The USA and Israel as Big and Little Prussia

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Co-joined Twins?

W.J. Astore

As a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel.*  I kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  Back then, Israel was America’s plucky ally, David against Goliath, helping to keep the Soviet bear at bay, or so it seemed to me.

Through a kid’s eyes, Israel in 1973 was an island seemingly surrounded by a sea of well-armed enemies: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Outnumbered and outgunned.  And now look at today’s reality: Egypt and Iraq have been neutralized.  Syria is devastated.  Jordan is wisely (sort of) neutral.  The Saudis are a quasi-ally.  Outside of the more-or-less manageable threat of terrorism (Hamas and Hezbollah), Israel’s chief enemy today appears to be itself.

What I mean by that is this: Israel, which over the last 70 years has fought several wars for its survival, is now a regional superpower.  Yet the mindset of David versus Goliath persists, even though Goliath is hobbled and defeated.  Meanwhile, as Israel combats terrorism and the legacies of West Bank occupation and isolation of the Gaza Strip, the government prosecutes policies that are considered illiberal and dangerous by many Jewish critics within Israel itself.

A similar David-Goliath mindset exists in the USA, but with far less cause.  Bizarrely, the world’s military superpower envisions itself as being surrounded by enemies.  Its response is something like Israel’s, as if the USA is Israel writ large.  Both countries seek total military dominance over their perceived enemies and rivals; both are led by strong men dogged by claims of corruption; both glorify their militaries; both appear to be spoiling for war with Iran.

Interestingly, both are also obsessed with demographic “enemies within”: many Israelis fear growing Arab/Muslim influence within; many Americans fear minorities will soon constitute the majority (estimates say non-whites will outnumber whites in the year 2045, but some Americans – like Laura Ingraham on Fox News – feel it’s already happened).  The result: the ruling administrations of both countries have doubled down on security and identity politics.  Israel has made Arabs second-class citizens, a form of apartheid; Trump & Co. has vilified immigrants (especially Mexicans) as rapists and murderers.  Both are building walls to keep the “enemy” without.  Both see massive military spending (and nuclear weapons) as the ultimate guarantors of peace.

Israel is little Prussia; the USA is big Prussia.  And like Prussia (and Germany) of the past, they pose as the aggrieved party, surrounded by enemies, hemmed in and oppressed.  It’s never wrong to be strong – that’s their guiding motto.  And by strength they mean hardness: military strength, police strength, the strength of superior weapons technology, embraced by leaders willing to kill or torture or imprison others in the name of preserving a “democratic” way of life.

It’s a mindset conducive to authoritarianism, to militarism, to nationalism, even to kleptocracy disguised as essential spending on national security.  At its root is fear, which generates a “no compromise” attitude toward the Other (whether Palestinian “terrorists” or immigrant “killers” and “animals”).  As the Palestinian activist Bassam Aramin put it in an interview in The Sun (October 2016):

“I think our main enemy is the Israelis’ fear.  It’s part of their consciousness.  When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background.  If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.”

Fear is the mind-killer.  It enables perpetual warfare and a police state – and lots of profit and power to those who facilitate the same.

The original Prussia became consumed by militarism and nationalism and collapsed after two devastating world wars.  What will happen to today’s Big and Little Prussia?  Perhaps a war against Iran, timed to coincide with the 2020 presidential campaign season in the USA?  Such an unnecessary and likely disastrous war can’t be ruled out.

Consider the dynamic between the current leaders of the USA and Israel, each egging the other one on to be tougher, less compromising, more Prussian.  A pacific future is not in the cards for these military “superpowers.”  Not when they’re so busy emulating Prussia.

