The Jewish Response during the Holocaust: The Educational Debate in Israel in the 1950s

Roni Stauber. Shofar. Volume 22, Issue 4. Summer 2004.


Since the end of World War II, the response of the Jewish population in Europe to the Nazi policy of extermination has constituted a significant element in Jewish, and particularly Israeli, consciousness of the Holocaust. At the core lies the troubling question: Why did the majority of European Jewry not actively oppose their persecutors? Why did most of the Jews go “like sheep to the slaughter”?

In the 1950s this issue became the focus of a debate among Israeli writers and public figures. The aim of this article is to discuss the educational aspect of this discourse, namely: What national moral was drawn from the reaction of Jews during the Holocaust? What was the historical lesson of the Jewish response for Israeli youth in the 1950s?

An examination of a variety of sources of Israeli public opinion—articles in Israeli daily newspapers, debates in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) and speeches during memorial ceremonies, as well as archival materials—reveals that the positions expressed in the public discourse of that period represented two opposing viewpoints. The first created a moral distinction between those who actively participated in self-defense, especially armed resistance, and those who did not. The second contested the idea of placing armed resistance at the center of Holocaust commemoration, or using it educationally as a value over other patterns of Jewish reaction.

The Ghetto Uprising as a Historical Lesson

The first position, which made a clear distinction between self defense, resistance, and rebellion, on the one hand, and the so-called passive behavior of Jews during the Holocaust, on the other, has deep roots in Zionist ideology and Hebrew literature of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. This distinction was influenced by the image of the passive Diaspora Jew, one of the most extreme expressions of the negative attitude towards the Diaspora.

The moral demand that the Jew defend himself under any circumstances was an essential element in the ethos of the “new Jew”—the one born in Palestine or who was reborn, according to the Zionist concept, after his arrival in Palestine from the Diaspora. In this respect the Masada myth and the story of the heroic resistance of Trumpeldor and his followers at Tel Hai became important components of the curriculum of children educated in Yishuv schools in Eretz Israel, and particularly in the training of young members of the Zionist youth movements. For these young people, climbing to the summit of Masada was a symbolic yearly event.

During the war years leading public figures in the Yishuv, notably the leadership of Hakibbutz Hameuhad, the main kibbutz movement, began to perceive a link between Jewish behavior in the face of the German persecutors and the alleged leitmotif of traditional Diaspora reaction, namely, a complete repudiation of self-defense and armed resistance in the hope that only thus would at least part of the Jewish people survive.

This distinction, which was popular among most of the Zionist youth movements of the Yishuv, implied a value judgment which discriminated between a minority, members of the youth movements who rebelled, in keeping with the Israeli ethos of the “new Jew,” and the majority of the Jewish population who went to their death unresistingly, supposedly conforming with a traditional Jewish pattern.

In the first half of the 1950s Mapam (the United Labor Party), the main political movement in the fledgling state, attempted to make the ghetto uprisings a national symbol and a main component in the education of the young generation of that time. Mapam was a new radical left party (a Zionist movement with Marxist tendencies), established in 1948 by Hashomer Hatzair (the New Guard) and Ahdut Haavoda (Labor Unity). The party, which represented most of the kibbutzim, opposed both the domestic and the foreign policy of David Ben-Gurion, who rejected their strict socialist concepts and their uncompromising loyalty to the Soviet Union.

The Knesset’s decision to name Holocaust memorial day “Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Day,” to be marked on 27 Nisan, was due mainly to the efforts of Mapam leaders. Thus, Mapam sought to make the uprisings the focus of official commemoration of the Holocaust in Israel. “For us it is clear that this day should not only be one of mourning but also a day of pride that we were able to fight back,” said Mapam Knesset member Israel Bar-Yehuda.

This position, the centrality of the ghetto uprising, was also represented in the Knesset in the 1953 debate over the Yad Vashem Law. Even after the 1954 split in Mapam, the Zionist left continued to dominate the effort to turn the uprisings into a sacred event in Jewish national memory and into an educational value to be instilled in young Israelis.

Thus, the leaders of the Zionist left focused on creating a link between “here” and “there.” They regarded members of the ghetto uprisings as “Israelis in the Diaspora,” people who had exemplified a key component of the Israeli ethos—self-defense. An ideological fundamental of this approach was the claim that this behavior (armed defense), even in the Holocaust, represented Zionist left weltanschauung and the spirit of Eretz-Israel education. According to Mapam spokesmen, just as in the land of Israel the Palmach (the name for the élite military units of the Yishuv) was the product of the kibbutz movement, in the Diaspora members of the pioneering (hehalutz) movements, principally Dror and Hashomer Hatsair, linked to the left and to Mapam, were the spearhead of the uprisings. As Ya’akov Hazan, a leading figure of the Zionist left camp in Israel, said in the Knesset in 1953:

Just as two banners fluttered over the heads of Mordecai Annielewicz, commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and his comrades-in-arms, the flag of his renascent Hebrew people and the flag of the class struggle for the future of all humanity, so too did the same two banners wave over the Palmah—the pristine white and azure blue and the red flag of all the world’s workers. Zionism and Socialism flowed together and became an endless reservoir of supreme heroism.

