How Hitler Killed Half the Jewish Diaspora and Zionism Projects Death of the Rest
I recently participated in an online panel that accompanied the screening of the film documentary, Yiddish: the Mama Loshn, for the Boulder Jewish Film Festival. I was not invited to the panel as a Yiddishist or professor of Yiddish or Jewish history (the three other panel members were). Instead, director Pierre Sauvage asked me to join the panel because in 1978, as a 23-year-old UCLA Yiddish student, I had a cameo in the film itself. I made a short impassioned speech about the value of Yiddish. Pierre wanted me to speak to how studying Yiddish had impacted my life.
Seeing one’s 23-year-old self on film five decades after the fact is a slightly unnerving experience. It fills you both with longing for who that person was, and a meditation on how little you achieved of that person’s dreams. Add to that the fact that most of the Jewish celebrities interviewed in the film, including Herschel Bernardi, Isaiah Sheffer, and Leo Rosten, along with all the native Yiddish speakers featured, had died in the intervening 44 years. The entire experience made me confront not only my own mortality, but the mortality of an entire element of Jewish life.
The film offered a sweeping visual montage of the bustling, thriving Jewish life of eastern and central Europe conducted mostly in the Yiddish language. There were the actors of the Warsaw Jewish theater, the Klezmer troubadour musicians performing at chosenehs (‘weddings’) in villages from Poland to Romania to Ukraine. In the same period here in America, there were the Borsht Belt tummelers; Abraham Cahan, long-time editor of the Forverts; the Second Avenue Yiddish theater; and the schmatteh businesses lining 7th Avenue. Where did they go? What happened to them?
Yiddish was at its strongest when the outside world was at its meanest. Amidst pogroms and discriminatory laws which deprived Jews of the opportunities afforded much of the European non-Jewish world, Jews were left to their own devices. As a result, they used Yiddish as a lingua franca to encapsulate their experience of suffering and living.
In America, of course, assimilation sapped the vitality of this thriving culture. Acceptance into the mainstream eliminated the need for a language that marked Jews as Other and shut us off from the rest of the nation. The younger generation grew up speaking English and saw no need for a second language to express their Jewishness. So from a population of millions of native Yiddish-speakers, the numbers crashed into perhaps a few hundred thousand.
The panelists were quick to point out that Yiddish is by no means dead in the US. It is spoken by several hundred thousand Jews. But who are they? They are almost completely from the ultra-Orthodox community, which is a minority of the overall Orthodox population (itself a minority of the American Jewish community). Of course, the Hasidic community is growing by leaps and bounds due to its high fertility rate. So the future of Yiddish is secure.
But what of the Yiddish secularists? The Bundists, Anarchists, Communists? What of the Yiddish actors and comedians? The Klezmer musicians? All those who contributed to the richness of Jewish culture? They are almost entirely gone.
To be fair, there are remarkable institutions flourishing devoted to ensuring the continuity of Yiddish culture. There are wonderful films like Pierre’s, which was the first documentary devoted to the subject. There are amazing Klezmer ensembles which have brought old traditions back into the mainstream. But there can be no return to the glory years of the past.
If we turn to the Yiddish-speaking world of Europe, of course, the sole reason for its demise was the Holocaust. Hitler killed 6-million Jews, the majority of whom spoke Yiddish. The genocide was not only a death blow to Jews themselves, it was a death blow to centuries of European Jewish culture including theater, literature, music and art.
We know that nature abhors a vacuum. So where the Nazis hollowed out a void in Diaspora Jewish life, something would fill it. That “something” was Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel. After the Holocaust, Jews responded to the genocide by flocking to a movement they had hitherto either rejected or ignored.
In 1920s Warsaw or Manhattan, there was a bracing heterogeneity of Jewish life: there were the Orthodox, the Zionists, the secularists. They each offered a different element of Jewish existence to their adherents. The whole was as rich or richer than the sum of its parts.
But post-1945, Jews were forced to realize that Hitler had not only eviscerated European Jewry, he had destroyed secular and Yiddishist culture along with it. What was left? Zionism offered an answer to Jews aghast at the vast catastrophe their people had suffered. If six-million could be murdered, then Jews must turn to the only movement that seemed to offer a response to the killing. The Holocaust validated the Zionist movement as it had never been validated before. Creating a nation-state for the Jews went from one among many expressions of Jewish identity, to the only one that appeared to make any sense.
Zionism: Shlilat Ha’Galut (“Negation of Exile”)
But Zionism posed a fundamental problem to the Diaspora: it negated it. It argued that creating a nation-state was the only means to secure the Jewish future. Even more radically, it argued that there was no Jewish future outside Israel, that the Diaspora was doomed by rampant anti-Semitism, which would eventually destroy whatever Hitler hadn’t.
The rise of Zionism and its eventual domination of world Jewry meant that Diaspora Jews were, in the view of leaders like Ben Gurion, living on borrowed time. Thus, though the Zionists cultivated strong bonds with the world’s Jews, the latter were seen as a dying breed. It put Jews in the Diaspora in the awkward role of both supporting Israel and, in doing so, confirming their own eventual demise.
