Israeli Society Remembers the Holocaust

Lecturer: Elly Dlin


Expanding on what has previously been said about memory (especially in the 8th lecture), memory forms, collects and grows in non-systematic ways. Societies (through its various leaders, opinion-makers and educators) exert much effort to organize and control memory; they do so with widely varying degrees of success.

It is useful at the outset to differentiate between "voluntary" and "involuntary" memory, where voluntary is open, consciously-chosen and deliberately expressed.  It may be controlled, structured, and even manipulated to create the meanings and significances that are desired. Involuntary memory emerges without control.  It "explodes", apparently all by itself, and is unlinked to conscious will.  Therefore we will exclude involuntary memory from this particular presentation.

Memory can give people strength and a feeling of unity.  It can be the substance of dreams and ideologies that may motivate people to take bold actions.  But it can also limit, traumatize, create uncertainty and cause paralysis, particularly when there is a fixation on wounds (real or imagined), unresolved pain and unrelenting grief.

Memories on the societal and national levels are enlisted to serve the beliefs and practises that are held by the group. The jargon term for them is the CIVIL RELIGION.  The 3 main functions of a Civil Religion are: 
        a) to legitimize the system,
        b) to unite the population, and
        c) to mobilize citizens to fulfill common tasks.

In an excellent presentation entitled THE CIVIL RELIGION OF ISRAEL (Leibman and Don-Yechiya, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983) 3 historical phases are described:  1) the pre-1948 Yishuv; 2) <Statism> from 1948 to 1967, and 3) the contemporary period following the Six-Day War.  In my adaptation of their periodization, I have added a fourth phase that begins with the 1990s.


This is the period in which Zionism tended to stress the revolutionary part of its ideology.  The spirit was combative, confrontationalist, <the negation of the exile>.  It emphasized the drive to radically transform traditional religious Jews who worked mostly in small time trade and crafts into a modern dynamic agricultural and industrial society; to reshape a very old people into a new society, resurrected in a new/old Land (Die Alt-Neu Land is the title of the book by Theodore Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement).

Zionism was a yearning for personal responsibility and activism, as illustrated by Ber Borochov in his praise of the Evil Son in Haggadat Pesach.  Explicitly in contrast to the traditional tale, the evil son is seen as a positive example to be emulated because: he distances himself from God and religion; he rejects the blind belief in divine inspiration as the driving force to human history; and he refuses to relegate his future to supernatural sorcery, magic and miracles.  His way is a bid for direct and personal activism, for self-control, responsibility for one's own fate and sovereignty over oneself.  It is the mood expressed in the words of the Chanukah song that was written by the first Chief Education Officer of the new Israeli Army: "We found no oil.  No miracles happened to us."
Antisemitism and pogroms were seen in this first period of development as being solely the problem of the GALUT: "Jews must put an end to their exile before the exile puts an end to them!"  And the single conclusion to be drawn was the need to make aliyah, immediately!

But that is hardly an important lesson for the children already growing up in the Land of Israel.  Therefore the subject of the Holocaust was largely ignored in this country in the period that  immediately followed the War. Besides, the Yishuv was fully occupied with the fight for its physical survival and its people had little time, energy or resources to devote to fixations on the past.

This is the context that explains Ben Gurion's initial opposition to the erection of a major State-funded Holocaust memorial in Israel.  Such were maybe needed in London, Paris, Cairo and New York but not where the central lesson of the event (the need to be here and to give one's all for the survival of the Jewish State) was the daily reality of those who lived and struggled in Israel.

A shift occurs early in the second period - the clearest signs being the passing of  Knesset laws designating an official day for remembering the Holocaust (1951) and a law establishing Yad Vashem (1953).

PERIOD 2: STATISM (1948-1967)

The period of Statism is marked by the trend to translate ideology into institutions, to shape the quasi-legal partly voluntary, somewhat underground organizations into a battery of government bureaucracies and to shift youth movement-style slogans into national policies.

