I, and I am sure many others, were surprised to learn recently that Bambi, the story about a lovable and vulnerable young deer, made famous by Walt Disney, was originally published in German in 1923 as an allegorical novel, by Felix Salten, an Austrian Jew (Donna Ferguson, The Guardian, 2021). A new translation of the novel by Jack Zipes (Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest) portrays how Salten’s book was intended as a grim warning of the coming persecution of the Jews of Europe.
Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis has been described in a similar vein. As an example, Anne Roiphe (Forward, 2017) describes the transformation of the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, into a giant insect as a depiction of how “the ultimate extermination of the Jews began as a campaign to make them seem nonhuman, not subject to the normal laws of compassion and empathy.”
The Metamorphosis was written in 1912 while Salten’s book was published in 1923, well before the Nazi takeover of Germany.
There were other warnings. Two physicians, a German-Jewish physician, Bernhard Cohn, who published a monograph in 1896 titled: Before the Storm: A Serious Word of Warning to the Jews of Germany, and William Osler, a prominent and non-Jewish Canadian medical educator who wrote about his visit to Germany in 1884 (Letters from Berlin, Canada Medical Journal), warned of the coming destruction faced by the German Jews. But the most insistent warnings came from the Zionists.
While the word “Zion”, a hill in Jerusalem and a euphemism for Jerusalem and or the Land of Israel, has a history thousands of years old, Zionism is a relatively modern term that originated in the late 1800s. Zionism, or modern Zionism, is often described as being a derivative of European nationalism and anti Zionists frequently paint Israel as nothing but a European colonialist creation. In reality, Jews have lived in Zion and returned to Zion through the ages whenever possible and from European and non-European territories.
It is estimated that there were about two million Jews in the world in 1800, roughly evenly divided between European Jews (mostly Ashkenazi), and those of Spanish (Sephardic) and Middle Eastern (Mizrachi) origins. While the Ashkenazim were originally concentrated in Western and Central Europe (England, France, Germany and Austria), many migrated to Eastern Europe (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) as a results of massacres and expulsions experienced during the Late Middle Ages. During the 19th century, the Ashkenazi population in Central and Eastern Europe soared due to a combination of high fertility numbers (families with 13 children were common) and improved health measures. By the start of the 20th century, there were 9 to 10 million Jews in the world, more than 80 percent of them living in Eastern Europe, primarily Russia.
It is no coincidence that the onset of the modern Zionist movement coincided with the onset of years of violent pogroms and incendiary antisemitism experienced by the Jews of Russia. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was obsessed with the urgent need to find a refuge for the Jews of Eastern Europe while Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader responsible for the Balfour Declaration, has been quoted as saying that without a home in Palestine the Jews of Europe faced extermination.
Early in 1936 The Atlantic magazine published an article by the American novelist, literary critic and Zionist leader Ludwig Lewisohn titled “Jews in Trouble.” Based on his experiences in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, Lewisohn describes the pariah status of the Jews in Germany and elsewhere. The German Jews, as well as those of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Rumania and Austria are like the man in Poe’s story the “Pit and the Pendulum”; they see the terror approaching but they cannot escape it.
Perhaps the most poignant warning was the speech given by the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky to the Jews of Warsaw on Tisha B’Av, 1938. He said, as translated from Yiddish:
“It is for three years that I have been calling on you, Jews of Poland, the glory of world Jewry, with an appeal. I have been ceaselessly warning you that the catastrophe is coming closer...dear brothers and sisters, do not see the volcano which will soon begin to spurt out the fire of destruction. I see a terrifying sight. The time is short in which one can still be saved …”
“I see a terrifying sight. The time is short in which one can still be saved.”Ze’ev Jabotinsky
It was too late. Even if some of the three and one half million Polish Jews could leave where could they go? All possible sanctuaries, including Palestine, were closed to them. It was too late for six million, but not for the many Jews who found sanctuary in Israel, before and after 1948.
The connection between Zionism and Jewish physical survival should be obvious, yet to many it is not.
It is obvious to Hussein Aboubakr Mansour, an Egyptian interested in Jews and Israel, who was granted political asylum in the United States in 2012. Mansour, who lives in California, lectures on Israel and helps fight antisemitism on college campuses. His unique journey is described in his book, Minority Of One: The Unchaining Of An Arab Mind, 2020.
On November. 13, 2021, Mansour tweeted: “Zionism in its origin, as a romanticist and idealist national project, was distinct among all similar movements… while other projects were options among other options, Zionism was progressively compulsory given the rise of predatory mass antisemitism in early 20th century Europe that later culminated in the Holocaust. This made Zionism not merely a nationalist project, but a survivalist imperative. “
In a 2019 Jewish Telegraphic Agency article on Jewish safety in Europe, Henryk Broder, a well known German-Jewish writer was reported as saying that Europe is not a safe place for Jews. They should either leave or expect to live their lives in a gated community, relying on the state for their protection.
Broder’s comments seem to be even more prescient today. The widespread attacks on Jews in the US, France, Germany and elsewhere, as well as the expressions of hatred for Jews that have appeared on various social media platforms and at certain sports events, as well as the ongoing tragedy in Ukraine, indicate that Zionism still is a survivalist imperative. ■
Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor in the School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Waterloo.