This is, to say the least, an untenable position. It confers on Zionists and the State of Israel the ability to speak on behalf of world Jewry. It permits them to reject the very notion that Jews outside Israel have any interests that might diverge from it. If Israel fights a war, then all the world’s Jews must fight along with it. If it conquers a people, then these same Jews must defend it no matter what the cost to morality or decency.
Since 1945, Zionism has sucked the oxygen out of Jewish life. It has formed a monopoly on Jewish identity. It has rejected all other competing forms. It has suppressed diversity. It has made us into cardboard cut-out Jews, who have no vitality or existence apart from Israel.
In this way, the Holocaust amputated the limbs of world Jewry. We were left as paraplegics, as half-Jews. Our other half was gone. And with it went the balance in Jewish life that existed before the genocide.
There is, of course, no way to restore that balance–at least not in the same sense it existed a century ago. But we surely must come to understand the toxic impact that Zionism has had on us as Jews. It has forced us to make a choice we should never have been forced to make.
There have always been two poles in Judaism: Zion and Diaspora. The one enriched the other. We lived in one place and yearned for another. But that yearning never meant we rejected places that had come to be home. Now, we must as independent Jews reject any ideology that demands we deprecate such a fundamental part of our identity.
People reading this may believe that I am an anti-Zionist. That’s not precisely true. I don’t reject Zion. I reject the definition of Zion put forward by the Judeo-supremacists who have hijacked contemporary Zionism. They are so firmly in control of the levers of power in Israel and the Diaspora that one could easily make the mistake of assuming I reject Zion itself.
I reject a Zion that demands conquest, that demands expulsion, that demands theft. I favor a Zion that embraces shared homeland, shared political rights and full equality. This Zion is no less legitimate in Jewish terms than the Judeo-supremacist Zion.
18 thoughts on “How Hitler Killed Half the Jewish Diaspora and Zionism Projects Death of the Rest – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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Let me know if I wrote anything offensive, Richard, or non factual.
@ Bobby: You did. I can’t publish it.
Can you enlighten me by email?
Bobby/Damien: You’ve been commenting here long enough to know what triggers me as anti-Semitic content. I don’t want to get into a long discussion about it. You’re smart enough to know. Or should be.
I’m of average intelligence, Richard.
I don’t know you personally or long enough to claim telepathic knowledge of your definition of the moveable feast of ‘antiSemitic content’, though I believe you to be honest and searching for truth.
Your refusal to elucidate rings of a ‘with us or against us’ insecurity on the issues I raised.
If you cannot grant me the same respect of honesty it indicates a closing of the mind at a time when this is not a path out of the fog of disinformation that sees the likes of Corbyn smeared and silenced with the same accusation you level at me.
I believe it unjustified, and your refusal to elaborate as depressing.
I claim no infallibility, and recommend the stance in these time of deliberately incited disinformation psyops.
@ Bobby Sandstone: If you don’t know why including a dollar sign into your spelling of the word “Holocaust” or invoking the name “Rothschild” in a rant against Israel is anti-Semitic, then far be it from me to teach you.
Richard….that was one of the nicest pieces I’ve ever read from you. It was brave and vulnerable. It was objective and personal. Although I’m not Jewish (I’m an atheist of Christian descent), I have a strong sense that Judaism needs to reinvent itself. All religions have to at some point. I feel this article is part of that reimagining. So, hats off to you.
I am glad I found I find your site, usually I read Mondoweiss.
you think as one state with equal rights that you will not be elbowed out? Look at Lebanon, I don’t think it will work. Civil war danger. Better to have a separate state for Palestine with shared capital?
Imagine then your wish comes true. There is one state, non Jewish majority. You are elbowed out. Do you think, Khazaria would be a good place for Israelis to go to if this happens?
Elbowed out? By whom? Palestinians? They will elbow out Israeli Jews with one of the most powerful armies in the world? How?
[comment deleted: do not publish the same comment twice. If I wanted to publish your first comment, I would have. I didn’t. So don’t.]
[comment deleted: this is not a space for hasbara. Not a space for cheerleading for Brand Israel.
Your boosterism has been published in comments here countless times before in almost the exact same words. And they bore me.
In future, comments must be on topic and directly related to the post I wrote.
Also, do not publish more than three posts in any 24 hr period.]
“Khazaria”? Abdal, don’t you know that the so-called Khazaria story has been disproven over and over again, and has become a calling card of antisemites and anti-Zionists in order to claim that Jews have no ties to the Land of Israel?
If you don’t believe me, tune into this lecture on the website of YIVO (the YIDDISH scientific institute).
Why did you replace “Zionist” and “Zionism” with “Zion”?
You would have been much more convincing had the last two paragraphs of this piece (especially the last two sentences) said thefollowing:
“People reading this may believe that I am an anti-Zionist. That’s not precisely true. I don’t reject Zionism. I reject the definition of Zionism put forward by the Judeo-supremacists who have hijacked contemporary Zionism. They are so firmly in control of the levers of power in Israel and the Diaspora that one could easily make the mistake of assuming I reject Zionism itself.
I reject a Zionism that demands conquest, that demands expulsion, that demands theft. I favor a Zionism that embraces shared homeland, shared political rights and full equality. This Zionism is no less legitimate in Jewish terms than the Judeo-supremacist Zionism.“
@ Jerry: When I need editorial advice from you about what I should write or how I should write, I’ll ask. I haven’t. So don’t.