Israeli society was radically transformed after its independence.  Some obvious examples are the banning of the Red Banner on State Schools and the singing of the Communist anthem "the Internationale".  May Day, once a central event in the civil calendar, eventually withered and disappeared to the point that today the offices of Israel's Labour Unions function normally on that day.

The declaration of the 27th of Nissan as Holocaust Heroes' and Martyrs' Remembrance Day (it fell on April 23 this year) was a reaction against earlier attempts by the Chief Rabbis to include the remembrance of the Holocaust on the 10th of Tevet (which this year was on January 8).  It was a struggle over <the ownership of memory> and over who will be empowered to shape the lessons of the past.

Allowing the Rabbis to subjugate the Holocaust under a traditional religious observance such as the General Martyrs' Day (Yom Hakaddish Ha-Klalli) would have placed it within normal and familiar structures.  But many felt the Holocaust to be abnormal and unfamiliar.  Its lessons could not be grouped in with traditional religious ones.  It was a unique event that must be noticed as a decisive break, a rupture of unprecedented nature, a quantum leap to a different dimension from which no return to the familiar patterns of daily life could be possible anymore.

Zionist activists who consistently rejected religious leadership and frameworks argued that it was these very beliefs and responses that had led the Jewish people to the gates of Auschwitz in the 1940s.  The Messiah did not come!  Salvation did not happen!  Even the totally innocent were beaten brutally, shot and incinerated!  They saw traditional faith as an opium which kept the masses passive in the face of murder and during the hour of rebellion.

If there were lessons to be learned from this terrible event Zionists pointed to the need to shake off the numbing shackles of religion and to seize control over one's destiny and away from the hands of a cabal of elderly Rabbis.  In their minds the activists response to the Holocaust was best displayed by those nationalistic Jewish youth who took up weapons and who bravely fought against the Nazis.  The Holocaust should not be commemorated by the rote repetition of outdated 16th century Polish-Jewish liturgies but by rededicating oneself to becoming an active agent in the molding of one's own history.  Memory should not be left in the hands of obscurantist religious leaders but in those of the most  enlightened and progressive elements of the new society (i.e. socialist-Zionist-youth).  The venue for commemorating the Holocaust should not be a synagogue but some new, secular, national memorial site and the date should be reflective of the premier event of Jewish activism during the Holocaust - the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The 27th of Nissan and Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem fit that bill.  

The date is almost equidistant from the last day of Passover and Israeli Independence Day.  The placing of Holocaust Remembrance Day between these two major and already existing special days sets up a new social dynamic. It smashed the traditional Jewish cycle of Pesach-the 50 days of the Omer-Shavuot and instituted in its place a new dynamic of Pesach-Holocaust Remembrance Day-Remembrance Day for the Fallen Israeli Soldiers-Independence and, after 1967, the reunification of Jerusalem.  

This new cycle focuses on the theme of slavery-to-freedom, darkness-to-light, suffering-to-redemption, powerlessness-to-sovereignty. In short, the Zionist dream becoming reality.

Inherent within it is the potential conflict between humanitarian ideals and physical survival and the need to choose one over the other or, as Ben Gurion put it in 1951: "If all the great ideals of the world were placed on one side of the scale, and Israel's security on the other, without hesitation I would choose the security of Israel."

This set the stage for the third period.


The Six-Day War changed everything once again.  Israel emerged victorious in yet another all-out conflict but now it convincingly established itself as an immutable reality.  Suddenly Israel had became big, strong and more confident than ever before albeit it was also more isolated, condemned and scorned than ever before.  The Israeli understanding was deja-vu: eternally present antisemitism was again rearing its ugly head.  Zionism had NOT eliminated antisemitism and Israelis were NOT  different than other Jews.
Yet there was one crucial and terribly important difference:  antisemitism in the past threatened defenseless Jews while Israel was well-disposed to respond.  In fact, now the situation was completely reversed: it was the turn of the antisemites run, hide and to be afraid!

