As we put away our Passover dishes and edge back toward routine, the calendar makes a quick transition to a sequence of commemorations: Yom ha-Shoah marking the Holocaust, and a week later Yom ha-Zikaron and Yom ha-Atzma’ut commemorating the founding of the State of Israel. Together with Yom Yerushalayim a few weeks later, the month from 27 Nisan to 28 Iyar present us with a crash course in modern Jewish history.
Yom ha-Shoah itself has an interesting history, with two factors exerting a strong influence on the choice of date. One was proximity to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, which began on the eve of Passover. Indeed, the full name of the day is Yom ha-Shoah ve’ha-Gevurah, emphasizing not only the tragedy but the courage of the Jews who fought back. The second factor was to have Yom ha-Shoah serve as a leadup to the date of Israel’s independence, stressing the connection between the historical events in a single process of “From tragedy to rebirth”.
For both reasons, the current date of Yom ha-Shoah may have made sense when it was codified in law by the Knesset in 1959 (though even then there was opposition), when the prevailing ethos glorified the “strong Jew” who fought back against his enemies and who resembled the heroic soldiers who fought in 1948. Sixty years and two generations later, it is problematic.
Yom ha-Shoah should be moved to another time of year. Its current date gives outsize prominence to an event which is not representative of the Holocaust as a whole. And its proximity to Yom ha-Atzma’ut undermines the messages and lessons of both days.
As the number of survivors dwindles and the Holocaust moves from first-hand accounts into history textbooks, Yom ha-Shoah has rightly assumed an educational role in memorializing all aspects of the Holocaust — through mass media, lectures, and school programs — far beyond what was necessary two generations ago. Is it still appropriate for its timing to highlight a single event which involved a fraction of its victims? Do we mean to perpetuate the myth that those who didn’t raise arms in resistance went to their deaths “as sheep to the slaughter”? Strength in the face of intense persecution can take many forms.
The far greater damage caused by the timing of Yom ha-Shoah relates to the place of the Holocaust in modern Jewish history. Juxtaposing this day with Yom ha-Zikaron and Yom ha-Atzma’ut — the shift in the subjects of the black-rimmed newspaper pages from survivors to fallen soldiers — gives the impression that the Holocaust is but the first chapter in the founding of the State. To phrase it in an way which makes one cringe but which I fear resonates with today’s youth, the events of May 1948 are seen as the “happy ending” of the story which began in Europe in 1939.
Any commemoration of the Holocaust must make clear that it was not any kind of beginning, but a terrible end, and an unmitigatedly tragic one. An end to thousands of Jewish communities which had existed and thrived for centuries. An end to countless centers of Jewish learning and culture, never to be rebuilt. Most importantly, an end to six million Jewish lives, which no State can ever restore. Memory of the Holocaust should be allowed to stand on its own rather than be intertwined with recollections of the struggle for independence. Only then can there be a real focus on what was lost — a hard look at what came before and not only what came after — which is critical to understanding the scope of the tragedy.
And let us think also about the message we send about the importance of the State of Israel by juxtaposing these dates. Speeches by public figures on Yom ha-Shoah tend to focus on the theme of “Never again” and the role of the State in ensuring that the Jewish people will survive. There is no doubt of the importance of this message. But making one long commemoration out of the Holocaust and independence creates the impression that this is the primary purpose of the State. The prime minister himself recently made exactly this claim.
Is this really the message we wish to convey to the world, and to ourselves? We don’t need the Holocaust to justify the State of Israel. That is precisely what our opponents claim, as a prelude to protesting the injustice of punishing the local Arab population for the sins of Europe.
Instead, we should focus on the millennia-old connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, a bond which has never torn despite long and difficult years in the Diaspora. To this end too we need to separate our celebration of independence from any Holocaust commemoration.
When should Yom ha-Shoah be? The most logical date would be 9 Av, which commemorates all Jewish tragedies, as Rav Soloveitchik suggested. This date is pragmatically impossible, since it comes out during school summer break, when Yom ha-Shoah cannot serve its educational purpose. The best idea therefore is 10 Tevet, first advanced by the religious parties in the 1950’s during the Knesset deliberations on the topic. Since 1951 this fast day has been adopted by the rabbinate as a day to recite Kaddish for relatives who perished in the Holocaust on an unknown date. This function is becoming less relevant as fewer and fewer immediate relatives of victims remain with us.
The goal of remembering the Holocaust and the world it destroyed is now best served not only by saying Kaddish but by educating our youth and ourselves about the cultural and religious wealth of Jewish life that existed in Europe and how it was decimated by the Nazis. By commemorating the Holocaust on 10 Tevet in place of 27 Nisan, we can recall our tragic losses during the dead of winter, distinct from our birth (in ancient Egypt) and re-birth (in 1948) as a nation at the onset of spring. By moving Yom ha-Shoah, we place the events of our history in proper perspective and give each the honor and attention it deserves.