Thus the Zionist left in the 1950s interwove the ghetto with their ideological struggle to make pioneering and socialist values central to the formation of Israeli society.

The connection between “here” and “there” was also reflected in the educational sphere, namely: what national moral could be derived from the reaction of Jews in the Holocaust, especially in the ghetto rebellions? The wholeheartedness with which the youth movements embraced self-defense, even under the most extreme conditions in the ghettos, and the fact that uprisings broke out even in the extermination camps, was presented, mainly by Hakibbutz Hameuhad spokesmen, as a moral lesson for the young generation that was growing up in the new State of Israel.

The desire of leaders and educators of Hakibbutz Hameuhad to transform the ghetto uprisings into an educational model for the young generations in Israel was emphasized at the annual ceremonies of 27 Nisan at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagettaot (Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz). The kibbutz was founded in 1949 in Western Galilee as part of the Hakibbutz Hameuhad movement. Among its founders were survivors of the armed resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto and some of the leading figures of the Jewish Fighting Organization such as Yitzhak Zuckerman and Tzvia Lubetkin.

One of the main goals of members of this kibbutz was to commemorate the ghetto rebellion, and soon after its foundation, despite economic difficulties, they began building an educational center and museum, known as Ghetto Fighter’s House. From the outset and during the 1950s, thousands came to the ceremonies organized in the kibbutz. The main speakers were former activists of the ghetto undergrounds and educators and leaders of Hakibutz Hameuhad. Their unvarying message was that the armed resistance in the ghettos was the ultimate cry against historical Jewish passivity. As author and educator Sarah Shner-Nishmit said in the ceremony of 1957:

Listen every young man and woman in Israel to the lesson of the uprisings in the ghettos of Warsaw and Bialystok, to the message of the Jewish partisans, the people of the forest. Listen every young man and woman in Israel to the lesson that we had to study: this world hasn’t learnt a thing from kiddush hashem (martyrology)—which it scorns!

The lesson of the armed resistance in the ghettos, particularly in Warsaw, was emphasized in numerous articles and speeches in summer 1955, in the wake of the “Kasztner trial.” In one of the most disputed verdicts ever given in Israel, Justice Benjamin Halevi ruled that Israel Kasztner, an activist of the Hungarian Zionist Relief and Rescue Committee during the war, collaborated with the Nazis and “sold his soul to the devil.” Kasztner’s alleged collaboration was equated by public figures, educators and publicists, particularly from the Zionist left, with the response of the Judenrate (Jewish Councils) to the Nazi policy of destruction. General Moshe Carmel, a member of Ahdut Haavoda and an IDF commander in Israel’s War of Independence, wrote about the meaning of the educational lesson of the “Jewish response” during the Holocaust to the Israeli soldiers:

The history of the Shoah is written on two pages: one side is headed Shame, the other Pride. Under Shame the period is encapsulated in the Judenrat; under Pride in the Resistance. Which model shall we place before our soldiers on the eve of battle? The Judenrat, who surrendered Jews to the enemy, abandoning their own people…Let there be no blurring of the distinction between the two ways, collaboration and surrendering or faithful till the end. Our youth must be taught the path of the heroes.

Yitzhak Tabenkin, leader and ideologist of Hakibbutz Hameuhad, regarded armed resistance in the ghettos as exemplifying how a man, even when he had no more than a stick or a stone, could withstand any enemy. He saw active opposition in the ghettos as the epitome of revolutionary Zionism—the rebellion against passivity; the Jew’s decision to take his fate into his own hands and his refusal to accept the judgment of the Goyim about his life or death.

We discovered that it was possible to resist, possible and of a compelling necessity. Our friends [the young members of the resistance groups in the Ghettos] more than anyone else taught us this lesson…. Most of the House of Israel made no attempt to withstand…those Six Million led to the slaughter—resistance was a crucial necessity for them…for there was no greater collapse of faith in God than this impotence…. It is the soul that grasps a weapon, the man who is determined not to die like a dog, who has resistance in his soul, finds something everywhere with which he can defend himself, the first stone he picks up, a stick, his very fingernails.

