How a Jewish desire for revenge against the Nazis turned into an Israeli justification for killing Palestinians

How a Jewish desire for revenge against the Nazis turned into an Israeli justification for killing Palestinians

Shachar Pinsker writes:

By the end of the Second World War, writing about vengeance in Hebrew had taken on a new significance. A million and a half Jews fought in the armies of the Allied Powers. Writing in Hebrew, however, focused on the 30,000 Jews from the Yishuv [the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine] who volunteered to fight alongside the British army, especially the Jewish Brigade, numbering about 5,000 men. The Brigade fought on the Italian front in March-May 1945, but most of its activity followed the war. Its significance lay in the fact that the language, flag, symbols and anthem of the Jewish Brigade were Hebrew. Brigade people were active in the paramilitary units of the Haganah and Palmach. The anthem of the Jewish Brigade was written by the poet Yaakov Orland:

Our blood is flowing like a river and fire
Our covenant is calling – for vengeance!
We swore, we swore, brothers in arms,
That none shall return in vain.

Twenty years later, the writer Hanoch Bartov, a Brigade member, wrote in his autobiographical novel Pitzei Bagrut (1965; later translated and published in English as The Brigade) these words, spoken by the protagonist Elisha Kruk:

Not much: a thousand burnt houses. Five hundred dead. Hundreds of raped women … We’re here to redeem blood. One wild Jewish vengeance. Once, like the Tatars. Like the Ukrainians. Like the Germans. All of us … will enter one city and burn, street after street, house after house, German after German.

It is clear from these texts that vengeance was a motivational force in the decision of young Jewish soldiers who enlisted to serve in Europe as part of the Brigade (some of them had lost family members in Europe), and that at least some of these soldiers expected to be able to take revenge on Germans.

In 1945, Brigade soldiers met for the first time in northern Italy with people of the She’erit Ha-pletah (‘the Surviving Remnant’), Holocaust survivors and refugees, as well as partisans and ghetto fighters. Some of the She’erit Ha-pletah had been active in Zionist youth movements even before the war. [Abba] Kovner had just gathered in Lublin, Poland, about 50 young men and women who had a burning desire to take revenge against not only the Nazis but the entire German people. The details that captivate the imagination of many in the story of Kovner and the Avengers – ‘Plan A’, the killing of 6 million Germans by poisoning the water supply of major German cities, and ‘Plan B’, the killing of SS officers and Gestapo officials who were imprisoned in prisoner camps – are less important. More significantly, Kovner stands as a bridge between Holocaust survivors, most of whom spoke, read and wrote in Yiddish, and people from the Brigade, who represented the Hebrew Zionist Yishuv. It is the latter who shaped the ethos of the State of Israel, and some of whom later served in senior roles in the IDF and Israel’s security apparatus. This is a significant shift towards revenge as part of the Zionist discourse of military power in the context of conflict with Arabs in Palestine in the years around 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel. [Continue reading…]

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