By JOHN SAYERS
On the eve of Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, Shlomo Aronson, scholar-in-residence at the Library and professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, discussed Hitler's policy of genocide against European Jews during World War II and its relationship to the subsequent founding of the state of Israel in 1948. The April 22 presentation was the second of three lectures at the Library marking Israel's 50th anniversary.
Born in Israel during the British Mandate, Shlomo Aronson was educated at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Munich and the Free University of Berlin, where he received his doctorate. Besides his work in academia, Aronson served as correspondent and later news and current affairs director of the Israel Broadcast Authority. He has also served as director of Hebrew University's Center of European Studies and has been a visiting scholar with the Brookings Institution and the University of California at Los Angeles.
His published works include Conflict and Bargaining in the Middle East, Beginnings of the Gestapo System and The Politics and Strategy of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East. During his sabbatical at the Library, he is researching a new work, The Quadruple Trap: Hitler, the Allies and the Jews.
"Beginning in the early 20th century," with expanding restrictions on Jewish immigration and the post-World War I Bolshevik Revolution, Mr. Aronson observed, "there was created an ever-growing trap" -- culminating in the Holocaust -- "into which Jews were maneuvered until there was no escape."
Mr. Aronson cited two currently popular lines of thought on the Holocaust. In one, the United States, Britain and the Allies, aware of Hitler's "final solution," abandoned the European Jews to their fate. In another, Hitler was bent on destroying the Jewish people from the beginning, with the entire German nation as his "willing executioners," to use writer Daniel Goldhagen's phrase. "These are simple arguments," he said, "but historical reality is rarely so simple." He added that his job as a historian is not to cast blame, but to understand why.
He has researched recently unsealed wartime records of the Office of Strategic Services -- the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency -- and British Foreign Service documents, particularly those related to British Palestine in the 1920s and '30s. These documents offered up "tragic treasures," in Mr. Aronson's words, including 5, 000 letters to and from Palestinian Jews routed to a joint U.S.-British censorship agency in Bermuda. The British closely monitored the activities of Palestine's Zionist leaders. The documents showed acute Jewish concern, both in Palestine and America, over the worsening fate of European Jewry.
Palestine, a British protectorate after 1917, was gradually closed to Jewish immigration by 1939, due in no small part to native Arab pressure on the British administrators.
"Hitler didn't decide to kill the Jews until 1941," Mr. Aronson said. Up until that time, the Nazi leader was content to simply push the Jews out of German territory, "not only to get rid of them, but to promote anti-Semitism elsewhere," due to the pressures of the resulting crush of refugees.
Prior to 1941, the Nazi policy was to place Jews in concentrated ghettos, and they even had a plan to send all European Jews to the African island of Madagascar. But Hitler needed British cooperation for that plan.
However, when the war erupted, neither the British nor their American allies were eager to accept the potential flood of Jewish refugees or make any deals with Hitler -- not due to any lack of charity, but because of a fear that it might blur their defined war objectives. Reminding the audience of the strong thread of international anti-Semitism at the time, Mr. Aronson said that Allied military and political leaders needed to keep their public consensus that they fought the Nazis in a war against dictatorial evil -- not a war to save the Jews.
"The Allies made a conscious political decision to separate the Jewish issue from war aims," Mr. Aronson said. On the other hand, Hitler's propaganda machine took every opportunity to paint their Allied opponents as fighting a "Jewish war," and some took the bait. Prior to Pearl Harbor, for example, the U.S. Senate launched an investigation of pro-war motion pictures and how a "Jewish-dominated" film industry might be dragging America into the war.
By the time the United States was committed to the war effort, the Nazis increased the persecution of the Jewish population. As the war progressed and the plight of the Jews became more drastic, Germany hoped the Allies would accept refugees. The Nazis even offered deals -- Allied concessions in exchange for the lives of Jews.
But the Allies considered any such rescues or deals as "war damaging" and potentially walking into a trap set by Hitler. They would not fall into that trap -- "and that sealed the fate of the Jews," Mr. Aronson said. "So the 'final solution' wasn't a matter of simple racial hatred, but a complex political decision."
Only at the close of the war did the complete story of the Holocaust begin to reach a mass audience. And since that time, Mr. Aronson contends, the world has begun to perceive the Holocaust as something universal -- a crime against the entire world, rather than one people.
Nevertheless, the political plight of the Jewish people had not diminished. "They were stateless, powerless -- pawns in the struggle between nations," said Mr. Aronson. "Having no country of their own, they were unable to assert their political self-interest or self-defense. Instead, they were forced to rely on others to act on their behalf."
But on May 14, 1948, when the British formally ended their mandate, Zionists in Palestine declared an independent state of Israel, changing everything. After fighting and winning their war of independence, Jews "decided to return to history, victims no more," noted Mr. Aronson.
Fifty years later, the argument has been made that Israel, surrounded by hostile neighbors, still lives in a trap. Mr. Aronson disagrees, asserting that Israel's situation is difficult but workable. "The trap is behind us. We won our war. We can make concessions. We can make peace with our neighbors. We control our lives and destiny. We are not trapped anymore."
Mr. Aronson's lecture was sponsored by the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division, the Office of Scholarly Programs and the Embassy of Israel, and made possible by a grant from the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation.
The Library will commemorate the founding of Israel in 1948 through an exhibition of Judaica, slated to open on Sept. 16 in the North Gallery of the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building. The exhibition will include approximately 50 items selected from the Library's acclaimed Judaica exhibition "From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress," as well as a number of items chosen especially for this exhibition.