*Why are Americans, generally speaking, supporters and admirers of Israel?  So much so that politicians ostentatiously wear co-joined US/Israel flag lapel pins?  For several reasons:

1.   The US media is generally pro-Israel.  Meanwhile, the Arab world is often synonymous with terrorism in our media.

2.  Israelis seem more like Americans.  What I mean is this: Israeli spokespeople wear western dress and speak English with a faint accent.  Until recently, Arab spokespeople on TV looked and dressed “foreign” and spoke English with a heavier accent.

3.  The power of pro-Israeli political lobbies such as AIPAC and fear among politicians that criticism of Israel will be construed (and demonized) as anti-Semitism.

4.  The Holocaust.

5.  The Evangelical Context: I remember listening to a talk show on the radio, soon after the Yom Kippur War, in the mid-1970s.  The speaker predicted the Second Coming was near.  That got my attention!  Why was that?  Because, this person said, Israel had gained control over Jerusalem in apparent fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.  Fast forward forty years to today and you hear basically the same evangelical predictions about the Second Coming of Christ being imminent as Israel expands its hegemony over the “holy land” in Palestine.

One cannot underrate the importance of (selective) Biblical prophecy as advanced by fundamentalist Christians nestled within today’s Republican Party.  These evangelicals couldn’t care less about Trump’s sins and transgressions.  Their eyes are on the prize: Armageddon and Christ’s return, which they link to Israel’s domination of the region – which will lead to more wars, a brutal future seen as inevitable, even desirable.

Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust

"Defiance" is one of the few mainstream movies that depict Jewish resistance to the Holocaust.  Another good movie is "Escape from Sobibor" resistance
“Defiance” is one of the few mainstream movies that depict Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. Another good movie is “Escape from Sobibor”

W.J. Astore

In 2006, I presented the following talk on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust.  It’s a dangerous myth, and sadly a common one, that Jewish people did not resist the Nazis in meaningful or effective ways.  From this myth stems a far more insidious one: that Jewish people were somehow complicit in the murderous campaigns against them.  I gave this paper to counter these dangerous myths.

The Nazis exterminated nearly six million Jews during World War II.  Those who claim that Jews went meekly like sheep to the slaughter ignore the many instances of remarkable courage in the face of this staggering crime against humanity.  In reality, Jewish resistance took many forms.  That it often proved futile reflects the poignant vulnerability of Jews rather than any lack of bravery or courage.

Resistance can be divided into two general categories: passive and active.  Passive resistance took the form of cultural and spiritual endurance and assertiveness.  Jews confined to ghettos like Warsaw continued to practice their culture and religion despite prohibitions; they organized symphonies, drama clubs, schools, and other voluntary and educational associations; they also risked their lives by trading across ghetto walls despite threats of torture and execution.

Passive resistance drew on a long and esteemed Jewish tradition of outlasting the persecutor.  Initially believing that the Nazis and their various European sympathizers and lackeys wanted to put Jews in their place, not in their graves, Jewish leaders sought to endure discriminatory laws, pogroms, and deportations, hoping for an eventual relaxation of anti-Semitic policies or perhaps even the defeat of their oppressors on the battlefield.

Thus Jewish resistance remained largely non-violent until 1943, in part because the Germans succeeded in deceiving the Jews.  They were helped in this by the fact that their predecessors—the German soldiers of World War I—had generally behaved decently, treating Jewish non-combatants humanely.  Jews in Poland and the East initially expected similar behavior from Nazi invaders.  Even after it became apparent to Jews that Nazi soldiers and especially police were intent on human butchery on a scale previously unimaginable, Jewish cultures that embraced sanctity and sheer joy of life found it difficult to comprehend a Nazi culture built on hate and murderous brutality, especially one that continued to worship civilized icons like Goethe and Beethoven.  Many Jews put their faith in God, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, yet daring not at first to think the unthinkable.