The Six Day War split Israeli society into two almost equal halves.  The Holocaust-inspired lesson for the RIGHT was: How easy it was - and still is - to kill Jews.  And their operative conclusions were to mistrust the promises of everyone but ourselves.  Western politicians and other governments won't be there for you when you really need them so you had better have a strong army that is battle-ready at all times to respond and to defend you.  Hold on to as much territory as possible, especially the heights; build on the tops of the hills to control territory; be prepared to wait out the enemy; be more determined than he is;  and besides we have no where else to go, they have another 22 Arab States to live in.

The LEFT derives the opposite lesson from the Holocaust: i.e. how easy it is to become a Nazi.  How quickly good people can have their morals and ethics corrupted, how occupation oppresses the powerless but is also poisonous to the fiber of the occupier.  The danger of becoming <Judo-Nazis> in the phrase coined by Prof. Yehoshua Leibowitz or the danger of national-religious yeshiva students in the settlements acting like Hitlerjugend (according to Prof. Moshe Zimmerman).

The LEFT also has its operative conclusions: PEACE NOW, immediate disengagement, extending the olive branch, taking risks for peace, Oslo 1 and Oslo 2 and a Palestinian State beside Israel.

PERIOD 4: Operation Desert Storm

A number of new factors seem to denote  that a fourth shift has taken place:

1) The Gulf War of 1991 was different than previous wars in the region.  It was neither an all-Arab affair nor was it Arabs against Westerners (with Jews/Israel identified as Westerners).  The international coalition led by the United States and the United Kingdom included Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and protected Israel.  There was a new acceptance of the permanence (if not yet legitimacy) of the State of Israel and a new alignment of forces.  

2) Israel is no longer a pariah-nation in the decade of the 1990s. Diplomatic relations have been reestablished with India, China and most other countries in the world.

3) Israeli political leaders were awarded the Nobel Prize for peace. 

4) New persecutions such as Serbian Concentration Camps, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Cambodian Killing       Fields, and the mass murder of innocent men, women and children in Rowanda look all too familiar and seem to some (not me - but there are others) to support a view that the Holocaust was not unique after all.

5) Holocaust symbols (yellow badges, swastikas and the like) have been popularized and misused in demonstrations and political posters (dressing Yitzhak Rabin in the uniform of a Gestapo officer).  One member of the Knesset described the Israeli government as a Judenrat.

6) There are no longer any Jews of Conscience or Prisoners of Zion being tortured or imprisoned because of their beliefs.

7) The teaching of the Holocaust has entered the mainstream.  It is the subject of best-selling books, popular television dramas and commercially successful feature films.  The topic is mandated for study in Israel and several of the states in the USA and recommended in many more, plus it is recommended in the new National Curriculum for History in the United Kingdom.  Museums, memorial sites, and pilgrimages to the Holocaust sites in Eastern Europe are no longer either difficult or rare.

8) After the debacle of the Demjanjuk Trial, more trials of War Criminals Trials are doubtful.  Time and the unavoidability of aging are changing the demographic profile of the Jewish people.  Soon the Holocaust will be history, not personal experience.

What do all of these changes mean?  Does it mean that the Holocaust is drifting away from us, along the road of forgetfulness towards oblivion? Not necessarily!  Yet the issues are dynamic and <the times they are a-changing>.

Chanukah, Purim and Pesach are historical events whose details and lessons are recalled every year, despite the fact that they are all well beyond the personal memories of anyone who is alive today.  

Will the Holocaust be the same?  Will the Holocaust be ritualized into a new Jewish tradition?  Only time will tell. 

But what is evident is that millions today are interested in the Holocaust. A reported 400 million people around the world bought tickets to Stephan Spielberg's film SCHINDLER'S LIST.  Holocaust museums in Jerusalem, Washington, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, the recently-opened museum in New York and the soon-to-be-opened permanent gallery in the Imperial War Museum in London demonstrate their attraction to millions, mostly non-Jews.

The Holocaust is part of human history, part of our identities, part of the story that explains how we have come to be where we are today.  

The challenge is to find an appropriate balance that allows us to relate to the Holocaust and not to forget it but also to allow other aspects of life to influence us and not be fixated on it. In a line: we must neither be BLIND TO the Holocaust nor be BLINDED BY it.





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07 Jul 2008 / 4 Tamuz 5768 0