Holocaust a narrow and ailing way to define Israel
Israel’s never-ending Holocaust
The issue that should have sparked panic in last week’s poll on religion is the total consensus among Israeli Jews that the ‘guiding principle’ for the country is ‘to remember the Holocaust.’
By Merav Michaeli, Ha’aretz
Haaretz appeared to be gripped by panic after the Guttman Center-Avi Chai Foundation poll on religion came out last week, as could be seen in the frenzied front-page headline in Friday’s paper: “Survey finds record number of Israeli Jews believe in God.” But the newspaper wasn’t panicking about the right thing.
Yes, there has been an increase in Israelis’ attachment to Judaism over the past decade, but that means the situation has more or less returned to what it was two decades before that.
This same poll was first conducted in 1991, and its results were similar to those of the latest survey. A second one was done in 1999, after the bulk of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union had arrived in the country, but had yet to completely assimilate; this explained the dip in Israeli Jews’ attachment to religion at the time.
A decade later, those immigrants have internalized the cultural codes of Israeli society. Throw in an enlarged Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox population that has counterbalanced the secularism the Russian-speaking immigrants brought with them, and the proportion of Israelis who subscribe to traditional Jewish beliefs remains virtually unchanged over the past 20 years.
The issue that should have sparked panic in the survey is the total consensus among Israeli Jews – regardless of religious, ethnic or political differences – that the “guiding principle” for the country and for Judaism itself is “to remember the Holocaust.” Ninety-eight percent of the respondents consider it either fairly important or very important to remember the Holocaust, attributing to it even more weight than to living in Israel, the Sabbath, the Passover seder and the feeling of belonging to the Jewish people.
The Holocaust is the primary way Israel defines itself. And that definition is narrow and ailing in the extreme, because the Holocaust is remembered only in a very specific way, as are its lessons. It has long been used to justify the existence and the necessity of the state, and has been mentioned in the same breath as proof that the state is under a never-ending existential threat.
The Holocaust is the sole prism through which our leadership, followed by society at large, examines every situation. This prism distorts reality and leads inexorably to a forgone conclusion – to the point that former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau announced at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony three years ago that Moses was the first Holocaust survivor. In other words, all our lives are simply one long Shoah.
As a country, as a nation, Israel has never confronted the trauma of the Holocaust. The shock from the terrible tragedy and the guilt feelings of the pre-state Yishuv leadership for not being able to save the Jews of Europe – plus the presence of the men and women who survived and were constant reminders of both traumas – prompted Israel to repress the Holocaust at first, and then to turn it into a placard in the service of the national trauma, to reinforce the constant existential fear and the aggressiveness that comes with it.
The survivors themselves have never been treated right. Just yesterday it was reported, once again, that half of Israel’s Holocaust survivors are dependent on welfare stipends and that the government has once again reduced its support of them.
At the same time, the “Hitlers” are always there: Just a week ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said for the nth time that there is no shortage of those who want to exterminate us completely. In other words, there is no lack of reasons to continue to reinforce the fear of the Holocaust – which, according to his father, historian Benzion Netanyahu, has never ended.
So it is that we don’t have any rivals, adversaries or even enemies. Only Hitlers. This is how the Holocaust is taught in school, this how it is that Israeli students are taken to visit death camps – and how it came to be that, as Haaretz reported on Friday, just 2 percent of Israeli youth feel committed to democratic principles after studying the Holocaust and 2.5 percent identify with the suffering of other persecuted nations, but 12 percent feel committed to “significant” service in the Israel Defense Forces.
That’s the way it is with traumas. Because of our human limitations, a trauma that is not dealt with make us constantly see yet another trauma approaching – even when whatever is coming has no connection to the previous trauma and may even be a good thing. Trauma leads to belligerence and a strong tendency to wreak havoc on one’s surroundings, but first and foremost on oneself.
What we consider rational is actually a frightened, defensive, aggressive pattern. Our current leaders have made Israeli Judaism just a post-traumatic syndrome, while they lead us to self-destruction.
Failure of death camp tours for IDF officers – a success?
Dahlia Scheindlin, 972
For the past two decades or so, Israel has been on a feverish mission to send young people – all of them, if possible – to visit the death camps of Poland, to cement the notion that the Holocaust is the primary basis for Israel’s existence. I find this inherently problematic. It is even more disturbing to learn that some concentration-camp programs are designed with the intention of strengthening “Jewish” and “national” values; ironically, one such program may have backfired.
