Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

In Israel, an echo of the Holocaust

Photo Credit Samuel Heilman  Auschwitz
Photo: Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90 – Kibbutz Beeri

I grew up in the Boston area, where my Holocaust-survivor parents and I, nearly four years old, arrived in January 1950 as “Displaced Persons,” (DP’s) refugees from Europe. Hoping to start a new and more secure life as Jews in the Land of Promise, my parents chose the seemingly safest diaspora of the two-millennia wandering the Jewish people made their home.  My parents had briefly considered Israel, the Promised Land.  But in those days with the new state having barely managed to achieve its independence and still far from secure in an hostile Middle East, my mother in particular was unprepared to go from having survived one genocide into a situation where she might have to suffer another. Israel was still being threatened by its neighbors with annihilation.

After liberation in Czechoslovakia and a brief to return to their native Poland my parents spent the next five years in American-occupied Germany, where I was born after the war.  Unlike so many other Jewish survivors, they were not living in a DP camp.  My father had luckily landed a job as an executive in a textile company and for most of those years we were living off a generous expense account from the firm, which provided, a cook, chauffeur, a fleet of cars, and a nursemaid for me. My parents lived a charmed existence, so much so that in spite of what she had suffered from the Germans, my mother actually did not want to leave all that for America. I suppose she felt that she and my father deserved this kind of reparation after the horrors they had suffered, and she was right.  But when I was old enough to start school, my father decided that we would leave and they would start over in America so that I would not be the only Jewish child in a German school.  Given the melancholy this decision aroused in my mother (who did not leave our tiny apartment in America for 6 months after she arrived) the idea of taking her and me to Israel seemed out of the question.

Yet here I am more than 70 years later living in Israel with my entire family – all the descendants my parents have.  I came here, the country that now has the highest concentration of Jews in the world, as those who have read my previous posts know, because, in spite of the wonderful years we had in America and my attachments to it, my wife and I came to believe, beginning with our first family sabbatical here in the 1979-80 academic year, that our place as Jews was here.  It took a while, but gradually we all made it here – my children first, and we after retirement.  My parents remain in their eternal rest in the Young Israel Synagogue of Brookline cemetery in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, but I like to think they are somehow with us here.

Still, I know that now – had they been here for this war – the shadows and echoes of those years in the concentration camps and the postwar traumas of survival that they carried with them would have been in high gear and they would have been telling me that war like this was why they chose America.  But the Israel I came to seemed to have put such traumas behind it.  It was mighty, successful, and secure.  That’s what Israelis and the world had come to believe.  The events of the last 10 days changed that.  What I never expected to hear here in Israel was that the Holocaust – barely mentioned in the early years of Israel’s existence and always held up as the polar opposite of what Israel represents –had suddenly jumped from below the surface in this country, and was recalled by countless Israelis.  This state and its citizens was created as a place where Jews would never again go like lambs to the slaughter, as some of them often portrayed the six-million. Yes, the insecurities that people like my parents harbored always were buried in the successful State of Israel submerged in the image of the IDF and the savvy government, put in a museum at Yad Vashem.

But in the days since October 7th the parallels with the Holocaust have been echoing loud and clear. We are reminded by officials, pundits, citizens and even many in the military that not since the Holocaust, as the army rabbi addressing the unit my son, a reserves soldier serving in the IDF near the Gaza border, put it to the men and women preparing to root out Hamas that “this week more Jews were slaughtered than any week since the Holocaust.”

To be sure, the rabbi continued by reminding the soldiers, “this time it’s different. This time we have an army. We will not let Jewish lives be forfeited. We need not walk fearfully in the darkness. We are trained, we are equipped, we are strong.”  While this attitude may infuse many of those preparing for a battle that will be difficult and dangerous with confidence that as my Israeli children, neighbors and fellow citizens have inspired me to believe that this war is not going to be a replay of the Holocaust, there remains a powerful feeling on the home front that often feels leaderless and alone that we are still vulnerable.  Part of this comes from the fact that, as the New York Times reports, “this is happening amid a total breakdown of trust between the citizens and the state of Israel, and a collapse of everything Israelis believed in and relied on.”

