially leaders of the Russian Tsarist regime responsible for the infamous forged document, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Hitler favourite.

At the same time I want to argue that the approach, and context, to the Nazis was different and here I would like to offer some reservations about Norman Finkelstein’s otherwise excellent discussion with Jamie Stern-Weiner in OD last week. I have already attempted briefly to address some of these issues here: Don’t fall into your opponent’s traps. But I would like to develop these arguments by focusing on two paragraphs from Norman’s interview.

“John Mann, when he accosted Livingstone in front of the cameras, asked rhetorically whether Livingstone had read Mein Kampf. If you do read Mein Kampf, which I suspect none of the interlocutors in this debate has done (I used to teach it, before the ‘Zionists’ drove me out of academia – joke!), you see that Hitler is emphatic that Jews are not a religion, but a nation. He says that the big Jewish lie is that they claim to be a religion; whereas in fact, he says, they’re a race (at that time, ‘race’ was used interchangeably with ‘nation’). And on page 56 of the standard English edition of Mein Kampf, he says that the only Jews honest enough to acknowledge this reality are the Zionists. Now, to be clear, Hitler didn’t just think that Jews were a distinct race. He also thought that they were a Satanic race, and ultimately, that they were a Satanic race that had to be exterminated. Still, on the first, not trivial, premise, he and the Zionists were in agreement.

As a practical matter, the Zionists and Nazis could therefore find a degree of common ground around the emigration/expulsion of Jews to Palestine. It was a paradox that, against the emphatic protestations of liberal Jews, including sections of the Anglo-Jewish establishment, antisemites and Zionists back then effectively shared the same slogan: Jews to Palestine. It was why, for example, the Nazis forbade German Jews to raise the swastika flag, but expressly permitted them to hoist the Zionist flag. It was as if to say, the Zionists are right: Jews can’t be Germans, they belong in Palestine. Hannah Arendt wrote scathingly about this in Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is one of the reasons she caught hell from the Jewish/Zionist establishment.” Zionism was perfectly capable of inspiring resistance to the Nazis as ‘Antek’ Zuckerman, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, makes clear in his massive autobiography, A Surplus of Memory.

Let’s take the sentence, “As a practical matter, the Zionists and Nazis could therefore find a degree of common ground around the emigration/expulsion of Jews to Palestine.”

Superficially accurate, it can easily lend itself to an interpretation of an element of ‘equivalence’ between Zionists and Nazis. This is certainly a common problem with all the propagandists and activists who use these type of arguments.

It’s similar to an earlier sentence where he describes “a degree of ideological affinity existed between the Nazis and Zionists.”

Thus one of the books by Lenni Brenner, who is referenced by Norman in the interview, is titled 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis.

I cautioned against this approach in my own book whilst in no way challenging the authenticity of Lenni’s documents.

 “...it is very foolish to draw the conclusion that ‘Zionist collaboration with the Nazis’ was typical or somehow automatically built into the Zionist project, an interpretation which could be put on the subtitle of his 51 Documents book.

Zionism was perfectly capable of inspiring resistance to the Nazis as ‘Antek’ Zuckerman, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, makes clear in his massive autobiography, A Surplus of Memory. (It is true that Antek is himself critical of the inertia of the Zionist leaders when it came to rescue and resistance but this never made him question assumptions about Zionism itself). See also Primo Levi’s superb, and partly autobiographical, novel, If Not Now, When? about the Jewish partisans fighting the Nazis in the forests. That Zionism later mis-used its genuinely heroic anti-Nazi resistance fighters for cynical ideological ends in Palestine is another matter.”   

(See also my discussion of Antek in the introduction to the memoir The Ghetto Fights by Marek Edelman, Anti Zionist Bundist leader of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance.)

There can be no equivalence with “a Satanic race that had to be exterminated.” Here Norman put in the absolutely critical qualifying sentence in the passages cited above - the decisive characteristic of the Nazis.

