The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust

The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust
By Tom Segev (Hill & Wang, 1993)

Reviewed by Rabbi Jason Miller

This month, we mark three separate modern holidays: Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day), and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). These holidays, while observed separately, share many commonalities. Therefore, for this month’s book review, I have chosen a book that combines the Holocaust with the State of Israel, focusing on the issue of communal memory.

It is no secret that the modern Jewish State would not be in existence without the Holocaust having occurred. Yet, we often do not consider the relationship between Israel and Israelis to the Holocaust. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum has long been the first stop in Israel for visiting world leaders, and virtually no Jew who visits Israel leaves without stopping there. However, as author Tom Segev documents in his study of Israelis and the Holocaust, the story of Israel’s response to the Holocaust and its commemoration of the greatest atrocity to humankind is not so simple. Looking at the role of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-1948 Palestine) during the Holocaust, how Israelis received survivors in the early years of the nation, and the struggle to establish national memory, Segev tells the story of the Israeli path from contempt to acceptance, and finally to compassion and commemoration.

Israelis reacted very critically to Segev’s controversial book when it first appeared in Israel in the late 1980s. By the time it was translated into English and brought to the American audience, much of the controversy had subsided, yet it still makes for an uncomfortable reading, as it is very critical of Israeli society in the first few decades following World War II. As Segev describes, most Israelis were of the belief that their European relatives walked “like sheep to the slaughter.” Also telling of the Israeli sentiment toward the Holocaust was the moniker “sabon” (soap) given to survivors during the first decades of Israel’s statehood, taken from the myth that the Nazis made soap from the skin of Jewish victims in the camps.

Segev writes passionately about the refugees who found themselves despised by a society devoted to heroism. The new Jewish nation wanted to focus on the heroes of the Holocaust who in the face of death rose up to revolt (note that Yom Hashoah takes place on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising). Much of Israel’s identity in the years after the Holocaust was defined by the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel, the secret negotiations between Germany and Israel over reparation payments (how much for a human life?), and the revenge schemes against former Nazis (including a plot to poison the water systems of major German cities hoping to exact the same outcome on six million Germans). The decisions to create a national day of memory and to construct a Holocaust museum were major controversies in Israel. The focus was to be not on the sorrow of the demise of European Jewry, but rather on the stories of courage by some who chose to fight back. After all, to the brave young pioneers, the Holocaust was nothing short of embarrassment to the Jewish people.

This controversial and compelling book shows the divisive impact of the Holocaust on the identity, ideology, and politics of Israel. Segev was able to use many documents, previously classified by the Israeli government, for his research, and for this reason, many of his stories will come as a surprise to the reader. Was David Ben-Gurion involved in secret negotiations to buy Jews out of the camps? How did Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s “survivor syndrome” affect his governing of Israel? In The Seventh Million, Segev answers these questions and expertly shows how the Holocaust continued to shape the experience not only of the individuals who experienced it, but also the experience of an entire nation.

It has taken much healing and newfound understanding for Israel to confront the Holocaust. We can now see how meaningful it is that immediately after Passover (our national commemoration of our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt), we first remember our six million European ancestors, and then a week later, we pay homage to those who fell while defending our Jewish homeland only to advance to joy and merriment the next day celebrating another year of Israel’s independence. As we learn from this important book, we must not take these acts of commemoration for granted.