The controversies that emerged this week, over the harsh words about Israel uttered by
a Holocaust survivor at a meeting eight years ago, have made me think about Marek Edelman, the last surviving member of the command group who led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He died in 2009. I was fortunate and privileged to meet him briefly at a conference in Warsaw in 1997. In the current “debates” I have no doubt that in some people’s warped minds he too would be derided and disdained as the “wrong kind of Holocaust survivor”.
Edelman was a Bundist (Jewish socialist) – a lifelong anti-nationalist and internationalist,
and opponent of Zionism. He remained in Poland – his homeland – after the war, fought against the post-war Stalinist regime from a left-wing and democratic position, and continued to struggle for a better and more humane world. His work in this regard included befriending Palestinian students in Poland, and making professional contacts (he trained as a cardiologist) through international conferences, with Palestinian doctors, especially Mustafa Barghouti, a founding member of the the secular left-wing Palestinian National Initiative. They corrersponded about the possiblity of intiating a joint civil society project towards Palestinian and Israeli coexistence with equality and justice.
During the post-war decades, Edelman suffered appalling treatment by Israeli leaders, spokespersons and media for daring to remain an opponent of Zionism, and criticise its increasigly brutal rule, and for daring to declare that in the ghetto he and his comrades had “fought for dignity and freedom, not for a territory nor for a national identity”.
In 1945, he wrote a gripping and astonishingly detailed account of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Polish. It was published in Yiddish and English in 1946. It took another 55 years to be translated into Hebrew by an Israeli publisher.
When Israel hosted the Eichmann trial in 1961, a key event in recording the horrors of the Holocaust, but in a manner that emphasised Israeli ownership of Holocaust history, many key witnesses were invited to Jerusalem. But not Edelman. Accounts of the Eichman trial were translated into more than 20 languages, but not Yiddish, the language of the people who were incarcerated with Edelman in the ghetto. For several decades in Israeli schools students learned about Zionist resisters, and not of the more numerous non-and anti-Zionist resisters.
At various times he was nominated to receive honorary degrees from Israeli universities, but that was blocked by key people in Israel’s official Holocaust remembrance establishment. When Edelman came to Israel to visit fellow Holocaust survivors he had stayed in touch with, his presence in the country was often greeted with very hostile press campaigns.
Back in Poland his clashes with the Stalinist authorities often led him to boycott official ceremonies of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and he began a tradition of alternative ceremonies that continues today.
By the time the 50th anniversary commemoration for the Warsaw Ghetto came around, though, in 1993, Poland was a liberal democracy under the presidency of former trade union leader, Lech Walesa, who knew Edelman very well. Under Walesa’s premiership there was no need for Edelman to hold an alternative ceremony, but Walesa knew Edelman principally in the Polish context and hadn’t realised he had stepped into a minefield when he invited a delegation from Israel led by then Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the commemoration.
The Israeli delegation told Walesa they would refuse to participate if they had to stand alongside and meet the anti-Zionist Marek Edelman. This was the attitude of Labour Zionists to a hero of the Jewish reistance to Nazism. Walesa was astonished but didn’t want to get embroiled in an internecine Jewish quarrel so he sought a diplomatic solution. Before the platform speeches took place, he performed a very public wreath-laying ceremony at Warsaw’s striking stone memorial to the ghetto fighters. He walked towards the memorial with arms linked on the one side to Marek Edelman and on the other side to Edelman’s grandchild. It was a very powerful moment. And then Rabin, without having to meet or shake any anti-Zionist hands, took his place among the platform speakers.
The Israeli delegates included left-winger Shulamit Aloni, who had a less jaundiced view
of Edelman. During the visit she persuaded Rabin to have a private meeting with Edelman – which he did – and, according to Aloni, he emerged very struck by Edelman’s personality. Before he left Warsaw, Rabin had met Edelman again, over breakfast with Walesa. In the conversation Edelman reminded Rabin that, from his reading, he knew that Rabin himself had a Bundist uncle from Vilna. Rabin looked a little uncomfortable. He then urged Rabin to make a proper peace with the Palestinians. Edelman recounted later that Rabin gave an embarrassed smile.
The threat that Edelman posed in the eyes of Zionists like Rabin was a challenge about how the past might more authentically be read, after it had endured a Zionist makeover, but it was even more so a challenge in the present. He legitimised the continuity and integrity of an anti-Zionist perspective, which he emphasised in a memorable interview when he said that to be a Jew means “always being with the oppressed never with the oppressors”.
Zionist ideologues, and the crass “Israel right or wrong ” brigade here, who dominate the political institutions of the Jewish community in Britain have chosen to defend the indefensible. They have chosen the side of the oppressors. That they also seek to use their narrow nationalist reading of the Holocaust to deny the struggles for Palestinian human rights in the present, is beneath contempt. Small wonder that they face a growing challenge from dissident Jews in many countries, committed to social justice and their counterparts within Israel itself.