“Politics and Religion in the Warsaw Ghetto: Beyond the Labor Zionist Narrative” by Eli Isser Kavon

Reference: CISMOR: Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions


The Jewish uprising against the Nazis in April 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto has achieved
legendary status in the remembrance of the Holocaust. But how has the revolt been portrayed
and interpreted by historians both Jewish and non-Jewish? In Israel—where Labor Zionism
under David Ben-Gurion dominated the society and politics of the first thirty years of the
Jewish State—the ideology of the founders has been selective in its understanding of the
Holocaust, specifically the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto. Political ideology has distorted the
understanding of past events. Both Revisionist Zionism and the Jewish religion played a major
role in the life and fiery end of the ghetto, yet the Labor Zionists have ignored both phenomena
in their telling of the story of the Holocaust. With the rise of post-Zionists in Israel, the triumph
of right-wing Zionists in the political realm, and the religious revival of Judaism in the Jewish
State, new narratives that have been ignored are now coming to the fore. The roles of
Revisionist Zionism and Orthodox Judaism are finally being explored in an attempt to
overcome the skewing of the past by the dominant political ideology in the State of Israel. The
Revisionist followers of Jabotinsky were bold fighters against the Nazis in Warsaw—their role
in the rebellion deserves to be investigated and revealed. As well, religious Jews rebelled against
the Nazis through their commitment to their faith. Menachem Ziemba, the last rabbi in the
Warsaw Ghetto, overturned centuries of martyrdom, advocating military resistance as a
demand of Jewish law. This essay explores new narratives that deserve to see the light of day,
providing a more accurate picture of the events of the Shoah and the role of religion in the
modern world.

Introduction: Beyond Labor Zionism—The Search for New Narratives

On March 3, 1957, a few minutes after midnight, three men shot to death Reszo Kasztner in Tel
Aviv. Kasztner—a Hungarian Jew who immigrated to Israel after the Second World War and served as a journalist and as an important figure in various ministries of Labor Zionist governments—died of his wounds two weeks later. The issues surrounding his controversial life and career continue to haunt Israel and the Jewish people.

Toward the end of World War II, Reszo Kasztner spearheaded attempts to save the Jews of
Hungary from the Nazi genocide. By bargaining in the spring and summer of 1944 with Adolf
Eichmann, the Gestapo officer who coordinated the transport of Jews from all parts of Europe
to death in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kasztner was able to rescue 1,684 Hungarian Jews. This
remnant of Hungarian Jewry was made up of industrialists, intellectuals, Orthodox rabbis,
Kasztner’s Zionist colleagues and his anti-Zionist enemies, and Polish and Slovak Jews who
served as slave labor in concentration camps. The price for the rescue to Switzerland was $1,500
for each family. The wealthy Jews of Budapest collected the money.
In August 1952, another Hungarian Jew who survived the Nazi genocide wrote a pamphlet in
Israel attacking Kasztner. Malchiel Grunwald blamed the Labor Zionist official for saving his
friends in the Zionist movement, as well as his family, and leaving the rest of Hungarian Jewry
to their horrible fate. Kasztner took Grunwald to an Israeli court and sued him for libel. The
trial opened on January 1, 1954. It was the first time that Revisionist Zionists in Menachem
Begin’s Herut Party would challenge Labor Zionism’s narrative of the events of the Nazi
genocide in World War II.

Grunwald’s lawyer, Shmuel Tamir, was a thirty-one year old Herut activist who saw the libel
trial as an opportunity to accuse Israel’s Labor Zionist establishment for being partners with the
Nazis in the extermination of the Jews.7) If Kasztner could be found to have collaborated with
the Nazis, this would sully the reputation of David Ben-Gurion and his Mapai Party. For Tamir,
a defense of Grunwald could open the door to the much more ambitious goals of condemning
the Labor Zionist establishment in Israel and bringing down the Mapai-led government. In the
end, Grunwald was exonerated and Kastzner condemned as a collaborator. Tamir did not drag
down Labor Zionism. But twenty years after Kasztner’s assassination, Menachem Begin would
lead Israel as Prime Minister. For the first time, the Revisionists in the Zionist movement could
begin to tell their side of the story of the history of the yishuv, the State of Israel, and the
Holocaust. The Kasztner Trial was the first attempt to establish a Holocaust narrative not
dominated by Israel’s Labor establishment. Whether the trial was fair to the Hungarian Jew who
saved more than 1,500 of his fellow Jews—this is another issue for another essay.
In his valuable and penetrating study of the legacy of Vladimir Jabotinsky and Revisionist
Zionism, Eran Kaplan explores the possibility of a new right-wing narrative within the
parameters of “Post-Zionism.” The “post-Zionists” are “a group of Israeli intellectuals (historians, sociologists, cultural critics, artists) who posit a paradigm shift in the perception of Israeli culture and history.” The post-Zionist goal is to break the hegemony of Labor Zionist ideology in Israel and retrieve the voices of those Israelis not heard in the first 30 years of the State of Israel’s existence. While Israeli Arabs, religious Jews, and Jews from Arab and Islamic lands have been ignored by Labor Zionist ideology, Revisionist Zionism has the most to gain from the 20-year-old post-Zionist critique of Israel’s founders. While some post-Zionists engage in this critique in order to rob Israel of its legitimacy as a Jewish State, this critique does open the way for new narratives in Israel that have not been explored before. As Kaplan, an Israeli from a family of Jabotinsky’s followers and a professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati, states in his introduction:

