Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'The Holocaust Is Over'

Book cover of 'The Holocaust Is Over'

Chapter Four: Defeating Hitler

One of American Jewry's most enlightened speakers was Rabbi Julian Morgenstern, who presided over the Hebrew Union College of New York from 1922 to 1947. He was born in St. Francisville, Illinois, in 1881, the year of the worst pogroms in Russia and Ukraine, called "Storms of the Negev." Those massacres unleashed the enormous waves of immigrants from the Pale to the shores of America, as well as the first emigrations to Israel.

Not coincidentally, Morgenstern was the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany. One must ask, how did German Jews lay the foundations of American Jewish autonomy when so many of them, my father included, emigrated to the Land of Israel? Similarly, how did the Jews of the Pale lay the foundations of the Jewish state when their majority emigrated to North America? Since then the small divide between the two Jewries — Israeli and American, Eastern and Western European — has deepened.

Morgenstern was a biblical scholar of the Reform persuasion and his research is a modern critical study. In 1915 he published his controversial thesis, The Foundations of Israel's History. He believed that the Reform movement's foremost duty is to reinterpret and rewrite the early history of the people of Israel. In his view, ancient Israel was one nation among other nations and civilizations of the ancient world, not a separatist, isolationist nation, as it is today. Even in the face of fierce resistance from his colleagues in the Reform leadership, his view prevailed and became central to the movement. Morgenstern was both a Jew and an American; a faithful Jew who did not make opportunistic compromises to smooth his way into the bosom of the non-Jewish world, yet he defined himself as an American for all matters. He was unwilling to isolate himself inside the Jewish ghetto of the mind. In his early work, Morgenstern viewed Zionism as an ideology of identity by negation. The Zionist reaction to assimilation, including the retreat to the Middle East, seemed to him an admission of defeat and acceptance of anti-Semitic values. Zionism was escaping Judeophobia instead of repairing Judeophobic societies and the world, so as to prevent future anti-Semitism. It was treason and dereliction of duty, in violation of the universal tenets of Jewish values of identity and inclusion.

As the Zionist movement aspired to create a new structure that would enable the Jewish people as a collective to join the family of nations, the Reform movement took it upon itself to create a standard for Jewish individuals to integrate as equals in non-Jewish societies. The revival of nineteenth-century scholarly Judaism — resembling the most important Diaspora, the Babylon Revival centuries earlier — started in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and continued unabated in the United States. For many years it opposed Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state. Few remember that the majority of the Jewish people opposed the creation of a Jewish state well into World War II. This opposition came from all sorts of Jews, Reform, ultra-Orthodox, communists, Bundists (members of the Jewish Labor Union, the Bund) and plain ordinary Jews. They opposed the Zionist minority and feared the consequences of a national and political revival. Each group had its own ethical and spiritual reasons, but all were united by the fear — which eventually materialized — that a Jewish political entity would create intolerant nationalistic sentiments that would drastically alter the historical character of the Jewish people.

All this was to change in a few years. American Jewry adopted the overt and covert messages of the Zionist movement and sought models for synthesis of national separatism and integration into the all-American society. In those days, the newly born socialist-secular political movement Yishuv renewed and reinvented the minor holiday of Hanukkah, turning it into a celebration of heroism and triumph. We all sang loudly, "Hear o, in those days in this time, Maccabee is the savior and redeemer ... In every generation he will rise, the hero rescuer of the people ... "

God was no longer the hero of the holiday; rather it was the Maccabee, the war hero. The Israeli myth designers freighted the nearly forgotten holiday with new symbols galore. A sacred date and a religious holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple and its salvation from the Hellenists became a national holiday.

Hanukkah was altered unrecognizably and loaded with excess baggage. An emphasis was put on the military victory by the few, weak, and under-equipped over the many, well armed, and experienced. We were told of the Hasmonean state's status and acumen in the ancient world, about the reclaiming of land, expanding of boundaries, the expelling of foreign invaders. Hanukkah, in short, had become the symbol of Zionist revival. During World War II, Hanukkah also became the holiday of American Jewry.

It was not surprising, then, that even an import ant thinker like Morgenstern changed his views drastically. From viewing Zionism, as well as German nationalism, as expressions of dangerous ethnic selfishness and as antithetical to Judaism, he was compelled to unconditionally accept the new Israeli-Zionist reality. On the eve of the United States entering the war in 1941, he expressed, for the last time, the notion of an alternative:

A twentieth-century Jewish state ... will be no more than a passing nationalistic episode, a temporary retreat into Jewish history. Despite the pretentious Zionist claim of the benefit of rebuilding a Jewish national home ... The undeniable lesson of Jewish history ... teaches that Israel's ability and destination are expressed only by religion and only by Israel's role as the carrier of the religious spiritual legacy.

Morgenstern never renounced his dream of reviving the Jewish spirit in the United States. Nevertheless, as a religious and community leader and scholar of Jewish history, he sensed that the Shoah was an event too great to ignore. His view of an independent Jewish state changed. It could be because he was convinced in his heart that this was the right idea, or he may have succumbed to the wishes of ordinary Jews and the Zionist ideas that enraptured the American Jewish population. From then on, he would look toward "that yearned-for day, the founding day of the Jewish state."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Avraham Burg