When Jewish communities and individuals recognized the unthinkable—that the Nazis and their various European fellow travelers wanted to exterminate systematically all Jews in Europe—active and armed resistance increased.  Active resistance included acts of industrial sabotage in munitions factories or isolated bombings of known gathering spots of Nazis.  One must recognize, however, the near utter futility of Jews “winning” pitched battles against their killers.  The Nazis had machine guns, dogs, usually superior numbers, and could call on tanks, artillery, and similar weapons of industrialized modern warfare.  Facing them were Jewish resisters, often unarmed, some at best having pistols or rifles with limited ammunition, perhaps supplemented by a few precious hand grenades.  Such unequal odds often made the final result tragically predictable, yet many Jews decided it was better to die fighting than to face extermination in a death camp.

When it became apparent that they were being deported to Treblinka to be gassed, Warsaw Jews at first refused to assemble, then led a ghetto uprising in April 1943 whose ferocity surprised the Germans. More than 2000 German soldiers supported by armored cars, machine guns, flamethrowers, and unlimited ammunition faced approximately 750 Jews with little to no military training.  The SS General in command, Jürgen Stroop, had estimated he would need two days to suppress the uprising.  In fact, he needed a full month as Jews armed mainly with pistols, homemade grenades, and Molotov cocktails fought franticly and ferociously from street to street, bunker to bunker.  The Warsaw ghetto uprising was only the most famous example of nearly 60 other armed uprisings in Jewish ghettos.

Resistance was less common in death camps like Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka, mainly because there was not enough time for networks of resistance to form.  Resistance requires leaders, organization, and weapons.  These elements cannot be improvised and acted upon in a few hours or even days: they require months of planning and training.  Despite nearly insurmountable difficulties, however, Jews did lead revolts at all three of these death camps as well as at Auschwitz-Birkenau and 18 forced-labor camps.

Jews also participated actively in resistance networks in Poland, the Soviet Union, France, and other countries.  Their plight was difficult in the extreme, since anti-Semitism within these networks often required Jews to hide their ethnicity.  In some cells of the Polish resistance, Jews were killed outright.  Many Soviet partisans distrusted and exploited Jews; nevertheless, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews fought as partisans in the USSR against Nazi invaders.  In France, Jews made up less than one percent of the population yet 15 to 20 percent of the French underground.  In 1944, nearly 2000 Jewish resisters in France united to form the Organisation Juive de Combat (Jewish Fighting Organization), which supported Allied military operations by attacking railway lines and German military installations and factories.

Impressive as it was, Jewish resistance was always hamstrung for several reasons.  In general, Jews lacked combat experience since many countries forbade Jewish citizens from serving in the military.  Like Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs) captured by the Nazis, many Jews, especially those confined in ghettos, were weakened by disease and deliberate starvation.  Under these conditions, trained Soviet soldiers died with hardly a murmur of protest, so it is hardly surprising that Jewish families who had never been exposed to the hardships of war would similarly succumb.

The Nazis succeeded in creating a Hobbesian state of nature in which people were so focused on surviving from hour to hour that their struggles consumed virtually all their energy and attention.  Dissension within Jewish communities also inhibited resistance, with older Jews and members of Judenräte (Jewish councils) tending to support a policy of limited cooperation with the Nazis, hoping that by contributing to the German war effort, they might thereby preserve the so-called productive elements of Jewish communities.

More controversially, Jewish resistance was hampered by weak and irresolute international support.  Fearing that Nazi propaganda would exploit pro-Jewish statements as proof that a Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy was behind the war, Western leaders refrained from condemning Nazi actions.  Official Catholic and Protestant statements were equally tentative and tepid.  Irresolute and sporadic support unintentionally played into the hands of Nazi plans for Jewish extermination.

Observant Jews were people of God’s law, the Torah, who put their faith in God, with Jewish culture in general tending to disavow militant actions.  Confronted by murderous killing squads possessing all the tools of industrialized mass warfare, Jews nevertheless resisted courageously, both passively and actively.  That their resistance often ended tragically does not mean that it failed.

