During a recent visit to my grandmother’s retirement home, I experienced something that now scarcely happens in Israel, riding up an elevator with a stranger who had a number tattooed on her hand. As a child, I had often wondered what life must have been like in Israel during the 50’s and 60’s. Were Tel Aviv’s beaches crowded with men and women bearing the insignia of the Nazi death camps while bathing in a Gottex swimsuit? Were Jerusalem’s cafés filled with men wearing shorts sleeved collar shirts revealing their number while attempting to escape the summer heat? What a strange, albeit inherently Israeli, reality that must have been.
In the past, it was not old age but rather the Israeli establishment that removed Holocaust survivors from society. Their personal narrative did not accommodate the Zionist narrative, one which held the native born Uzi shooting “Tzabar” in high regard and all but scorned those who lived to tell, those who walked “like sheep to the slaughter”. It was only during the trail of Adolph Eichmann in 1961 that the survivors were finally embraced by the nation and asked to share their story.
And so the Zionist narrative began to change. In its teens, Israel commemorated only those who died in resistance to the Nazis such as the participants in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. As a young adult however, it could for the first time deal with the complexity of the Holocaust and cherish all those who died, and even more so those who survived.
A puzzling question is what will happen once the last living Israeli Holocaust survivor dies? Will Steven Spielberg file a cease and desist order with the Los Angeles Circuit Court stating that he has yet to interview the survivor? Will officials at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs hastily compile a report titled “Israeli Foreign Policy without the Holocaust”? More importantly, Will fact turn into myth and myth into fact?
Most Israelis believe that their State rose from the ashes of Auschwitz. Most Americans believe that their country was born on the battlefields of the Civil War. While the United States was established in 1776, America was founded in 1865 and while the US Deceleration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, it came to life elsewhere in Pennsylvania, in the town of Gettysburg. The 1940’s saw the deaths of the last Civil War veterans. The physical tie to the birth of modern America was severed and the country soon faced the question of how to preserve that which was fought for during the horrific war. The answer came nearly a decade later with the birth of the Civil Rights movement, a movement which waged the last battle of the Civil War and ended segregation.
Soon, as the last Holocaust survivors will pass away, Israel will face a similar dilemma and will have to determine what is the lesson learned from the Holocaust. At the moment, Israel has adopted a very particular lesson according to which we as Israelis must always live by the sword, we must never again face our enemies empty handed and that a second Holocaust is always imminent. It is this lesson that led to the adoption of the Holocaust as a foreign policy asset and which rationalizes the need to secure our borders at all cost, even if the cost in the occupation of another people.
But there is of course a greater lesson to be learned, a universal one according to which we as the only people ever to be systematically murdered must be the first to aid all those in similar jeopardy. That Israel, as a nation of survivors, must be the first to fight in the name of human rights. Our nation can be more than a living testament to anti-Semitism, it can serve to remind mankind of his shortcomings and teach him the awesome power of hate and ignorance wherever it exists.
This past Sunday, Israel’s Housing Minister assured Israelis that the occupation of the Palestinian people would continue in the form of construction in Israeli settlements. The Minister rationalized this move by saying that “Whoever thinks we can be forced to build only within the Auschwitz borders is wrong”.
In 60 years Israel has gone from survivor to aggressor, from oppressed to oppressor and from “a light to the gentiles” to a place devoid of hope. What a strange, albeit inherently Israeli, reality this is.