A recent article about the Kindertransport—the rescue by Great Britain of some 10,000 Jewish children from Germany and Austria on the eve of World War II—noted that any celebration of British generosity must be tempered by the facts that London did not allow Jewish adults into the country and, at the same time, barred Jewish immigration to Palestine. In other words, writes Haviv Rettig Gur, Britain, despite this singular act of heroism, is also “responsible for the orphaning of the very children it saved, and in no small part for the trap European Jews were placed in as the Nazi grip tightened.” He draws some enduring lessons for the Jewish people and the state of Israel:
[T]his history matters, today, perhaps, more than ever. There is an inevitable corollary to the rule of universal indifference that is Britain’s true legacy from that period: . . . Jews can only rely on themselves when the danger comes. When we relinquish control over our own fate, we fall. . . . No liberal world order, no example of momentary kindness, however central it may be to some other nation’s narrative of itself, will, in the end, save us from the flames.
Israel is powerful. But Israel is also small. It may one day not be quite so powerful. It has too many enemies, and too many of them are ideological radicals and tyrannical brutes, for it to find consolation in its current power. If you want to understand why we [Israelis] seem inexplicably obsessed with our vulnerability even as we continue to advance in capabilities and achievements far beyond those of our enemies, look no farther than the very act of kindness so celebrated in the West as an example of a world that cares for the weak. Look closer. It is in equal measure an example of the self-adulation, paternalism, and indifference of the strong. . . .
In an important sense, the relatively new and equally paternalistic edifice of international law, forged in the ashes of the Holocaust, is a similar fiction, propped up by sanctimonious self-edifying illusions like the Kindertransport narrative. It is a moral code upheld by a narrow transnational elite whose sense of self seems unaffected by half a million dead Syrians, a million dead Rwandans, Bosnians, Yazidis, and so on. It is a law of convenience, a law meant to serve the moral self-esteem of the strong. . . .
It is no accident that Israel is a bigger target of international legal attention than the world’s great powers, that the Palestinian question exercises the moral imagination of the strong more than all the depravations and callousness of China, Russia, or even Britain or America on the world stage. . . . Ironically, the hollowness of this paternalistic fiction is rendered even starker when one looks at it from the Palestinian side. Given the massive attention lavished on the Palestinians and their sufferings, it is remarkable how little headway this attention has won for the Palestinian cause. What can the Palestinians show for all the decades their cause has spent perched at the top of the agenda of the international liberal order? The irony is even more striking when one realizes that the world’s weakness in coming to the Palestinians’ aid is as compelling a piece of evidence as any ever offered for Israelis’ longstanding distrust of the international community as protector, and therefore as moral arbiter of a small nation’s security policies.