October 23, 2013
The Jewish Resistance Exchange, Part 3: On Jewish ‘Cowards’ and Jewish Self-Doubt
Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies in Washington, DC. His research interests include American politics, Jewish history, higher education policy, and the societal impact of war and violence. He is the author, coauthor or editor of 24 books.
This exchange focuses on his recent book, 'How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Jewish Passivity in the Face of Nazism' (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013).
Dear Professor Ginsberg,
First of all, thank you for your second response. I have to say that when you mentioned that the myth of Jewish cowardice during the WW2 was "constructed during and after the war by political forces seeking to assert that Jews were less than human", I couldn't help but think about how disturbingly popular a similar type of myth was in Israel (of all places) in its early years. There are a lot of accounts of how many Israeli Sabras- who sought to establish a kind of 'new Jew', a strong and self reliant one- quite often looked down at holocaust survivors from Europe as representatives of the old "diasporal Jew", an image they were desperately trying to avoid. 'Cowards who didn't fight back' was actually part of the problematic stereotype bestowed upon the European survivors by their sometime outrageously insensitive compatriots (the Eichmann trial is sometimes taken to be a turning point in terms of Israel's attitude toward survivors).
Mainstream Israel has, of course, completely outgrown this ridiculous mindset, and it seems that- following decades of Holocaust commemoration and education- the vast majority of the western world would also hardly dare voice the idea that the victims of the holocaust were 'cowards'. In fact, it could be safe to say that anyone who would think of reading your book would never dream of saying such a thing in public.
Moreover, to find people who would explicitly mention "Jewish cowardice during the holocaust" as any kind of evidence against Israel we would probably have to go to Iran, to Hamas controlled Gaza or to members of the Jobbik party in Hungary- not people who care much for accurate historical records…
In fact, when I think about the people who are most likely to be drawn to your book, the first demographic that comes to mind is, well, Jews. You could say that the only people who would readily allow themselves to think about Jews in terms such as 'cowardly', 'passive', 'brave', 'weak', and 'strong', are anti-Semites and Jews. This kind of raises my suspicion (correct me if I'm wrong) that this book was largely written, among other things, to assuage a kind of Jewish self doubt, a Jewish myth about Jewish weakness.
1) Did you have ideas like 'Jewish pride' and 'Jewish shame' in mind when you wrote the book?
2) If Jews (or non-Jews) can still look at WW2 European Jewry and see cowardice, do they really need facts? Do they not simply need a good shrink (or some basic empathy)?
Thanks again for an illuminating book and for an interesting exchange.
These are good questions. When I wrote the book I had in mind a narrative I hear in Europe and in a more muted form in the United States as well. It certainly seems to be prevalent in the Arab world. This is what might be called the narrative of the Jew as bully. A bully is a smarmy individual who is both a coward and an aggressor. The Jews, it is said, were too timid to resist the Nazis but vicious when it came to a weaker group, namely the Palestinians. This narrative is symbolically represented by the bizarre editorial cartoons and magazine covers one sometimes encounters in Europe that portray Israelis as Nazis and the IDF as the Wehrmacht doing to the Palestinians what was once done to the Jews. Many Europeans have accepted this narrative and I have begun to hear it in the U.S. as well. Frankly, I have found that Jewish students have begun to wonder if this narrative is true. This idea seems to explain the difference between Jewish behaviour then and now and seems to suggest that the Jews were no better than the Nazis and happy to do the same thing when they got the chance. My book is an effort to attack both parts of this false narrative. The Jews were not cowards then and are not Nazis now. Antisemites may not wish to understand these facts but it is important for Jews, especially younger Jews, to understand that they should not view themselves and Israel through a lens created by their enemies.
At the present time I often find that many Jewish students have inadvertently accepted this narrative, believing that the Jews failed to resist the Nazis and then turned around and brutalized the Palestinians. I recently received an email from a Jewish student who said, “I wanted to tell you that I greatly enjoyed your lecture yesterday on contemporary European anti-Semitism. I thought you provided a fascinating perspective on Western and Eastern Europeans' positions on Israel and how America's own interest in Israel has evolved from its establishment in '49, through the Ike administration and beyond.
Additionally, I appreciated your honesty and candidness when it came to the far left's position on a two-state solution. As a native New Yorker, I have heard my fair share of the far left's unreasonable, Pro-Palestinian demands. I believe you articulated your criticism of those positions extremely well and defended, what I would like to believe, as the more moderate, pro-Israeli and correct stance on the indispensable existence of Israel in the middle east."
It's a shame that Jewish students have to be grateful to hear criticisms of anti-Semitism.