In 1977 Menachem Begin led the Likud Party to a surprising win in the polls, and decades
of Labor dominance of the Zionist movement came to an abrupt end. Today, after years of
being marginalized by the Zionist Left, Revisionists have become the leading party in
Israeli politics. Thus the history of the movement is no longer a secondary, though vocal,
chapter in the annals of Jewish nationalism but a critical part of the history of Zionism and
modern Israel.

While Kaplan’s study does not focus on Revisionist Zionism’s Holocaust narrative, there is little
doubt that with the rise of the Likud to power in Israel there have arrived new voices that have
previously been ignored in the Labor Zionist understanding and historiography of the Shoah.
These voices deserved to be heard and can give us a more complete, less mythologized
understanding of Jewish behavior in Europe during the years of the Second World War.

Israeli journalist Tom Segev discusses in detail another ignored voice emerging in Israel in the
aftermath of Labor Zionism’s decline: the voice of religious Jews. In his Elvis in Jerusalem: PostZionism and the Americanization of Israel, Segev highlights the failure of Israel’s Socialist
founders to “produce a real secular culture” as an alternative to Judaism. Segev writes that “the
conflict over religion’s place in the state has been resolved for the most part through practical
compromises of one sort or another, by means of political negotiations. All these arrangements
indicate that Israeli culture has not succeeded in formulating a relevant alternative to Jewish
culture.” David Ben-Gurion might have thought that Jewish religion would be a fossil in a
modern Socialist state. But, in fact, the opposite has occurred. With each passing year, ultraOrthodoxy and Religious Zionism gain greater strength in the social and political arena. The
voices of the religious ignored for years—subservient to the needs of Labor Zionism—are now
being heard. Since the Likud victory in 1977, Judaism has been playing an increased and activist
role in Israeli society. In the world of “Post-Zionism”—I believe it should be correctly called
“Post-Labor Zionism”—the narrative of the religious Jew will come to the fore. That includes the religious understanding of the Shoah.

This essay will explore the emerging Shoah narrative of both the Zionist Revisionists and
Israel’s religious Jews by focusing on Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto and the way it has been
understood. I will briefly explore the Labor Zionist understanding of ghetto life and the heroic
Jewish uprising against the Nazi overlords. During Israel’s first fifty years of existence, the role
of the follower’s of Jabotinsky’s followers in the ghetto was, for the most part, ignored. Was this
simply a matter of ideology or were there other reasons that the Revisionist narrative has, until
recently, not been emphasized? And what of the religious Jews of the ghetto—why is so little
known about them? What were the attitudes of the ghetto’s rabbis—many of them Chassidic—
to resisting the Nazi genocide of the Jews? Who were these rabbis and how did they cling to
their belief in God in such terrible times in overt defiance of reality? In the following pages, I
will attempt to answer these questions by probing primary and secondary sources and shed new
light on narratives that have been unexplored but now need to be brought to light.

A Narrative Ignored: Revisionist Zionists in the Warsaw Ghetto

In the popular imagination—in literature, film, and in Jewish memory—the Warsaw Ghetto
revolt is an heroic chapter in the history of Jewish defiance of repression and a rejection of the
notion that Jews “went like sheep to the slaughter” during World War II. While this perception
is partially correct, the facts are more complex. The rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto was not a
unified effort by young Jews to die with dignity rather than in the gas chambers of Treblinka.
The young Jews of Warsaw who led the rebellion were divided by political ideology and had a
long, bitter past of rivalry behind them. On the one hand stood the Jewish Fighting
Organization (ZOB), a group that was comprised of representatives of left-wing Zionist
pioneering youth movements such as Hashomer Hatzair, Dror, and Akiva. The ZOB—which
later also included representatives of the Jewish Socialist Workers Bund—first met on July 28,
1942, at the height of the Nazi deportation of Warsaw’s Jews to death in Treblinka. On the
other hand, the Zionist Revisionists formed The Jewish Military Union (ZZW) at an earlier
date, although the founding of this group is shrouded in mystery.

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