Beating Hitler by Numbers

A report this week stated that the world's Jewish population reached pre-Holocaust levels. But what does that even mean? Is it a reason for celebration or for mourning?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Hall of Names, Yad Vashem
Does Yad Vashem really need more fragments of Polish Jewish tombstones? Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The annual assessment of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) is a typically Jewish document – it blends hysteria with clear-sighted analysis. It contains the ridiculous assertion, written by JPPI co-chairmen Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat, that “Delegitimization (of Israel) needs to be seen for what it is: No less an existential threat to the Jewish state than the Iranian nuclear program.”

At the same time, the JPPI report is one of the few publications which has put anti-Israel activity and the BDS movement into a bit of perspective, with the conclusion that “severe anti-Israel activity is limited to around 20 campuses, mainly in California and in some elite eastern schools.”

None of this is very sexy, however. The detail that managed to attract headlines in newspapers was the statistical factoid that, if you count all the Jews in the world who have at least one Jewish parent or who identify as being at least “part Jewish,” you reach 16.5 million Jews, which is nearly the number of Jews who lived in the word in 1939, on the eve of World War II. But what does that even mean? Is it a reason for celebration or for mourning?

One way of looking at it of course is that 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, Jews are finally about to beat Hitler. The main source of Jewish population growth is in Israel; as historian Simon Schama says, the six million Jews living in Israel represent “six million defeats for the Nazi program of total extermination.”

But you could also argue that since the total list prepared for the January 1942 Wannsee conference of European Jews to be deported and exterminated amounted to 11 million, we cheated the Germans out of five million and were still ahead when the Third Reich met its gotterdammerung. If, like me, you are the descendant of grandparents who were on that list, there certainly is a case for seeing a five million-full glass.

Whether you derive grim satisfaction from surviving the Nazis in 1945 or today, the numbers indicate a growth rate of 50 percent over 70 years – a period in which the world’s population has nearly tripled. So why aren’t there 30 million Jews today?

The answers to that can fill, and have filled, multiple volumes. My answer is that when I see my grandfather, who emerged from the camps without a relative in the world, surrounded by four generations of descendants, I don’t need any report to tell me we won and the Nazis lost and perhaps we should leave Jew-counting to the anti-Semites and focus on leading better lives and building a better Jewish state.

Community support in London

The decision by London Metropolitan Police to move the “anti-Jewification” march that was scheduled to take place in Golders Green on Shabbat to a location in central London, far from any of the city’s major Jewish communities, has been hailed as a triumph of common sense. It allows the authorities to adhere to the sacred principle of freedom of speech, even for the most obscene of movements, while making it clear that Jews do not have to see neo-Nazis march through their neighborhood.

The joint campaign against the anti-Jewish march has brought out some of the finest of the capital’s tradition of tolerance and respect from Londoners of all faiths and nearly all political persuasions. Sadly, it has also shown the small-mindedness of a few Jewish organizations, which wanted to harness the counter-demonstrations to a hysterical agenda. Chief among these groups is the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, which since its foundation nearly a year ago has been trying to convince us that half of the people in Britain hold anti-Jewish views. Such groups serve mainly to undermine the self-confidence of British Jews and are viewed, quite rightly, with disdain by organizations like the Community Security Trust (CST,) which do serious work to combat racism in all its forms in the United Kingdom.

Naturally, the police’s decision to move the march has been greeted with satisfaction from all Jewish quarters, but I think it’s actually a pity it isn’t taking place as planned. It would have been a total farce, not only for the neo-Nazis, but for those who claim that Britain is no longer a hospitable home for Jews as well.

This wasn’t going to be a re-enaction of the magnificent Nuremberg rallies and it wasn’t about to end as a second kristallnacht against the kosher groceries and shwarma joints on Golders Green Road. What better education for a young Jewish generation than to see a pitiful and pathetic bunch of skinhead misfits in their tawdry outfits mumbling unintelligible slogans while arrayed against them would have been thousands of the finest members of London’s communities, making it clear that the Jews are no longer alone.

Oren’s love affair

The intense controversy and criticism of Michael Oren’s new book, “Ally,” in recent weeks have focused on his assessment of Barack Obama’s foreign policy and attitudes toward Israel and the Arab world and his rather dim view of American Jews, whether Obama administration officials or media pundits, who are critical of Israel. There is another aspect of the book which has been left unmentioned. While the main chapters are on Oren’s four years as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, “Ally” is also a personal account of one man’s love affair with a country. The story of a how a Jersey boy, from his teens, decided to dedicate his life to Israel, fits neatly into a genre of Jewish literature which has not been sufficiently researched – the Aliyah story.

Some Aliyah stories are grittily realistic tales of trial and tribulation and sometimes triumph spanning Zionist history. Others are bitter reckonings of love spurned, written usually in the why-I-was-once-a-Zionist but have now awakened to reality tone. Oren’s belongs to a third sub-genre, that of the Hollywood love-story.

Whatever you think of Oren’s opinions on U.S. foreign policy and the psychological complexes of American Jews, it can’t be argued that these are not detailed and nuanced, if rather misguided. But the chapters which deal with his years in Israel could have been lifted from Leon Uris’ “Exodus.” Oren’s Israel is a country constantly at war while valiantly seeking peace and his Israelis are one-dimensional caricatures, summarised in a few, glowing adjectives – so different from the conflicted American Jews he mercilessly dissects. He glosses over the less pleasant chapters in the country’s recent history, and the few Israelis he doesn’t like, usually career diplomats who leaked his private musings to equally devious Haaretz journalists, all remain nameless and obscure (this is probably the place for full disclosure – Oren omits from his list of career accomplishments the period he spent working as a translator at Haaretz).

There are dozens of examples of this sanitized, non-Israeli Israel in “Ally,” here is just one: He claims that Israeli politicians “usually avoid expletives, perhaps because biblical Hebrew supplied them with none.” Oren obviously assumes that none of his credulous readers have spent five minutes with the average MK or are capable of reading the bible in Hebrew.

Oren has spent his entire adulthood “standing up” for Israel, on campuses, in op-eds and books, as a reserve officer in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit and as ambassador. Largely sidelined from Israel’s inner dealings with the Oval Office and Pentagon by Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, his main role was chief hasbarist. In the process, he has created an infantilized version of the state he loves. Whether he truly believes his own narrative or has created it out of an immigrant’s desire to be accepted by prickly Sabras, is already psychoanalysis.

But ultimately, Oren is doing our country no favors. Israel needs politicians, writers, diplomats and historians capable of looking at it without rose-tinted spectacles and demanding that at 67 it finally grows up. He fails us by spinning fairy tales.

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