A Review Essay by Patricia Lee Sharpe
I had no idea that Israeli army reserves would shortly be called up or that Israeli tanks would soon be positioned on the border with Gaza when I bought The Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Yale historian Timothy Snyder a few weeks ago. I wasn’t even pursuing the matter of the Holocaust, as such. I was following up another long term interest: what happens in border areas where nations or cultures meet? More to the point, what happens when an ill-fated people is in the way of a more powerful people’s expansions plans?
Over the years I’d become sensitized to the marginalization of hill peoples around the world, including the folk of Appalachia. When I bought The Bloodlands, I was mainly thinking of the many tribal peoples who border the rice basket state of Assam in India, but also of the embattled hill tribes in Myanmar. Another very troubled mountainous borderland I’ve spent a long time thinking about is the violently contested stretch between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I wondered if I could learn something relevant from Snyder’s handling of borderland issues in Europe.
The bloodlands between Germany and the U.S.S.R. weren’t hilly, of course. They were vast fertile plains, a prize both countries wanted to control. Unfortunately, millions of people occupied that rich terrain, and there was no convenient marginal land to absorb the Poles, Ukrainians and Belorusians who would have to be shoved out of their homes. They had to die. As for the Jews, Hitler’s initial Final Solutions, bizarre plans to ship European Jews to almost-empty Madagascar or Siberia, fell through. Mass killing was the final Final Solution. But the Jews weren’t the only people to have been declared superfluous. It’s important to know and remember this, Snyder says, and I agree.
Snyder describes, in The Bloodlands, in hard-to-read detail, how, when, where and by whom fourteen million non-combatants were shot, starved or gassed to death, as a result of deliberate national policy by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. We all know that National Socialist policy called for eliminating Jews from Europe. No less horrible, Hitler and Stalin did their best to kill off as many Poles as they could to prevent the revival of anything like an inconvenient independent Poland. Here are the numbers of the murdered, for the most part actual numbers, not estimates, and conservative according to Snyder, since they were found in Nazi and Soviet records:
• 3.3 million Soviet Ukrainians starved in 1932-33 to provide food for the Russian heartland.
• 300,000 Soviet citizens (mostly Poles and Ukrainians) shot by the USSR in the Great Terror 1937-38
• 4.2 million Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians starved on purpose by German occupiers
• 5.4 million Jews (mostly Polish or Soviet citizens) gassed or shot by Germans 1941-44
• 700,000 Belarusian and Polish civilians shot in reprisals for partisan actions, etc.
As I plowed through Snyder’s hideous day by day, year by year, place by place detailing of slaughter, my vague interest in marginalized people was wholly diverted to the particular horrors of mass killing in Europe. This led to thoughts about Israel, which had been founded to give Jews a homeland where they might be safe from persecution.
Like Snyder I prefer not to use the term genocide. It is divisive and it leads to macabre inclusions and exclusions that take the form of value judgements—as in, we suffered more than you did, etc. Snyder observes that “what begins as competitive martyrology can end with martyrological imperialism.” Israel seems to have succumbed to this temptation. Israel, like Nazi Germany, developed a lust for lebensraum, land enough to settle Jews from the disapora and, of course, to provide for coming generations.
Unsurprisingly, the land that Western guilt managed to carve out of Palestine for a new country of Israel was tiny. Its shape wasn’t perfect from the point of view of easy defense either. But these refugees from Nazi persecution had been given an extraordinary, unprecedented opportunity: a chance to begin again on anciently lost land. They were also handed a problem: hostile neighbors. (I'd like to know more about whether and how Israel attempted to assuage their understable resentment of the new state thrust upon them.)
Re that land: Israel wanted more—and took it. Having occupied the West Bank of the Jordan after a failed invasion by ill-led Arab armies, Israel set about creating facts on the ground: Jewish settlers by the tens and hundreds of thousands. Whatever the high-minded blather about a two-state solution, Israeli leaders had no obvious interest in sharing the territory with a sovereign sister state called Palestine.
As I got further into Snyder's painstakingly even-toned book, I found myself surprised and disturbed by the extent to which I found myself thinking of how often the victim ultimately replicates the actions of the tormentor. The hazee becomes a hazer. The bullied becomes a bully. Jews dehumanized by the Nazis became Israelis who systematically dehumanize Palestinians so as to get them out of the way of a relentless process of land expropriation. In short, Palestinians must die (the shocking slaughter in refugee camps, the wildly disproportionate retaliations for Hamas provocations, the fatal shootings of kids throwing stones, countless deaths from lack of access to hospitals or healthy living conditions) or be made so hopelessly miserable that they will self-deport, to use Mitt Romney’s euphemistic term for ousting undocumented Latinos.
The result: violence begets violence, death begets death. Bloodlands in the Middle East.
It didn’t have to be this way, I suspect. Instead of defining Jewish persecution as sui generis, unique, incomparable, never to be atoned for, Israel might have taken another path. That is why I quoted the ghastly figures from The Bloodlands. Why did it never occur to Israeli ideologues to make common cause with the surviving Poles (not all of them vicious anti-Semites) whose compatriots had also died in the millions at the hands of the Nazis and the Soviets? Or to the Ukrainians? Or the Belorusians? Why have Jews fought to hard to prevent the Turkish slaughter of Armenians from being called genocide? Why, for that matter, have they not reached out to native Americans whose total eradication was strenuously attempted by 19th century American settlers? Why have they not embraced the Tutsis in Rwanda who were murdered for the crime of being Tutsi? And so on. Must a Chosen People build a wall around itself?
The better decision? Well, here’s a hint. Israel’s one and only national capital would have been Tel Aviv. Palestine’s Ramallah, perhaps. Jerusalem would have become the shared Holy City of Jews, Christians and Muslims, all of whom have legitimate claims. This new Jerusalem would have been a true beacon to the world, a pilgrimage site bringing people together, not tearing them apart. Does anyone else remember that dream? Had it been realized, isn’t it possible that Iran’s or Hamas’s attitude toward Israel might be different today? And wouldn’t some of us in America feel better about the millions of dollars we lavish on Israel?
Why should it be a dream?