Zionism and
The Shoah

It is no accident that modern Zionism was invented by a Viennese journalist. All Viennese Jews knew, at least since the 1890s, that they lived in a world of anti-Semites and even of potentially dangerous street anti-Semitism. 'Gottlob kein Jud' (Thank God it wasn't a Jew) is the immediate reaction of a (Jewish) passer-by to the cries of newspaper vendors on the Vienna Ring, announcing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in the opening scene of Karl Kraus's wonderful The Last Days of Humanity.

There was even less reason for optimism in the 1920s. There was no doubt in most people's minds that the governing Christian-Social Party remained as anti-Semitic as its founder, Vienna's celebrated mayor Karl Lueger. And I still recall the moment of shock when my elders --- I was barely thirteen --- received the news of the 1930 German Reichstag election, which made Hitler's National Socialists the second-largest party. They knew what it meant. In short, there was simply no way of forgetting that one was Jewish, even though I cannot recall any personal anti-Semitism, because my Englishness gave me, in school at least, an identity which drew attention away from my Jewishness.

Britishness probably also immunized me, fortunately, against the temptations of a Jewish nationalism, even though Zionism among the central European young generally went together with moderate or revolutionary socialist views, except for the disciples of Jabotinsky, who were inspired by Mussolini and now govern Israel as the Likud party. Of course Zionism had a greater presence in Herzl's city than among indigenous Jews in, say, Germany where, until Hitler, it attracted only an untypical fringe. There was no way of overlooking the existence either of anti-Semites or of the blue-white football club Hakoah, which faced my father and Uncle Sidney with a problem of conflicting loyalties when it played the visiting British team Bolton Wanderers. However, the vast majority of emancipated or middle-class Viennese Jews before Hitler were not, and never became, Zionist.

We had no idea what dangers threatened the Jews. Nobody had, or could have. Even in the benighted pogrom-ridden corners of Carpathian Europe and the Polish-Ukrainian plains from which the first-generation immigrants came to Vienna, systematic genocide was inconceivable. In case of serious trouble, the old and experienced argued in favour of keeping a low profile, taking evasive action and staying on the right side of such authorities as were in a position to protect them, and might have an interest in doing so, or at least an interest in re-establishing law and order, however inequitable, on their domains.

The young and revolutionary called for resistance and active self-defence. The old knew that, sooner or later, things would settle down again; the young might dream of total victory (e.g. world revolution) but how could they imagine total destruction? Neither actually expected a modern country permanently to get rid of all its Jews, something that had not happened since Spain in 1492. Still less could one imagine their physical extirpation. Moreover, only the Zionists actually envisaged the systematic exodus of all Jews into a mono-ethnic nation-state, leaving their former homes, in the Nazi expression, 'judenrein'.

When people before --- or even in the first years of --- Hitler talked of the dangers of anti-Semitism, they meant an intensification of what Jews had always suffered: discrimination, injustice, victimization, the confident, contemptuous strong intimidating and sometimes brutalizing the minority of the inferior weak. It did not and could not yet mean Auschwitz. The word 'genocide' was not coined until 1942.

What exactly could 'being Jewish' mean in the 1920s to an intelligent Anglo-Viennese boy who suffered no anti-Semitism and was so remote from the practices and beliefs of traditional Judaism that, until after puberty, he was unaware even of being circumcised? Perhaps only this: that sometime around the age of ten I acquired a simple principle from my mother on a now forgotten occasion when I must have reported, or perhaps even repeated, some negative observation of an uncle's behaviour as 'typically Jewish'. She told me very firmly: 'You must never do anything, or seem to do anything that might suggest that you are ashamed of being a Jew.'

I have tried to observe it ever since, although the strain of doing so is sometimes almost intolerable, in the light of the behaviour of the government of Israel. My mother's principle was sufficient for me to abstain, with regret, from declaring myself konfessionslos (without religion) as one was entitled to do in Austria at the age of thirteen. It has landed me with the lifetime burden of an unpronounceable surname which seems spontaneously to call for the convenient slide into Hobson or Osborn. It has been enough to define my Judaism ever since, and left me free to live as what my friend the late Isaac Deutscher called a 'non-Jewish Jew', but not what the miscellaneous regiment of religious or nationalist publicists call a 'self-hating Jew'.

I have no emotional obligation to the practices of an ancestral religion and even less to the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation-state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds. I do not even have to fit in with the most fashionable posture of the turn of the new century, that of 'the victim', the Jew who, on the strength of the Shoah (and in the era of unique and unprecedented Jewish world achievement, success and public acceptance), asserts unique claims on the world's conscience as a victim of persecution.

Right and wrong, justice and injustice, do not wear ethnic badges or wave national flags. And as a historian I observe that, if there is any justification for the claim that the 0.25 percent of the global population in the year 2000 which constitute the tribe into which I was born are a 'chosen' or special people, it rests not on what it has done within the ghettos or special territories, self-chosen or imposed by others, past, present or future. It rests on its quite disproportionate and remarkable contribution to humanity in the wider world, mainly in the two centuries or so since the Jews were allowed to leave the ghettos, and chose to do so.

We are, to quote the title of the book of my friend Richard Marienstras, Polish Jew, French Resistance fighter, defender of Yiddish culture and his country's chief expert on Shakespeare, 'un people en diaspora'. We shall, in all probability, remain so. And if we make the thought experiment of supposing that Herzl's dream came true and all Jews ended up in a small independent territorial state which excluded from full citizenship all who were not the sons of Jewish mothers, it would be a bad day for the rest of humanity --- and for the Jews themselves.

--- From Interesting Times
Eric Hobsbawm
©2003 Pantheon Books

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