Rachel Shenhav-Goldberg
Israeli. Lives in Toronto. Racism Researcher. Activist. Believes in Peace and Justice Everywhere.

Yom Kippur Meditation: Victims or Perpetrators?

When violence occurs, sociologists refer to four sorts of people: victims, perpetrators, bystander, and rescuers. There is no doubt that in the first half of the 20th century, Jews were primarily victims.

More than 70 years have passed since the Holocaust. Hitler is long dead. But Jews continue to perceive themselves as potential victims, even though inside Israel they are powerful. With an eye to “state interests”, Israel sometimes plays the bystander, when confronted with the human rights violations and racism of other countries.

It is true that Jews remain a minority in the world, and research shows that anti-Semitism is alive and well. The “oldest hatred”, however, is no longer an existential threat to Jews as it was in the 1940s. Jews now have a state, an army, and nuclear weapons.

Racism exists not only within societies but between them. Different countries are treated differently because of geopolitics or their ethnic composition. Israel falls in for this “special treatment.” The various human rights rankings show, that Israel is far from the worst human rights violator, but it receives disproportionate attention and criticism– for its less than perfect record in the United Nations.

And yet, I cannot ignore the accumulating evidence that we, as Israeli Jews, have morally lost our way. Most of us choose to “look away” (typical “bystander” behavior) from the suffering of the minorities in our society. And who could fail to notice, our elected prime minister choosing time and again to cozy up to racist and anti-Semitic leaders around the world (instead of promoting humanitarian values).

The connection between our tragic past and pathological present is complex. Insightful writers and scholars have shown how we utilize and distort Holocaust memory for political purposes. Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and an Israeli writer, claims we have not yet won the war against Hitler; Ian Lustick, Political Science Professor, refers to what he calls “Holocaustia.” Both identify an illness inside the Jewish body politic, a disease caused by the way that the Israeli institutions perpetuate the Holocaust in public discourse.

How did the Holocaust teach us to turn a blind eye to the suffering, we as a nation, have caused to the Palestinians, and other non-Jewish groups in our society?

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The Holocaust has defined who we are. The way we remember the Holocaust constrains our compassion for the suffering of others living among us, and prevents us from ending the conflict and the occupation.

How did this come to pass?

Even before 1948, Zionist politicians deployed the memory of European Jewry’s destruction to pressure the United Nations to support Jewish immigration to Palestine; to support the creation of the Jewish state; to prove that Zionism is the only reasonable ideology for Jewish survival.

One can easily point to many more examples of how Israeli institutions engrave the trauma of the Holocaust as an endless, rolling, ongoing event from the past to the present. Avraham Burg shows how we have evolved from a minority that established a state based on past trauma of a horrible genocide- to a society of predators against the minorities among us. Israeli society, he writes, displaced its anger towards the Nazis onto the Arabs.

Burg invokes Judith Lewis Herman’s analysis of the beaten child as a metaphor for our malformed societal development: the abused child who grows up to become an abusive father. The trauma of the Holocaust, he maintains, shapes virtually every moment in the life of an Israeli-Jew. Israel, a country armed and powerful, continues to perceive itself as small, weak, and vulnerable society constantly under threat.

Ian Lustick, in an exhaustive treatment, shows how right-wing leaders, from Menachem Begin to Binyamin Netanyahu, use the Holocaust to provoke anxiety and fear in the Israeli public. The world, they endlessly repeat, will always be a threat to the Jews. We must fear the Palestinians and should never trust them. Another Holocaust is always possible. We simply cannot afford to notice another nation’s suffering.  Every small threat to the nation is equivalent to Hitler’s final solution.

It was predictable that the Holocaust would have a profound impact on the moral psychology of the Jewish people. How could it not? But the use of it — to diminish empathy– is surprising. One would think that the Jewish people, who consider themselves as “The victims” of the 20th-century violence, would be empathetic toward the Palestinians. But in an ironic and cruel twist, Israeli politicians have successfully deployed the Holocaust to reduce, rather than increase, empathy toward the suffering of others.


1. The ADL GLOBAL 100: An index of anti-Semitism. Retrieved from

2. Burg, A. (2016). The Holocaust is over; we must rise from its ashes. St. Martin’s Griffin.

3. Cohen, S. (2013). States of Denial: Knowing about atrocities and suffering. John Wiley & Sons.

4. Diamant, J. (2018, -06-01). Q&A: Measuring attitudes toward Muslims and Jews in Western Europe. Retrieved from

5. Freedom world 2018 table of country scores. (2018). Retrieved from

6. Herman, J. (2004). From trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence–from domestic abuse to political terror. NA.

7. Illouz, E. (2018, -09-13). The state of Israel vs. the Jewish people. Ha’aretz Retrieved from

8. Lustick, I. S. (2017). The Holocaust in Israeli Political Culture: Four Constructions and Their Consequences. Contemporary Jewry37(1), 125-170.

9. Kopstein, J. (2017). Comment on Ian Lustick’s ‘The Holocaust in Israeli political culture: Four constructions and their consequences. Contemporary Jewry, 37(1), 183-186. doi:10.1007/s12397-017-9211-z

10. Shenhav-Goldberg, R. (2017). Jewish Israeli Attitudes and Emotional Reactions to Racism towards Arab Palestinians. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Tel-Aviv University, Tel-Aviv, Israel.

About the Author
Rachel Shenhav-Goldberg is an academic researcher, group facilitator and an activist. She is a New Israel Fund fellow. Currently living in Canada, after spending most of her life in Israel. She has a post-doctorate from the University of Toronto, and Ph.D. from Tel Aviv University. Her research focuses on race relations in Israel and antisemitism in North-America. She has worked as a social worker in Israel and facilitated intercultural and anti-racism groups.
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