Israel and the Bus Bomb Photos: A Lesson from the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

The decision by Israel to publicize graphic video footage of the aftermath of carnage from the most recent Arab terrorist bombing, which shows scenes of the charred remains of the bus and the bodies of some of the victims, is drawing criticism from some quarters.

The critics say Israel should not be too forthright, or too graphic in telling the world about Jewish suffering. This controversy is reminiscent of a dispute during the Holocaust over whether to publicize the extent to which Jews were being singled out by Hitler.

The issue was brought to public attention in a shockingly blunt poem written by the Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht (“Gone With the Wind,” “Scarface”) and published in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times in September 1943. The ad was part of a campaign by a Jewish activist organization known as the Bergson group to bring about Allied action to rescue Jews from Hitler. Hecht’s “Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe” began:

Four million Jews waiting for death
Oh hang and burn but–quiet, Jews!
Don’t be bothersome; save your breath–
The world is busy with other news.

Hecht took direct aim at one of the major obstacles to Allied action against the Holocaust: the Allies’ refusal to acknowledge that Jews were the primary victims of the Nazi mass-murder machine.

Throughout the Holocaust, U.S. and British officials warned Jewish leaders to refrain from emphasizing that Jews were the victims. The Allies feared they would be accused of fighting World War II for the sake of the Jews. A meeting of the American, British, and Soviet foreign ministers in Moscow in October 1943 issued a statement threatening postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against conquered populations. It mentioned “French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages …Cretan peasants … the people of Poland”–but not Europe’s Jews.

Once again, it was Hecht and the Bergson group who offered the bluntest response. In another full-page newspaper ad, Hecht depicted the ghost of a Jew murdered by the Nazis sitting by the window sills of the Allied leaders after the Moscow conference, and saying: “In the Kremlin in Moscow, in the White House in Washington, in the Downing Street Building in London where I have sat on the window sills, I have never heard our name. The people who live in those buildings–Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill–do not speak of us … The Germans will think that when they kill Jews, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill pretend nothing is happening.”

The Roosevelt administration’s Office of War Information instructed its staff to avoid mentioning that Jews were the main victims of Nazi atrocities. Coverage of the Nazi mass-murders would be “confused and misleading if it appears to be simply affecting the Jewish people,” they were told. Even the president’s 1944 message commemorating the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt did not mention the Jews. Arthur Szyk, the world famous artist and Bergson group activist, hit the nail on the head when he remarked bitterly that Europe’s Jews were being “treated[ed] as a pornographical subject–you cannot discuss it in polite society.”

This refusal to acknowledge the Jews as Hitler’s victims was reflected in much of the media coverage of the Nazi genocide. Prof. Laurel Leff reveals in her forthcoming book about the New York Times and the Holocaust (to be published by Cambridge University Press later this year) that many news articles, and especially editorials, in the New York Times during the Holocaust years referred to “refugees” or “uprooted peoples” without mentioning that they were Jews. Even in those editorials which did mention that there were Jewish victims, “they were often lumped together with other suffering peoples,” Leff notes. She characterizes this muffling of the Jews’ suffering as “the silenced scream.”

The problem continued even after the liberation of the death camps. A Time magazine correspondent’s eyewitness account of the liberation of Dachau described the prisoners as “Russians, French, Yugoslavs, Italians, and Poles” –no mention of the Jews.

There are, of course many important differences between what happened to Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust and the violence against Israel today. But the tragedy is that there are similarities as well–including the desire by some to keep the Jews from calling too much attention to their plight. Whatever one’s view of Israel’s decision today, one lesson from the Holocaust should by now be beyond dispute: the argument for downplaying Jewish victimization is completely discredited.

February 2004