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Enough of “They Fought Back”!

Bennett Muraskin
January 3, 2016

by Bennett Muraskin

1-225x300WHY SO MUCH FUSS over the extent of armed Jewish resistance to the Nazis in the pages of Jewish Currents? Resistance took many forms. A few Jews turned to armed resistance as an absolute last resort in the face of a genocidal enemy. But the fact is that armed resistance was impossible for the overwhelming majority of Jews under Nazi rule. Even the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising only took place after most of its inhabitants were exterminated. Morris Schappes himself asked (“Resistance Is the Lesson,” Autumn 2015) “why so few, so late?”

Where they could, Jews joined broader resistance movements and national armies that fought against the Nazis. But that was not really “Jewish resistance.” And some of these national armies committed war crimes of their own, especially the Red Army.

Who in the Jewish mainstream today argues that Jews under Nazi rule went like sheep to the slaughter? Bettleheim, Hilberg, and Arendt wrote decades ago, and their claims have long since been refuted. I know of no recent history of the Holocaust that does not cover the topic of Jewish armed resistance.

OK, so many people don’t read these books, but tens of thousands go to museums. One of the permanent exhibits at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in DC is devoted to “Rescue and Resistance.” Its online Holocaust encyclopedia includes a chapter on “Jewish Resistance.” The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York published a book to accompany an exhibit, both titled “Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance the Holocaust.” In the realm of popular culture, two recent Hollywood movies Defiance and Inglourious Basterds were devoted to the theme of Jewish armed resistance to the Nazis.

As Lawrence Bush wrote in the Autumn 2015 issue (“Remembering the Jews Who Fought Back”), “in recent years, this sheep-to-slaughter myth has largely been set aside in Jewish educational settings.” I would argue that this happened quite a while ago, but either way, the myth has been dispelled. Who still needs convincing? And more to the point, what are we trying to prove?

In the same issue, Lawrence Bush drew four admirable lessons from the Holocaust, including the story of Jewish resistance: The need to (1) combat racism, (2) develop a sense of social responsibility (3) welcome refugees and (4) rebuild and reinvent Jewish life. None of them have any connection to armed resistance. This is what sets us apart from rightwingers, not the question of how much Jews fought against the Nazis.

The only place in the world where Jews are armed and fighting as “Jews” is in Israel where, unfortunately, they are engaged in occupying the land of another people. Defenders of Israeli polices of violent repression and militarism constantly invoke the lessons of the Holocaust, as they see them. Rightwing Zionists are as proud of the Jewish armed resistance to the Nazis as we are.

We oppose Israeli polices, but that does not make JC and other progressive Jews into advocates for Palestinian armed resistance. If it was the right decision for Jews in the concentration camps etc. why not for Palestinians in refugee camps? Because 2016 is not 1943. In fact, almost nothing compares to the situation faced by European Jews under Nazi control who were targeted for total annihilation.

On every issue affecting current world or domestic politics, JC stands for peace with justice and against violence of any kind. So enough of “we fought back. ” It does not fit our reality. It is time to more on.

Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.