The Holocaust and the birth of Israel

Yad Vashem – The Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem

Today is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which reminds us of the greatest expression of ferocity that history has recorded, at least until today.

A question arises spontaneously: Would the State of Israel have been born without this tragedy?

I was born in Palestine towards the end of the massacre of my co-religionists in Europe and three years after the birth of the State of Israel. I already had a vague knowledge of it in first grade, that I sensed from the hazy phrases of some classmates. But the truth overwhelmed me one day, in a cafe in Jerusalem, while I was teaching Hebrew to my grandmother. She invited a gaunt, bald man to the table who she introduced to me as a miracle survivor from a Nazi concentration camp. I asked for an explanation.

Let us return to the question: to what extent was the Holocaust decisive for the birth of Israel?

The desire of the Jews to return to the Promised Land has distant roots. Next year in Jerusalem has been for centuries the Easter wish of the Jews around the world. However, the Zionist project was born at the end of the nineteenth century, in the midst of terrifying Tsarist pogroms against Russian Jews, after the publication of Auto-Emancipation by the Polish Jewish doctor Leon Pinsker and The Jewish State by the Viennese Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl. In 1887, the 1st Zionist Congress (Basel) decided to encourage the colonization of Palestine.

The struggle of the Jews to build a national reality in which to defend themselves and freely exercise their faith, therefore, began half a century before the Holocaust. Already in 1917 Lord Arthur Balfour, the British foreign minister, wrote to Lord Rothschild promising the Zionist movement a Jewish home in Palestine. A promise that the British retracted at the end of the Great War.

Subsequently, the Jewish settlements in Palestine became more and more numerous and organized and their confrontation with the Palestinian Arabs bloodier. In this struggle, the Palestinian awareness of having the right to their own state was born.

There is no doubt that the consent to the birth of the Jewish state was largely favored by the tragedy of the Holocaust. Western public opinion was shaken, and a solution had to be found for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees living in camps scattered across Europe.

As early as 1942, Ben Gurion addressed the leaders of the Allied powers: “As long as the ports of our country are closed to escaped Israelis, your hands will remain bloody with Jewish blood shed in Nazi hell.” An argument that he resumed in July 1947: “Who can and wants to guarantee that what happened to us in Europe will not reproduce itself? Can human conscience […] free itself of all responsibility for this catastrophe? There is only one remedy: a country and a state “.

As the Holocaust unfolded its tragic dimension, Western public opinion tended to sympathize with the birth of a Jewish state. American President Harry declared, in October 1946, that his country was in favor of partition. In May 1947, at the UN General Assembly, the Soviet Union also declared itself in favor of a state for the Jews.

Britain, frayed by war and in need of US economic aid, forced to rely more and more on US policy, decided to end its mandate in Palestine in May 1948. However, fearful of antagonizing Arab oil states, the British continued to block Jewish refugees from entering Palestine. The episode of the ship “Exodus 1947”, which sailed from La Spezia with thousands of refugees, had a great resonance around the world. The British prevented their landing in Haifa and interned them in Hamburg in a concentration camp that had previously been a Nazi concentration camp.

Claudio Vercelli1 reports that “Of the population of Israel in 1949, consisting of about 1,300,000 people, 350,000 had escaped extermination. About 300,000 survivors reached Israel between 1949 and 1950. In 2007, 40% of Israelis claimed to have a direct link with the Holocaust”.

On 11/29/1947, the UN General Assembly, with the resolution 181, voted by majority for the partition of Palestine into two states. Although Zionism was born half a century earlier, Israel would never have been born without the consent of the international community.

Evidently, my birthplace was created on the ashes of the crematoria.

May the Day of Remembrance embrace the suffering, past and present, of people of all races and creeds, including Palestinians.

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  1. Claudio Vercelli: Storia del conflitto israelo-palestinese. Editori Laterza

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