The annual commemorative ceremony at Yad Vashem ended just a few minutes ago. Yom Hashoah (the yearly memorial to the Six Million murdered, to the heroism exhibited by them, and by those who survived.) began in Israel tonight. Here in Tel Aviv, (the city in which is open 24 hours a day), everything is shut. The same will be case next week for Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day for our fallen soldiers. This day always brings out mixed emotions in me. Memory of the Holocaust has always been a significant part of my Jewish identity. My mother and maternal grandparents escaped Germany in 1936. Almost all of their family who did not leave Poland died in Belzec, the German death camp of central Poland.
I came of age at a time when the book “While Six Million Died” had just been published. This book indicted American Jewry for doing nothing during the Holocaust. I was a Jewish activist (although not with JDL), when the JDL’s slogan “Never Again” gained a great deal of traction in the Jewish community– especially in the New York area. I have been a committed, ideological Zionist my whole life. There is no doubt that knowledge of the Holocaust has always been part of that identity.
That being said, I believe that the memory of the Holocaust needs to be interpreted carefully, in order to be understood. Its crucial life lessons must applied judiciously, and not as the blunt instrument that it has been used in the recent past. Holocaust remembrance cannot be the “be all, and end all” of Jewish identity– nor can it be used as the primary justification for whatever policies the Israeli government might decide to implement.
My own understanding of the place of the Holocaust in the Jewish collective conscience has evolved over time. As a teenager, I truly believed in the slogan “Never Again”. I silently indicted the generations of my parents and grandparents for their inaction during the war. My grandfather’s lone presence (as one of the precious few adults) at some of the early rallies to free Soviet and Iraqi Jewry seemed to strengthen my view. I was determined not to be silent. I was not going to fall into the trap of inaction of previous generations.
My conception of that silence of my elders in the face of unspeakable evil remained unchallenged through my formal education. It certainly helped shape a good part of my worldview. These original assumptions were shaken, for the first time, some 20 years ago. At that time, I was doing video research in the U.S. National Archives and came across newsreels from the 1930’s depicting protests by American Jews against the Nazis. One of these rallies was held at Madison Garden. Through this newsreel I realized these Jewish protests against the Nazi regime were as large as– if not larger than– any of the rallies in which I participated on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
The comfortable, and widely held, view that my generation was better than previous generations was forever challenged and changed when I had the pleasure of publishing a book by Dr. Ariel Hurwitz, entitled, “Jews Without Power”. Dr. Hurwitz’s book conclusively proves that American Jews did whatever they could on behalf of the Jews of Europe. Mournfully, they were just not in a position to affect the outcome. It seems my youthful view (that the outcome would have been different… if only American Jews acted …) now seems, at best, overly simplistic– and at worst, simply wrong.
Despite the fact that the Holocaust has been a significant factor in shaping my identity, over the years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the central and consuming place Holocaust education has taken in Jewish education, in attempts to mold Jewish identity– both here and in the diaspora.
Two unrelated circumstances occurred– one in the United States, and the other, in Israel contributed to making Holocaust education so central to Jewish education. Starting in the 1980s, the generation of survivors began to reach the age of retirement. In the United States, many survivors had accumulated significant wealth. As a result, money started pouring in to the development of Holocaust museums, memorials and education projects. This development coincided with the coming to power of the Likud party in Israel, under the leadership of Menachem Begin. To the Likud, the memory of the Holocaust was a powerful political message that coincided with their worldview. The memory of the Holocaust became a more central element in the Israeli governments political DNA.
Neither of these sets of actions– taken both in the U.S. and in Israel– was wrong on their face, the problem has always been a problem of proportion. It is impossible to know or understand recent Jewish history without having a deep understanding the lessons of Holocaust. It is impossible to understand the fear of Israelis to take risks today with their security, without understanding how the Holocaust affects this country and its citizens.
So how do we balance our imperative to remember– and “Never Forget”– with our need to educate future generations to see and understand their identity in a larger Jewish context– and not just through the lens of the Holocaust? How do we understand the Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish event, yet recognize the fact that genocide has happened to other peoples in the 20th century? Over the course of the 20th century genocides were perpetrated on the Cambodians, the Rwandans, and the Armenians– to mention a few. Furthermore, how do we accomplish our educational goals at a time when, sadly, the last of the generation that can personally bare witness to the Holocaust are dying? In ten years there will be very few people left who can bring their personal testimony to bear– a fact that is hard to fathom in a world that already harbors too many Holocaust deniers.
There are no easy and simplistic answers. The true answers will only come in time. In the meantime, here are a few suggestions. First, it is time to begin to officially transform the memorialization of the Holocaust from a yearly secular event to part of Jewish ritual. Instead of fasting in memory of the destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago on Tisha b’Av, we should be fast in memory of our six million. Second, to ensure that the message of the Holocaust is understood and continues to be disseminated, we must make sure while maintaining its Jewish nature, that the universal message of the Holocaust is recognized. True, the Holocaust happened to the Jewish people. One of the most important lessons gleaned from the Holocaust is how dangerous garden variety of anti-Semitism can be. However, the fact that Holocaust happened is also a lesson to the world, on how a supposedly “civilized nation” can turn into a nation of homicidal maniacs, who could attempt to annihilate an entire people.
Finally, as Zionists and Israelis, we must absorb an additional message of the Holocaust. The State of Israel was not created in reaction to the Holocaust. The Zionist movement was founded in hopes of avoiding the Holocaust. At the turn of the 20th century Herzl wrote that the earth was boiling under the feet of the Jews of Europe. At that time Herzl already felt the urgency to create a Jewish state, in order to transform the Jewish problem into a “normal nation”, like any other. We must grasp the fact that Herzl achieved his goal.
Tragically, Herzl succeeded too late for the 6 million. However, Herzl did succeed. Zionism transformed the Jewish people into a nation that can defend itself. We must always remain conscious of what can happen to Jews without a state. It is imperative for a sovereign Jewish state not to see a Holocaust around every corner. To do so would be to rejection of the very success of Zionism. Today, Jews have a nation-state like all others. Yes, we have national problems like every other nation does, and has. Our conflicts may be more intractable than disputes of some others, and yes we have some enemies who dream of our destruction. However, we need to understand that now that we have a nation-state, we no longer have to obsess that a subsequent Holocaust is around every corner; we have a strong army that can defend us.
Lastly, probably most importantly we must learn to share our pain and sorrow. The Holocaust was, without question, the most despicable and inexplicable action taken deliberately by one nation against another group of people in modern history. However, it was not the only such atrocity. For those others who suffered, it matters little if “only 100,000” or “only 10,000” of their people were killed; compared to the six million of our own. We must make sure that our commitment of “Never Again” extends beyond our own people, to all mankind. For only in a world where the Jewish people have their own homeland, and the genocide of any people will no longer be tolerated, will we truly be able to live without fear. Only then will the full lesson of the Holocaust be realized.