Rejecting the Distinction Between Victims as an Immoral Concept

From the outset the efforts to turn the ghetto uprisings into a state symbol and a main component in the education of the young generation faced severe criticism by prominent figures in Israel. Some, such as poets Natan Alterman and Uri Zvi Grenberg, opposed mainly the value judgment implicit in this distinction between those who were members of armed resistance groups and those who were not. They disputed the idea of placing armed resistance at the center of Holocaust commemoration, or using it educationally as a value over other patterns of Jewish reaction. Supporters of this viewpoint included individuals and groups who identified deeply with the Jewish existence and traditions of the Diaspora, such as religious Zionists, as well as those whose national and educational beliefs were based on complete rejection and even divorce from the Jewish experience in the Diaspora, such as prominent members of Mapai. Both groups repudiated the link made by the Zionist left between the land of Israel ethos and the reaction of the Jews during the Holocaust.

Religious Zionism. The main ideological opponent of making any value judgment of Jewish behavior during the Holocaust in the 1950s was religious Zionism. Spokesmen such as Zerah Warhaftig, one of the leaders of Hapoel Hamizrachi, who was active in the effort to commemorate the Holocaust, vehemently opposed criticism of the Jewish population for failing to resist. According to this view, a value distinction between those who rebelled and those who did not was a clear defamation of the victim’s memory. “Discriminating between victims [those who fought and those who did not] profanes Holiness,” said Warhaftig when the Knesset enacted the Yad Vashem Law in May 1953.

Religious Zionist spokesmen of Hamizrahi, Hapoel Hamizrahi, and later of Hamafdal (the National Religious Party) saw the Holocaust as another hutban, another catastrophe—although unprecedented in its scope—in the destruction and killing that had always been the fate of the Jewish people. According to this concept, the reaction of the Jews in the Holocaust, regardless of the moral distinction between fighters and non-fighters, was another chapter in Jewish martyrdom—kiddush hashem. Therefore, religious Zionism wanted to set the 10th of Tevet (when according to the Bible, the armies of Nebuchadnezzar arrived in Jerusalem and began the siege) as the memorial day, interweaving the Holocaust into the collective memory of all the destructions and martyrdoms, from Nebuchadnezzar to Hitler.

Ben-Gurion and Mapai. Reservations regarding the left’s attempt to inscribe the ghetto uprisings as an educational myth for Israel’s young generation were voiced in the 1950s by some Mapai leaders, notably the first prime minister, Ben-Gurion. The attitude of Mapai, the party in power in the 1950s, toward the memory of the Holocaust in general, and the place of the uprisings in national memory in particular, was influenced by the concept of “statism” (mamlakhtiyut), which was the dominant ideology of the State of Israel during its first decade. The Ben-Gurion school of statism strove to emphasize the nation’s ancestral past, “skipping” the long history of exile in the Galut.

Thus, while Ben-Gurion and his supporters focused on the ethos and myths connected to the battle for independence and building the state, and made a clear separation between “here” and “there,” Zionist leftists saw the rebels as “men of the land of Israel in the Diaspora,” fulfilling the ethos of self-defense. Although he affirmed his esteem for the spiritual endurance of the Jewish people in exile, in his speeches and articles both before and after the Shoah Ben-Gurion emphasized the essential difference between the passive heroism of the Diaspora Jew and the active heroism which flourished in Israel.

In the long dark years of our wanderings, it was the moral heroism [sic] that sustained us, that set us apart, from earliest times. The unique concept of the sanctification of the Name, the sacrifice of one’s soul for the principles and the causes of Judaism, accompanied us through the generations and through all the lands of our dispersal…without it we could not have continued our existence through thousands of years of exile. But it was a passive heroism [emphasis in original]. The Jews, who refused to bow to external compulsion, bowed to their fate … losing the belief that they could determine their own destiny … until the return of the first pioneers to Israel … signaled the start of a deep transformation of the spirit within the Jewish people … With his return, the faith of the new Jew in his ability to command his destiny and the destiny of his people was awakened [emphasis in original].

In a speech in the summer of 1948, on the anniversary of the death of Herzl, Ben-Gurion made a clear distinction between the military struggle in Israel and the uprisings during the Holocaust. He placed the Warsaw Ghetto uprising on the long list of Jewish martyrs in the Diaspora. In contrast, he sought to fix in the sabras’ consciousness, and especially in that of new immigrant soldiers serving in the IDF, the historical link between the new Israeli heroism and the heroism of those who lived and fought on the soil of the land of Israel before the Temple was destroyed. This direct reference to the mythic heroes of the past was an element in the “leap of history,” which was his standard, his aspiration to link the present State of Israel to the commonwealth of Jews before the destruction.

Ben-Gurion admitted to this pantheon only heroes who had acted in the land of Israel, from Joshua bin Nun and those who conquered the land in biblical times, through the Maccabees and those who defended Jerusalem in the Great Revolt, as well as the warriors of Bar Kochba, to members of HaShomer, the Haganah, and the IDF. This pantheon, based entirely on the struggle for independence in the land of Israel, had no place for the Jewish youth who had organized self-defense groups during the pogroms in Russia, or for ghetto fighters and partisans. Theirs was a foreign struggle, in Ben-Gurion’s view, which was irrelevant to the Israeli reality during the first years of state building.

