Israel and the Holocaust

Topic 8


How do you see the relationship between the Holocaust and the establishment of the modern State of Israel?

The connection between the State of Israel and the Holocaust is a subtle and delicate one and we have to distinguish certain things. Number one, the State of Israel does not owe its existence to the Holocaust. That is extremely important. The connection between Jews and the land of Israel goes all the way back, goes back longer than any other connection between and people and a land in the entire West. It goes back to Abraham, 38 centuries ago. It goes back to Moses, 32 centuries ago. It goes back to King David, 30 centuries ago. Israel was the land where our people were born, where David built the Temple, where the land, the language, the landscape, all of these are written in the Bible in the Book of Psalms. Going to Israel is coming home.

Even the modern State of Israel long antedates the Holocaust. It owes its existence to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, ratified by the League of Nations in 1922. So the Holocaust was not used as an excuse to create the State of Israel. The State of Israel had already been created back long before that. And Jews are the only people ever to build a nation-state in that land. At all other times it was an administrative district of an empire, and there were many empires. But Jews are the only people who have ever built a nation-state there, and our whole history is saturated with it.

Secondly, however, there is a fundamental connection between Israel and the Holocaust, and this goes back to July 1938 and the French spa town of Evian. As a result of that conference, not one of the 32 countries opened their doors to any Jews. Not one. And that includes Britain, America, Canada, Australia, not one. And it was at that moment that Jews knew that there was not one square foot of the entire surface of the Earth that they could call home in the sense given by the poet Robert Frost as ‘the place where if you have to go there, they have to let you in.’

After the Holocaust, Jews cannot be without a home. They simply cannot be without a home. It would be the humanitarian disaster of all times. It would be the end of humanity, to be honest with you, especially since antisemitism has returned to the world and has returned to Europe. So we need Israel, Jews must have a home. And having said that, Palestinians must also have a home. These are not mutually exclusive things at all and we hope and pray that a way will be found to do just that.

And the third sense is quite simply this. During the Holocaust, the Jewish people came eyeball to eyeball with the Angel of Death. Three years after the war was over, in proclaiming the State of Israel, the Jewish people said collectively in the words of the Psalm, “I will not die, but I will live and give testimony to the God of life.” Israel represents the greatest affirmation of life of the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years.

What happened, or rather what failed to happen at Evian convinced Hitler that whatever he did to the Jews, though the world might protest, they would do nothing about it. And that gave him the green light to go ahead. I don’t think it was anyone’s intention to give him the green light, but that is what he drew from it. Had Jews had the slightest ability to fight for themselves, had they had a home, however small, then Hitler would not have done such a thing. Israel has changed the situation of every Jew in the world because we know there is somewhere we can go and there are people who will fight for us. So had Israel existed then, yes, history would have been very different.

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Discussion Questions

  1. As as result of the Evian Conference, the Jews felt rejected by the nations of the world. What should our response be to this today?

In discussing the history of how the State of Israel came to be, Rabbi Sacks mentions the Balfour Declaration. This was a declaration made by the British Government in 1917 at the time when Palestine was a region within the Ottoman Empire, stating support for ‘the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people’.

The Evian Conference took place in the French spa town of Evian in July 1938. Convened by the US, it was organised to discuss the increasing concerns around Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. President Roosevelt hoped that of the 32 countries that attended, many would open their borders to Jewish refugees (some historians have suggested this was partly to allow him to continue to pursue his own very strict immigration policy which severely limited the number of Jews who could enter the US).

Instead, it became clear over the course of the conference that the representatives of the nations were reluctant to offer any concrete solution to the plight of the Jews. Reflecting the opinion of many delegations, the Australian representative, T. W. White, explained: “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” The Evian Conference went down in history as a complete failure. The countries came to no agreement and thus effectively shut their doors to Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany.

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This series, in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.