Last year, the film "X-Men: Days of Future Past" was released to critical acclaim, in which the protagonist team of superheroes sends one of their own 50 years into the past to change history.
It is just the latest iteration of the alternate history genre in fiction. But while the desire in that scenario is to stop a fictional genocide, there is an equally emergent counterfactual genre in historians’ literature. It is at one time fiction, and at another an analysis of an alternate reality that may have been history had it not been for some fateful moments.
“I started wondering what sort of world would it have been had there been no Holocaust? Would American Jews still have connection of their heritage?” Professor Jeffrey Gurock of Yeshiva University told Arutz Sheva.
His new book, "The Holocaust Averted," imagines a world where Neville Chamberlain does not agree to divide Czechoslovakia. From there, history is very different.
“There’s a growing literature of counter-factualism that’s been going on for about the last 50 years. It’s an important intellectual exercise because there are certain turning points in history to recognize and this can help identify them through alternate histories to see where things may have changed.”
In Gurock’s view, “It raises serious questions about the world experience.”
There are two major highlights to the book, where on the one hand Germany never goes beyond Czechoslovakia in its campaign of aggression (and eventually fails anyway). The other is that American Jewry is profoundly and fundamentally affected by the alternate timeline.
“This is the end of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), a horrific moment in Jewish history and I give reverence to those kedoshim (martyrs) who were killed. Having said that, the World War II experience between 1941 and 1945 happens to be a turning point moment for American Jews. They come out of WWII not only angry about what happened to brethren in Europe, but more confident and determined.”
But in The Holocaust Averted, a certain chain of events unfolds that results in a more pacifist Jewish community who are not jolted by the events of World War II because the US never enters the war and Germany never is able to implement the Final Solution.
“In 1938, they are a very skittish, uncomfortable group. What would American Jewish life had been like if WWII had not taken place?” asks Gurock.
America supporting the Arabs against Israel
“The other piece is that the State of Israel comes into existence in a very different way," said Gurock.
“Whatever you think of their relationship with the White House today, American Jews have never faced a situation where the man in the White House is explicitly anti-Zionist or anti-Israel. The bombing of the King David Hotel – in my book, not only is a British officer is killed but American peacekeepers are killed by ‘Palestinian Jewish terrorists’ and a little-known Senator by the name of Harry Truman says he can understand Zionism were Jews under an existential threat, but not in these circumstances. American Jews run and hide."
"This is a very interesting dynamic. One of the things that gives us a degree of confidence is that in reality we have never had a President that says the Arab cause is the one that Americans should support.”
In this scenario, Gurock imagines David Ben-Gurion having to turn to Stalin’s Soviet Union for arms. “It raises important questions,” says Gurock, who sees a very different dynamic developing not only among the more recalcitrant American Jewish community, but also between the American and Israeli Jewish communities in ways that are far more fundamental than what some observers worry about today.
“‘The Zionists are playing footsies with Joseph Stalin,’” Gurock describes the reaction of one figure in the alternative narrative. “US Jewish leadership becomes reticent about supporting Zionism.”
The fallout is also intensive on American Jews.
“In 1949, Ben-Gurion made a statement that the future of the Jewish people is Eretz Yisrael and not in America. There was a real pushback from American Jewish leadership and he walks it back. In the book, he doesn’t walk it back and it creates a rift between US and Israeli Jews.”
Gurock says the timing is not lost on him that the book was released just prior to Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israeli Independence Day. However, what might speak more to readers now is the alternative outcome of Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler over the Sudetenland (of Czechoslovakia). When asked if he saw lessons to be learned in an alternative Anglo-French rejection of German aggression in that scenario and how the US should deal with the Iranians now, Gurock said he was not sure.
“It’s fortuitous. Someone else interviewed me last month and asked about US Jewish relations with the White House and I told him, not two hours ago I watched something remarkable, that Bibi (Binaymin Netanyahu) was getting standing ovation from Congress.”
This stands in stark contrast to how American-Israeli relations might develop otherwise.
Gurock compares that with a very different history of presidents, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt does not break with tradition to run for a 3rd term in 1940 because there is no anticipation the United States might have to invest in World War II. George Marshall becomes president in the early years of Israeli independence and sees it as more pragmatic to support the Arabs who have oil “needed to fight the Soviets.” For reasons described in more depth by the book, the Americans deploy peacekeepers to British-controlled Palestine and are caught up in the Jewish insurgency against the British occupation.
Other important changes to American history include no President Eisenhower (who without World War II, would not have earned the reputation that got him the Republican nomination in 1952), nor John F. Kennedy – his brother Joseph Kennedy Jr. becomes president because he is never killed in World War II.
The major takeaway from the book – which requires careful reading to fully appreciate – is more in the impact on American Jews than on European Jews. Of course it is clear European Jews face entirely different fortunes without the Holocaust and in the diminished success of the German war effort. Many make their way to the Land of Israel from Germany and Austria under very interesting circumstances. But there is an odd effect on American Jewry, says Gurock. It is not that assimilation is not still an issue – it is that there is no choice in the matter in this dystopian America.
“It’s not a nightmare scenario in that European Jewry is not destroyed. But for American Jewry, the community is being forcibly assimilated. It doesn’t have the building blocks of Jewish identity like the State of Israel.”
Asked if Gurock thought that American Jews would have faced similar conditions to Enlightenment Europe, where assimilation was more expected of Jews trying to integrate into everyday society, Gurock says yes.
“Emancipation in Europe? Yes. ‘Everything for the Jews but nothing for their Jewishness.’”
“Based on what I said about American Jews and Zionism. The ability and the willingness of American Jews to be advocates on behalf of overseas Jews is contingent to the degree they feel they are comfortable in America.”
It is not World War II itself or the probable cultural-political crises with the nascent State of Israel that Gurock expected would have been the community’s major challenge, but the Jewish lack of fortitude and determination that the modern community has benefited from since the end of World War II.
“My dystopian image is of a very frightened Jewry. This is a Jewry that feels itself under pressure.”
To purchase The Holocaust Averted, visit the Rutgers University Press store.