The different aims of the ghetto uprisings and of the struggle in the land of Israel also explain why the revolts in the ghetto failed to find a place among the national mythology. The goal of the War of Independence, a principal national symbol, was renewal of the national life of the Jewish people. Life, renewal, and building were the watchwords. “We wish to live [my emphasis, R.S.] in this country, to create a free and redemptive homeland for any Jew who needs or desires it. We don’t want to die the death of heroes,” said Ben-Gurion in August 1948 at a meeting of the Zionist steering committee. In contrast, the struggle of the remnants in the ghettos was portrayed as a battle for Jewish honor in the full awareness that the fate of the Jews was already sealed. A battle for honor shorn of the victory which could ensure an independent national life, in Ben-Gurion’s eyes, belonged to the world of the ghetto, to Jewish martyrdom in the Diaspora. Accordingly, the struggle of the pioneers and Israeli soldiers for the creation of the State of Israel should serve as an educational model for the young generation and not the last battle in the ghetto, in the Galut.

Ben-Gurion’s distinction between “here” and “there”—the stress on the battle within Israel, which stressed life and state-building over Diaspora martyrdom—was generally accepted by the Mapai leadership in the early 1950s. Knesset speeches by Mapai members alluded to it in the beginning of 1952 during the debate over German reparations, and it served as a major argument against those who opposed the agreement on the grounds that accepting reparations was betraying Jewish national honor. While Mapam opponents argued that the ghetto fighters gave their lives to save the honor of the Jews, Mapai members pointed out the gulf between the Diaspora struggle for Jewish honor, which could not strengthen the feeble Jewish existence in exile, and building a base of real power in the State of Israel. According to Mapai leader Zalman Aran: “With all due respect to the Jewish martyrs, when we consider Jewish heroism, the last three generations—immigrating to Israel, adopting a life of physical labor, agricultural settlements, establishing a Hebrew state—are worth tens of generations of those who went before.”

An editorial in the Mapai paper Hador, published on the tenth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, drew a clear distinction between individual heroism and the national significance of the revolts. It praised the heroism of the fighters, but it warned that focus on the uprisings could blur the true lesson of the Shoah: that the Jewish people in the Diaspora were utterly helpless.

We must not concentrate the memory of destruction into one single point [the uprisings], for it will distract us from all the other events and occurrences, and most importantly, from its lesson—that there is no safety among strangers, no matter who they are—this should be engraved deep in the heart of the people.

For the young generation growing up in Israel during the first decade, the statism of Ben-Gurion and Mapai emphasized new life in Israel—regeneration and the construction of Israel, as opposed to hurban, or death in the ghetto.


The debate in Israel in the 1950s over the Jewish response during the Holocaust reflected the political, and mainly the ideological, polarization which characterized Israeli society during its formative years. An examination of a variety of sources on the public discourse leads to the conclusion that amongst those who represented Israeli public thought, differences in approach to the Jewish response during theHolocaust derived from diverse and sometimes contradictory attitudes toward Jewish history and Jewish tradition, as well as from different visions of the future Israeli society.

The historical lesson, and the relevance of the narrative to the exigencies of society of that time, as conceived by the various ideological streams, are what gave the myths their vitality and force. The lesson of history was the main theme in the effort of the Zionist left to weave the uprising into the fabric of symbols and myths which would underpin the Israeli society in the making. The historical lessons which Ben-Gurion saw as irrelevant to the Israeli reality were regarded by Tabenkin as vital in the formation of that society.

Discussions on commemorating the Holocaust and on the Jewish response during that period raised substantive questions linked to the formation of the image of Israeli society: ties to Jewish tradition in the Diaspora, the definition of “heroism” in a society in mortal conflict with its neighbors, the relationship to communism and to the USSR against the background of communist sympathy for the Jewish tragedy during the war, as the Zionist left perceived it, or the idea of the “eternal hatred of the eternal people,” as religious Zionists saw it.

The issue of the Jewish response itself was related to important and troubling questions which touched on the fate of European Jewry during the Holocaust: going to one’s death without resistance, cooperating with the Nazis, turning a Jew over to murderers, among others. These questions were raised, even during the war, by philosophers and public figures in the ghettos of conquered Europe and in the Yishuv. They continued to nag, like an exposed nerve, in the Jewish world and particularly in Israel in the 1950s. From the perspective of the few years that had passed since the destruction of European Jewry, when the full significance of the national disaster had not yet been fully absorbed by the Jewish world, and when Israeli society was immersed in the first stage of its integration, the ideological prism and the educational lesson were adopted as a method of meeting the challenge of this difficult issue.