Last week marked the 78th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a sacred moment in Jewish history. The anniversary brought the expected flood of commentaries and social media posts. But one piece that was not widely circulated, though it deserved to be, is a 2013 Haaretz essay by Holocaust survivor and author Eli Gat. Gat’s thesis is that the roughly 56,000 remaining inhabitants of the ghetto, who were alive specifically because they’d proven their worth (as outlined by Goebbels in his diary, the plan from the get-go was to liquidate the useless eaters but keep the productive), were needlessly sacrificed by a small coalition of militants who purposely initiated a suicidal armed conflict with the Nazis—which ended with the ghetto’s destruction and as many as 13,000 Jews killed—in the belief that dying while fighting back against the oppressors was preferable to living in servitude to them.
Gat’s beef is one of ethics, not historiography: Did the 400 fighters who decided to burn it all down have the right to make that decision for the 56,000 who clung to hope?
A small number of ghetto militants rebelled because they believed they were living in an oppressive hellhole in which freedom, equality, and the chance to live would never be granted by the racist oppressors who’d killed their parents and children, and who now wished to kill them. The oppressors could not be reasoned with or lived with. In the absence of hope, what remained but to fight back? And if fighting back meant sacrificing the lives of other ghetto residents—so be it. Better they die because of the actions of their brothers than at the hands of their persecutors.
To be clear, the ghetto fighters were correct in their assessment. They were living under an oppressive power that would never have granted them freedom or equality. This oppressive power had killed their parents and children. There was no reasoning with this oppressive power. And even though the remaining ghetto inhabitants had indeed bought themselves some time via their productivity, the militants were not unreasonable in their belief that the reprieve was temporary (Gat echoes my thesis that in 1943 the Nazis ended their extermination program, but that’s beside the point as the ghetto fighters wouldn’t have known this and thus had every reason to believe the exterminations would be ongoing).
So a small number of people decided that burning the whole thing down was the only reasonable option.
We know for a fact that humans quite often feel unjustified righteous fury. Were that not the case, there’d be no crimes of passion, only crimes of self-defense. People become homicidally enraged for irrational and invalid reasons every day. To harness that human flaw and turn it into a mass movement is to marshal atomic-bomb-level destructive power.
1619 is not the year that defines the present moment; 1943 is. Artificially re-creating that April 1943 ghetto fighter fanaticism in the minds of American blacks is the goal of a small but committed group of zealots in politics, academia, Hollywood, and the press. The endgame is to get blacks to feel exactly as those Jewish fighters did. “You’re being crushed by an oppressive power; freedom, equality, and the chance to live will never be granted. The racist oppressor seeks your death at every turn. This oppressor killed your ancestors and kills your children. This oppressor cannot be reasoned with or lived with. In the absence of hope, what remains but to fight back? And if fighting back means sacrificing your own ‘people’—so be it.”
It’s not necessary for this message to penetrate the entire black community. Remember Gat’s arithmetic: 400 made the fatal choice for 56,000.