Leo Baeck 1


Oct 2001 Journal

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Criticism has been directed at Israel over its so-called ‘assassination policy’. This is a misnomer since the dictionary definition of to assassinate is ‘to murder a public or political figure.’ The Israeli Defence Force has never contemplated killing Arafat. What it aims to do is to decapitate a hydra-headed snake to pre-empt its next poisonous strike. The term assassination, being a form of murder, carries pejorative undertones in most people’s minds. This is a wrong and stereotypical connotation. When Brutus killed Caesar he viewed it as an act of tyrannicide. The same applied to Georg Elser’s attempt to blow up Hitler at Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller in November 1939.

Assassinations, of one form or another, have punctuated the whole of modern Jewish history. None was more crucial than that of Alexander II in 1881, which gave the Tsarist authorities a pretext for scapegoating the Jews, and precipitated both mass migration to the West and the first stirrings of Zionism. That assassination was part of a late 19th century upsurge of anarchism, a creed which, though formulated by leftwing antisemites like Proudhon and Bakunin (who viewed Jews as germ carriers of capitalism), had such prominent Jewish adherents as Emma Goldman.

The next earthshaking assassination – that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo – triggered the Great War. This catastrophe buried the Habsburg Empire which had afforded two million Jews equality before the law. Astonishingly, two Jews were the most prominent assassins of the war and postwar periods. In 1916 Friedrich Adler, the son of the founder of Austrian Social Democracy, shot Prime Minister Count Stürghk on the grounds that he had declared war without parliamentary consent. In 1922 Vera Kaplan seriously wounded Lenin because he had brutally repressed her Social Revolutionary Party. (Kaplan was executed whereas Adler, benefiting from a postwar amnesty, went on to become Secretary of the Socialist International).

In 1922 also occurred the most important rightwing assassination of Weimar Germany, the killing of the Liberal (and Jewish) Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau. This was the climax of a series of Vehme – or kangaroo court – murders whose most prominent other victims were the Catholic, Mathias Erzberger, and the Socialist Jew, Kurt Eisner. In the early Thirties, Nazi agents murdered the émigré Jewish academic Theodor Lessing, and the Catholic Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss. Meanwhile the Tel-Aviv seafront witnessed the (hitherto unresolved) assassination of the brilliant leftwing Zionist Chaim Arlosoroff by what must be assumed to have been a follower of Jabotinsky.

And then, in November 1938, occurred the most pathetic Jewish assassination of all time: the murder of the Paris-based German diplomat, vom Rath, by 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, which provided Goebbels with the pretext for unleashing the horrendous Kristallnacht pogrom. The Second World War provided the only instance of a prominent Nazi falling to an assassin’s bullet, but by the time of butcher Heydrich’s death, the Shoah, which he helped initiate, was in full swing.

Simultaneously the few Jews who managed to escape from Europe and reach Palestine were denied admission by British officialdom wedded to a policy of appeasing the Arabs. When the Yishuv’s frustration at this boiled over, the top British official in the Middle East, Cairo-based Lord Moyne, fell victim to Jewish assassins’ bullets (1944). Another victim of rightwing Jewish anger was the UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in 1948  - as, of course, was Prime Minister Rabin in 1995. It is not an upbeat note on which to end, but then, pace Lewis Namier “we Jews don’t have a history, we have a martyrology.”
Richard Grunberger

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