A study reported in Haaretz on January 20 explained that one program had the opposite effect among IDF officers, setting off distress signals from the army. Haaretz reported that IDF figures were “stunned” to find that among officers sent on the “Witnesses in Uniform” program – 25,000 over the last decade – 20% showedlower commitment to national and Jewish values than before the trips. The “national values” included: “the centrality of the IDF, Jewish symbols, and Israeli pride or sense of mission” as well as symbols of Israel and Diaspora Jewry. In addition,
The trips also produced a decline in IDF-related values, including commitment to the state and the army, feelings of leadership, and love of heroism.
“Social and democratic values,” which refers to “human dignity, the sanctity of life and tolerance,” remained stable before and after the trips. Prior to visiting the camps, universal aspects of the Holocaust, such as “understanding the universal context of the Holocaust, the desire to learn about the tragedy the Nazis wrought upon Europe and the understanding that the Holocaust is part of world history,” were relatively low priority compared to national values (the English edition of Haaretz inserted an apocryphal “though still high,” which is not present in the Hebrew, giving no numbers). The article reports a “reversal” of the findings from the pre-trip study (though there is almost no methodological description of the study, which raises questions about how the conclusions were drawn).
A 2009 study of high school students by the same academic researchers found the opposite – for teens, the study showed that trips “left commitment to universal values unchanged, but found that they strengthened Jewish and national values.”
I imagine that the hand-wringing tone of the article probably reflects the IDF’s response, or assumptions about Haaretz’s readers’ response. To me, it highlights many things that have gone wrong.
First, the obvious: it’s good that the universalist and “general” values such as the sanctity of human life and the universal lessons of the Holocaust have survived unharmed (from what the article implies) – I wish they had risen. People are human beings before they are nations, and they must be taught to respect the sanctity of life – all life – before they are molded into war heroes.
The fact that high school kids came back with higher levels of “understanding the uniqueness of the phenomenon of the Holocaust whose intention was to destroy the Jewish people” saddens me.
I am seriously troubled by over-emphasis on the Jewish uniqueness of the Holocaust, which I fear means that the children of genocide stand to forget that other people face similar horrors. I fully support Holocaust education, for all people and especially for Israelis. The historical mission and the special responsibility of Jews is indeed “never again!” – not for Jews, Rwandans, Sudanese, Bosnians, Armenians, nor anyone else.
Second, it’s good if the officers begin to critique and question the IDF, deconstruct the “heroism” that spawns machoism and aggression or programs them to be occupiers. We desperately need to question our current “national” values, which are fueling internal political decay, racism and violence, and justifying the unjustifiable Israeli rule over Palestinians. Reinforcing Israel’s perennial victimization is reinforcing what’s wrong.
Third, what in the world do they mean by Jewish values? My Jewish values involved doing unto others as you would do unto yourself, humility and critical thinking, tikkun olam, for a start. Testing “identification with symbols” devoid of their content turns culture into a hollow farce.
Fourth, the article did not report on the authors’ explanation for reverse effects of the trips on high school kids. The findings reminded me that in the large youth survey I co-authored in 2010 (commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and conducted by the Macro Institute), we found major gaps between the Jewish youth (15-18) and the young adults (21-25), confirmed by regression analysis. The older respondents in this case were morenationalist, but also showed much deeper distrust of state institutions. Because the gap was new compared to two previous studies, we ruled out IDF service as a cause and proposed that it reflected the older group’s coming-of-age during the despairing years of Second Intifada, two further wars, and zero peace momentum.
Could it be that for officers serving in a hopeless war that Israel cannot win, charged with carrying out a non-tenable policy, and then marshaled into the death camps to prove why they must continue with this charade is a flawed endeavor?
More than anything, the officers’ program looks to me like institutional exploitation of the Holocaust, meant to inject the officers’ hearts with the adrenaline of historical nightmares. That makes the self-righteous lamentations over Haredi gimmick-ization of the Holocaust look like a convenient (if disgusting) distraction. If our leaders truly believed in the country’s policies, they wouldn’t need such justifications to help our officers fend off the demon of “delegitimization.” I wonder if the officers would agree.