Hard Questions about Holocaust Memory Desecration

Politicians from across the political spectrum jumped at the opportunity last week to criticize Prime Minister Netanyahu for the joint statement released together with the Polish government relating to the latter’s responsibility for atrocities during the Holocaust. You can’t compromise on the memory of the Holocaust, even if there are clear diplomatic and political reasons to do so, critics claimed. There are some things which can’t be sacrificed for diplomatic gains. There are red lines that cannot be crossed.

With such a refreshingly broad consensus surrounding such a powerful moral claim, we ought to capitalize on the opportunity to think about what other moral sacrifices are made in the name of politics and diplomacy, and to ask ourselves where those red lines really ought to be drawn.

But first we need to ask ourselves a question about the importance and significance of the memory of the Holocaust. Do we zealously defend it simply for the sake of our history being accurately preserved? Or is the memory of the Holocaust compelling because of what forgetting could mean about the present? What constitutes a more troubling desecration of Shoah memory? The history of the past being taught inaccurately, or the lessons of the past being blatantly ignored?

In the past year, according to statement both of the United Nations, as well as the US State Department, Myanmar (or Burma) perpetrated a program of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya ethnic minority.  Entire villages were burned to the ground, and 650,000 people, mostly women and children, fled for their lives within the span of a month, flooding refugee camps. These refugees tell stories of mass rapes by Burmese forces, of families being forced into their homes and burned alive, of babies being grabbed from their mothers and beheaded. The discrimination against the Rohingya had been ongoing for decades, with all of the tell-tale warning signs that we know so well of impending disaster- dehumanizing propaganda by the government, cancellation of citizenship and civil rights, and acts of murder and rape by government forces.

So we need to wonder — where was the clear moral voice of the Education minister when Israel signed an education agreement with Myanmar a month ago? As part of this agreement, the two governments agreed  to allow the other side to make “corrections” in their text-books. In other words, if an Israeli text-book should want to teach about the ethnic cleansing which is occurring today in Myanmar, this agreement gives the Burmese government, which denies all responsibility for these atrocities to change the truth in order to fit with their version of the facts.

And where was the opposition from senior members of Yad Vashem when the generals overseeing these massacres, whom the U.N is currently interested in prosecuting for crimes against humanity, came to Yad Vashem on an official visit?

Why is a politically motivated agreement which whitewashes the sins of the past more of a desecration of the Holocaust than a politically motivated agreement which whitewashes and enables atrocities occurring today? Is diplomatic cooperation with a government currently committing a program of ethnic cleansing justified in the name of diplomacy, in order to maintain good ties with the regime?

And what if this cooperation includes not only official visits and education, but also the sale of Israeli weapons, and the provision of military training to this regime?

While the rest of the Western world has had Myanmar under weapons embargo for decades, Israel continued issuing export licenses at least until last summer (and it is likely that contracts signed before then are still allowed to be fulfilled). An urgent petition to the Supreme Court was filed back in January 2017, calling for the cessation of export licenses to the country, after reports of significant human rights violations in October 2016. When this petition was finally discussed in September 2017, the court agreed to place a gag order on its decision, and only months afterwards, a vague statement was made by the foreign ministry that “Israel stopped issuing licenses to Myanmar a few months ago.” Despite this, until this day, there is a military attaché of the government in Israel who attends conferences and weapons expositions.

The weapons industry does not only put political (and let’s not forget economic) interests above moral ones when it comes to discrimination against other peoples (although this would certainly be bad enough). Israeli weapons are currently sold to the Ukrainian Azov militia, whose members use the Nazi salute, carry SS insignias, and many of whom openly identify as Neo-Nazis and deny the Holocaust.  Israeli weapons were sold to the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, which was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. One of the accused perpetrators of these crimes, who served as a guard in a brutal detention camp, now lives in Haifa, and though he is wanted by the Interpol for crimes against humanity, Israel refuses to extradite him.

If Holocaust memory is just about the accurate record of our past, then none of this needs to bother us. But if Holocaust memory has anything to do with a commitment to “Never Again,” not only for the Jews, but anywhere in the world, we have some very hard questions to ask ourselves about the ways we sacrifice, and desecrate, this commitment for the sake of political, diplomatic, and financial interests.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is one of the founders of Yanshoof (, an organization dedicated to stopping Israeli arms sales to human rights violators, and an educator at the Shalom Hartman Institute's high school and post-high school programs. He lives in Efrat with his wife Devorah and their 5 children.
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