The Makings of History / Living to Tell the Tale

On whistlers, whistleblowers, Israel's Labor party movement, and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

The first whistles used by policemen to call for reinforcements and arrest suspects came into use hundreds of years ago. Among other things, they were long a symbol of the British bobby, although beginning in the 1960s they gradually went out of use. Today they can be found primarily in the possession of collectors and in whistle museums.

The Hebrew word sharkan (whistler) suggests someone who whistles well, but in English the term "whistleblower" refers to someone who exposes unacceptable behavior, usually in the framework in which he or she works, such as in a financial concern or some government body.

In 1942 German industrialist Edward Schulte exposed the existence of a plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. He indirectly transmitted what he knew to the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva. A few weeks later SS officer Kurt Gerstein was a witness to the murder of thousands of Jews in the gas chambers of the Belzec extermination camp. He reported on that to a Swedish diplomat and later to a representative of the Vatican as well.

Christof Meili was a security guard in a Swiss bank in Zurich. One day in 1997, he discovered that the bank was destroying documents that included information about the savings accounts of Holocaust victims. He prevented the destruction of the papers.

Meili, Gerstein and Schulte violated the laws of their countries, and took the risk of being punished as traitors. This is the first dilemma facing people who dare to reveal unacceptable behavior: They are forced to choose between the discipline of the framework to which they are obligated - and loftier ideals. Persistance requires, most of all, integrity and courage. When the framework with which they are associated violates the law or a court order, their decision is easier. When they find themselves between the law and the dictates of their consciences, however, the decision is more difficult. Such is the dilemma of the refusenik.

Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 leaked secret documents from the Pentagon to The New York Times, considered himself an American patriot: His loyalty to his country led him to expose a series of false presentations and lies that had been used to justify the Vietnam War. Many people who reveal human rights violations in their countries feel the same way. The basic rule is as follows: The more serious the violation and the less democratic the country - the more justified the exposure, even if it involves violating the law. The main difference between Ellsberg and Mordechai Vanunu was that the employee of Israel's nuclear reactor in Dimona who transmitted what he knew to the Sunday Times no longer felt that he belonged to Israeli society at the time.

At most he wanted to save humanity. The Pentagon Papers strengthened public opposition to the Vietnam War. With Ellsberg, the judge declared a mistrial before the case went to trial, and to many he became a national hero. Vanunu was tried in camera, convicted and thrown into prison. He did not succeed in bringing about a debate about Israel's nuclear policy. That happens quite often: When a story of that kind explodes - the news about the story pushes aside the contents of the story. Everyone discusses the motivations and personality of the person revealing the information, and argues about the reaction of the authorities. They discuss loyalty versus betrayal, law and conscience, the public's right and obligation to know, the newspaper's right and obligation to publish, secrets in the Internet era, and the like. However, they speak less about the acts whose exposure led to all this talk, although often these acts are really of far greater significance.

It is commonly said that the Labor movement, which dominated the formation of Israel's national myths, deliberately concealed the role of the Betar movement in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. An article recently published in the periodical Iyunim Betkumat Israel: Studies in Zionism, the Yishuv and the State of Israel, offers a different theory: One reason why Betar's role in the uprising was concealed was that Menachem Begin did not fight for his place in the national pantheon. The author of the article, Amir Peleg, is a doctoral student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Be'er Sheva, and his research has focused on Begin's attitude toward the Holocaust.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising took place in 1943. Its commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, was a member of the left-wing, Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair, and the members of the movement in Palestine glorified the uprising as though it had taken place under the inspiration of the Jewish pioneers in Eretz Israel. The role of the Betar members was downplayed.

There were not only political reasons for that, writes Peleg: Only few Betar members survived and were able to tell the story of their heroism, nor was much documentary material preserved about it. The main reason why Begin refrained from fighting for the historical status of the ghetto uprising was ideological: In his eyes the uprising symbolized the Holocaust itself. It broke out in a situation of helplessness that he felt should not have happened, and represented the hopeless Jewish exile. On the other hand, the rebellion of the right-wing Etzel, or Irgun, against the British in Palestine symbolized to Begin the hopeful Jewish future in the Land of Israel.

Begin fled from Warsaw and left his disciples behind, before the uprising broke out. There were some who didn't forgive him for that until the end of his days. Naturally he wanted to praise the rebellion that he led, as commander of the Irgun in Eretz Israel.