Why We’re Outraged by Poison Gas

Zyklon-B stockpile used by the Nazis in World War II (Image: USHMM)
Zyklon-B stockpile used by the Nazis in World War II (Image: USHMM)

W.J. Astore

A good friend of mine wrote to me about chemical weapons/poison gas in World War I, and it got me to thinking about why we’re so outraged by the recent use of poison gas in Syria.

When you think about it (and who really wants to), there are so many bloody and awful ways to die in war.  Besides the usual bullets and bombs, the U.S. has used depleted uranium shells, white phosphorous, and cluster munitions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  Why, then, the outrage over gas?  And why was it banned after World War I?

I think it was because chemical weapons/poison gas proved both indecisive and inglorious.  If chemical weapons had produced decision on the battlefield, they would have been retained, despite their inglorious and wretched effects.  But their military utility proved limited and their image disreputable to military concepts of honor, so they were outlawed.

Think of Syria today.  The use of chemical agents led to wanton death.  They produced no military decision.  And, assuming Syrian governmental forces used them, they only added to Assad’s disrepute.

But I also think that, when one thinks of the gassing of innocents, one can’t help but to recall, however tangentially or obliquely, the awful reality of the utter abyss of the Nazi mass murder chambers, where carbon monoxide and Zyklon-B were used to slaughter millions of innocents.

Chemical weapons are a ghastly symbol of man’s inhumanity to man.  We are outraged because of the outrageous effects of these weapons and the horrific uses to which they’ve been put.

But let us also be outraged by any weapon that treats human beings as matter to be snuffed out or destroyed.  Only then will we seriously question the wisdom (and the humanity) of responding to gas by letting “conventional” missiles fly.

Thirteen Movies About the Holocaust

scholl movie

I’ve seen a lot of movies and documentaries about the Holocaust or with themes related to the Holocaust and totalitarianism.  Of the films I’ve seen, these are the thirteen that stayed with me.  Please note that these movies have adult themes; they may not be suitable for children or teens.

  1. American History X (1998): Searing movie about neo-Nazis and the power of hate.  Violent scenes for mature audiences only.
  2. Anne Frank: The Whole Story (2001): Excellent dramatization of Anne Frank’s life, to include the tragic end at Bergen-Belsen.
  3. For My Father (2008): A movie about Palestinians, Israelis, and suicide bombers, but also a movie about the difficulties of confronting and overcoming prejudice.
  4. Hotel Rwanda (2004): The genocide in Rwanda, and how one brave man made a difference.
  5. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961): Powerful indictment of Nazi war criminals after World War II. 
  6. Katyn (2007): A reminder that the Nazis weren’t the only mass murderers in World War II.
  7. The Last Days (1998): Incredibly moving documentary that explores the fate of Hungarian Jews.  Highly recommended.
  8. Life Is Beautiful (1997): It’s hard to believe that a comedy could be made about the Holocaust.  But I think this movie works precisely because the main character is so resourceful and full of life.
  9. The Lives of Others (2006): Astonishing movie about life under a totalitarian regime (East Germany).  A “must see” to understand how people can be controlled and cowed and coerced, but also how some find ways to resist.
  10. Lore (2012): Movie about a German teenager who has to survive in the chaos of 1945 as the Third Reich comes crashing down.  Various small scenes show the hold that Hitler had over the German people, and the reluctance of many Germans to believe that the Holocaust occurred and that Hitler had ordered it.
  11. Sarah’s Key (2010): Heart-wrenching movie about the roundup of Jews in France, which reminds us that the Nazis had plenty of helpers and collaborators.
  12. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005): Inspiring movie about Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany.  The Scholls were college students who took a courageous stand against the Nazis.  Executed as traitors in 1943, they are now celebrated as heroes in Germany. 
  13. The Wave (2008): Compelling movie about the allure of fascism and “the Fuhrer (leader) principle.”  Highly recommended, especially if you want to know how Hitler got so many young people to follow him.

W.J. Astore