But doesn’t Norman’s qualifying sentence undermine his earlier arguments? There can be no “common ground” or “a degree of ideological affinity” between the master race and the Satanic race it intends to exterminate except in the literal sense of a cat and mouse game played on common ground. The cat plays with the mouse as a tactic before the final pounce.

We needed the qualifying sentence as context, rather than an add-on remark at the end of a paragraph. Norman’s earlier observations about the Holocaust, powerful though they certainly are, required further elaboration at precisely this point. The context is the dreadful fulfilment of that incisive prediction of the looming civilisational crisis, the Nazis, its vehicle, the “barbarism...degeneration, desolation, a vast cemetery...” in Rosa Luxemburg’s famous antiwar Junius pamphlet written in a German jail during the first world war. Max Weber, in similar mood, described, “a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.”

Or Lawrence Langer’s The Alarmed Vision, testimonies of Holocaust survivors which convinced the writer that we had arrived in “the Age of Atrocity”, displacing the promises of the Enlightenment, and demanding a “revision of the myth of the civilised being.”

This is the context for the truly sinister cat and mouse game the  Nazis were playing when they appeared to be supporting the Zionist project in Palestine even if did mean some German Jews, by moving to Palestine with Hitler’s agreement, escaped the death camps. It’s a simple enough proposition but perhaps not as obvious as it should be. If Rommel had won the desert war in the Middle East, Palestine’s Jews would have been deported to those camps.  

Even in its most reactionary form, Zionism, before the second world war, which had no guarantee for its claims on Palestine, was one of the voices of oppressed Jews facing the growth of violent anti Semitism as a mass movement everywhere, though of course in widely differing degrees of intensity. That strand of Zionism which tried to grovel with its tormentor, camouflaged as ‘negotiation’, even to the point of mimicry, remained always at its mercy. With the new and cynical rebranding of a synthetic anti Semitism as anti Zionism, we easily forget what raw and real anti Semitism looked like in that period.

With the new and cynical rebranding of a synthetic anti Semitism as anti Zionism, we easily forget what raw and real anti Semitism looked like in that period. Bizarrely, Anthony Julius, who tried, spectacularly unsuccessfully, to cast himself as the scholarly guru of the anti Semitism anti Zionism equation in his book, Trials of the Diaspora, several times called upon Leon Trotsky as one of his witnesses to remind us.

Julius was justified in praising Trotsky’s book 1905 for its graphic and terrifying descriptions of anti Semitism’s irrationality and its capacity to turn Jew-hatred into an epidemic, pogromist and ultimately genocidal.  But he ignored an equally powerful analytical insight from Trotsky on the eve of the Nazi Holocaust which, whether you agree with the economic sub-text or not, gives an immediate and really chilling sense of the sheer scale of anti Semitism world-wide.

“In the epoch of its rise, capitalism took the Jewish people out of the ghetto and utilised them as an instrument in its commercial expansion. Today decaying capitalist society is striving to squeeze the Jewish people from all its pores.”

Incidentally, Julius also forgot to tell us that Trotsky warned Jews against embracing the “trap” of Zionism.

Finally, we need to emphasise that there was no coherent, united Zionist leadership in the 1930’s. It was deeply split. The example of ‘Antek’ Zuckerman earlier reminds us that there was a movement of ‘Socialist Zionists’ who denounced the talks with Hitler. Their Polish section provided some of the best cadres for the Warsaw Ghetto resistance alongside the Anti Zionist Bund and the Communists.

Of course, we’ve forgotten about Socialist Zionism for good reason. Colonising Palestine de-coupled the ‘Socialism’ from the ‘Zionism’. 

                   *************************************************************

On a separate but related matter may I use the good columns of OD to appeal to Norman for a change of mind on his opposition to the Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions campaign. He will know, I’m sure, of the absolute integrity of the Palestinian writer and activist Ali Abunimah. Here is his argument.

A meeting to discuss Antisemitism, Zionism and the Left  will be held at Student Central, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HY,  on Monday, May 8, starting at 19.00 hrs.

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