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The last days of Adam Czerniakow are a study in the tragedy of powerlessness. For many years before the outbreak of World War II, Czerniakow served as a Jewish communal leader and a teacher in Warsaw. After the German invasion of Poland and the conquest of Warsaw, the conquerors appointed Czerniakow, an engineer by profession, to head the city's Jewish Council. Despite heroic efforts at resisting the will of the Nazi overlords and refusing to take advantage of the opportunity to flee Poland, Czerniakow was forced to supervise the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, a hell of disease, death and starvation.
As a Jewish communal leader, he believed that the Jews of the ghetto would be spared as long as they provided a steady work force for the Nazis. When the Germans began to deport Jews to the death camp in Treblinka, Czerniakow initially provided the murderers with names of potential deportees. But when he later found out the true destination of the cattle cars, this truth destroyed him. On July 23, 1942,Czerniakow committed suicide by swallowing a vial of poison.
His diary written during those terrible times was later discovered decades after the war ended. "I am powerless," he wrote in his last entry, "my heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this."
ALMOST 20 years after Czerniakow's death, political philosopher Hannah Arendt - a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany who found safe haven in the United States - would blame him and other leaders of Europe's Jewish communities during the Shoah for complicity in the Nazi genocide. In the aftermath of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Arendt argued that the heads of the councils facilitated the Final Solution by providing the Germans with names of Jews for deportation and by creating a Jewish police force to round up the ghetto population for transport to death camps. She claimed that the council leaders were opportunists who craved power or were indifferent to the fate of their fellow Jews. "If the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless," Arendt states in Eichmann in Jerusalem, "there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total victims would hardly have been between 4.5 million and 6 million people."
Arendt's controversial analysis and her total lack of empathy with the Jewish victims of Hitler tells us more about her than about the reality of history. Arendt, as a refugee who blamed her situation on the inability of Germany's Jewish leaders to stave off Nazi persecution, accused Europe's Jewish council leaders of collaboration with their conquerors. This accusation is ridiculous. Jews living under Nazi occupation were powerless. While some Jewish council leaders were indeed megalomaniacs who savored their "authority," the reality is that most of these men and women did not determine their own fate or the fate of the people whom they led.
CZERNIAKOW, IN his last days, understood in the deepest clarity the reality of his own powerlessness. The Nazi plan for the genocide of the Jewish people was responsible for the destruction of millions of Jews whether there would have been Jewish leaders or not. German mobile killing units, in the short span of two years, murdered more than 1.5 million Jews in Russia without the aid of Jewish councils or a ghetto bureaucracy. The tragedy of the Shoah was the tragedy of Jews possessing no power.
Jewish history in the Diaspora was not always a history of utter powerlessness. While its authority ultimately derived from pagan, Christian and Muslim sovereigns, Jewish self-government in the ancient and medieval worlds possessed a modicum of power. In Eastern Europe 400 years ago, the Council of the Four Lands was a Jewish parliament that decided on the appointment of rabbis, collection of taxes and communal regulations for many Jewish communities. This council ultimately owed its authority to gentile power, but at least the decisions it made were done in the name of Jewish continuity, not the destruction of Jews.
The reality of Jewish self-government was, sometimes, a reality of persecution, defamation and exile. More often, however, Jewish self-governing bodies were institutions that promoted Jewish life, not Jewish death. The Council of the Four Lands was not a medieval and early modern version of the Jewish councils under the Nazis. Jewish autonomy in the Diaspora, until the modern period, was the foundation of the life of the Jewish people.
THE GENIUS of the early Zionists 100 years ago was their understanding that the rules of Jewish self-government had changed radically Even before the rise of Nazi Germany, Zionists thinkers realized that the old system of autonomy was collapsing. In Central and Western Europe, gentile expectation was that granting emancipation to Jews was a prelude to their conversion to Christianity and the loss of any Jewish identity. The fate of the Jews under the czars was different but no better - the Russian Pale of Settlement was a prison of pogroms, poverty and a lack of true Jewish power.
The reality of the modern nation-state did not bode well for the Jews of Europe. The Zionist movement provided empowerment to Jews by replacing decaying institutions of leadership with Jewish self-determination and sovereignty in a modern Jewish nation-state in the land of Israel. This empowerment has transformed our people and assured our continuity as a nation in much the same way as self-government of the Jewish past. Perhaps, in the end, autonomy was a dress rehearsal for sovereignty.
Powerlessness is not a virtue. Powerlessness is a curse. A society based on the cult of the victim and the idealization of the underdog is not a living or moral society with the ability to make its own decisions. As Jews, we need no longer to embrace the moral high ground by remaining the helpless objects of persecution. Zionism empowers us to pursue our own destiny and to assume the responsibilities that come with the assumption of true authority.
The challenge for the State of Israel today is the challenge of possessing power. A government and its officials can abuse that power through graft and corruption. An army can abuse that power through coercion and domination. Rather the Jewish people deal and struggle with these challenges than forfeit the right to live and thrive. We all know that might does not make right. But when will Jews in Israel and the Diaspora learn that neither does powerlessness.
The writer is on the faculty of Nova Southeastern University's Lifelong Learning Institute in Davie, Florida.