So what if you’re related to Hitler?

This obsession with stories about enemies defecting to our side is a sign of insecurity

Is there a Jewish member of the Hitler family, alive and well - and living as a practising Jew in Israel?
According to Dr Michael Mach, a German-born convert to Judaism and faculty member of Tel Aviv University's Department of Philosophy, his divorced grandmother remarried one Hans Hitler, the illegitimate son of Adolph's half-brother, Alois Jr.

Although, by his own admission, this does not make him a blood relative of any Hitler, Dr Mach is clearly willing to talk about the distant relationship, which has also helped shape his worldview. When he hears his Israeli sons talk about the Palestinians, he told The Guardian last week, he calls them fascists - and gives the Hitler salute. In an interview he gave an American magazine in 2006, he said that he does not participate in Holocaust-memorial ceremonies, because it is "emotionally too turbulent" for him.

As the JC's inquiries this week suggest, there are severe doubts about the veracity of Dr Mach's supposed family links - indeed, about whether "Hans Hitler" even existed, let alone was Hitler's nephew. But in a sense, whether the story is true or not -- or perhaps merely exaggerated - is irrelevant.

The question is, why do we love this story so much? It was picked up quickly by the blogs and by Ha'aretz, and the Mail on Sunday was rumoured to be chasing the Israeli academic - who was not named by The Guardian - for an interview of their own. The tale has featured twice over the past few years in Yediot Achronot, as well as in the American Jewish Action magazine a couple of years ago - whence it was widely reprinted in other US Jewish publications - and in several Charedi Israeli papers.

And yet, Dr Mach is not, biologically, a Hitler. His mother was alienated from his grandparents, and he only met "Hans Hitler" - if he existed - once; he was not even brought up as a Nazi. Why should our imaginations be fired up by the fate of this non-Nazi relative?

The question becomes even more powerful when you realise that our mythology is littered with similar tales.

The Talmud itself explains that the descendants of the evil Haman "learned Torah in Bnei Brak"; according to Jewish tradition, this may be a reference to Rabbi Akiva. Descendants of Sisera - the Canaanite general killed when Yael drove a tent pin through his skull - taught children in Jerusalem. And descendants of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king who besieged Jerusalem around 700 BCE, "gave public expositions of the Torah".

Another Talmudic passage relates that the Roman emperor Nero converted to Judaism. One of his descendants was supposedly the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Meir, a prominent supporter of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans.

In the modern era, Matias Goering received heavy press coverage when he visited Israel in 2006, declaring that he had started wearing a kippah, keeping kosher and observing Shabbat. Mr Goering's great-grandfather was the brother of the grandfather of Hermann Goering, commander of the Nazi air force. Follow that?

Then there is Walid Shoebat, who claims to be a former Palestinian terrorist - although the Jerusalem Post claims to have debunked this claim. Although he has not converted (except to Christianity), he has built a career out of travelling the world, telling Jewish audiences about his staunch support for Israel. They lap it up. Another perennial on the Jewish lecture circuit is Italian-Muslim cleric Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi. We seem to have found the one Muslim in the world who says God granted the land of Israel to the Jews - and simply cannot get enough of him.

So why our predilection for such stories? One beautiful insight comes via Shalom Rosenberg, a well-known professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In the battle of good against evil, he says, "The deconstruction has to start from the evil side - evil has to destroy itself." In other words, it is not enough for us to defeat our enemies; they actually have to become good. Take, for example, the Jewish idea of repentance. We believe it is not enough to disavow bad behaviour, but that new behaviour must be learned.

Stories of our enemies switching sides appeal to us, therefore, because they represent a total victory over our persecutors. Not only are the Nazis, Romans etc vanquished - they are, symbolically at least, now part of us.

This seems to me, however, only part of the story - and not particularly helpful in understanding the wild overemphasis we place on the handful of Arabs who stand up for Israel. After all, we have not yet won that conflict. Shoebat and Sheikh Palazzi are not symbolic of any wider point - on the contrary, they represent no one but themselves.

Rather, it seems that 2,000 years or more of persecution, including - recently - constant attacks on Israel's legitimacy, have left us a highly insecure people. We are so used to being undermined that we react with unparalleled delight whenever anyone shows us support.

Stories about a distant relative of a Nazi who converted to Orthodox Judaism, or a one-time PLO terrorist who now preaches Zionism, feed directly into this craving for affirmation. If even the relatives of our greatest enemies come over to our side, surely we were "right" all along; good, and truth, are on our side.

And if the connections are a little bit tenuous - Hitler's illegitimate nephew's wife's grandson? - well, hey, let's not spoil the feelgood moment.

Miriam Shaviv is the comment editor of the JC. She blogs at thejc.com/blogs/miriam-shaviv

    Last updated: 10:00am, August 14 2008