While the army, which has taken responsibility for its failures to prevent the Hamas attack, seems to be repairing some of the trust that was lost during its initial failure to protect the border and the kibbutzim, villages and towns along the border where so many were murdered, burned, tortured and abducted. Likewise the people of Israel have come together in remarkable unity and mobilization.  But the Prime Minister and his government have not yet inspired confidence.  They have failed to publicly accept responsibility for their failures, as if they did not occur.  Netanyahu makes brief statements, takes no questions from reporters, and only after eight days met with families of the kidnapped hostages.  Few of the others have mobilized for the home front.  Even those, such as Likud M.K. Yuli Edelstein, a once-respected Speaker of the Knesset and now the Chair of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, whose job was to assess the threats from foreign actors like Hamas and who ignored the signs and information about their threatening activities, when he appeared at last before reporters was asked on Channel 12 if he accepted responsibility for his failures and would resign lamely responded by saying there would be plenty of time for examining responsibility after the war was over.  He is wrong.  We need different leaders, people worthy of the people they lead.  Without a government ready to answer to the citizens and ready to accept responsibilities for its failures, Israelis will never feel that they can trust their leaders.  Only new leaders can truly rally the and lead the nation out of this shadow of the Holocaust.

In their bravery and commitments, the IDF and most Israelis understand we are no longer in Diaspora, and we are not willing to transfer our loyalties to another country.  The remarkable cases of Israelis abroad flying from the relative safety of their diaspora into the war zone to join their reserve units and serve is not lost on us here.  I say “relative safety,” because everywhere people are once again discovering that the hatred for Jews is not limited to those in Israel and that it makes no exceptions for those who are not sympathetic to Israel, liberal or unengaged.  Just as Hamas attacked and abducted those in favor of peace no less than those who favored occupation.

The post-Holocaust trauma that Israel tried so hard to overcome, that Israel believed it was created to prevent is now a part of our lives.  All that talk about being invincible, and belief that we could defend ourselves against all enemies is not quite as convincing in these days.  There are more admissions that we cannot do it alone, and when President Biden expressed his unequivocal support for Israel and later Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin came to Israel to reiterate that support, my wife and could not hold back our tears as we listened.

Yet we are not naïve.  We know that we cannot remain victims in order to maintain the world’s sympathy and offers of help.  We understand that we are in an existential battle against an enemy whose goal is not national liberation but a genocidal desire to push Israel into oblivion. They seek not only to attack and savage Israeli civilians but remain ready to attack Jews the world over. In Brookline, Massachusetts where I grew up, as a childhood friend still living there reports to me, and elsewhere that Jews are to be found, the police, are on alert and watching for attacks against Jewish targets.

The battle here will not be simple.  Hamas and Islamic Jihad use the Palestinian citizens as shields, launching drones and missiles from rooftops of apartment buildings or hiding in tunnels underneath them, The IDF has urged and aided Israeli civilians still in harm’s way to evacuate and offering housing elsewhere  while urging the Gazans to do so too. But alas the Arab League has urged the UN to prevent the evacuation of Gaza residents. Hamas is blocking evacuation of  Gazan civilians too, while neighboring Egypt seals the border, and has, according to the New York Times, in 2014 ”urged Israel to destroy Hamas,” and “telling the Israelis to kick down every door in Gaza — to finish them off.”

Many of us here genuinely worry about what this war will do to the civilians in Gaza and whether a military solution will work.  Indeed, the fact that this war is now being run by a war cabinet made up of former generals but no experts in negotiation and a Prime Minister who has never negotiated in good faith with Palestinians, makes me wish that there were peacemakers on  it as well as experts in war-making.  The problem with Gaza will necessitate expert negotiations not just for the hostages but for figuring out who will run Gaza when hostilities end, and how. That we have an army is critical, but that we have a plan for the day after the bombs and shooting stop and people who can implement it is no less vital.  Without it, the trauma of Holocaust will continue to echo among Jews and Israelis.

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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