A few days before Holocaust Day at one of the venues sponsoring organized commemoration activities for high school students, two groups from two schools - one in the north and one in the south - stood and listened to a survivor's testimony. The pleasant, sad woman, who repeats her story dozens of times each year, was trying, as well as she could, to illustrate the physical and psychological suffering she endured as a little girl during the Holocaust. The boys and girls crowded around her. It was a little suffocating. One girl pushed another, the other pushed back. A verbal argument ensued, followed by a violent scuffle. An ambulance came to rescue the girl, attacked by seven others in defense of their friend. The police came to question those present. The testimony was interrupted.
Testimonies usually manage to shock the students and send shivers up their spine. Not like the trips to Poland, of course. Not like standing in front of the crematoria. Not like the march, with a giant Israeli flag, through the narrow streets of what was, and is no longer, the Warsaw Ghetto. Certainly not like what one Israeli counselor suggested to his group of students at Auschwitz: "Now run, run in the snow, and you'll know how the Jews felt."
The attempt to illustrate, to shock, to pick at the scab in order to feel the pain comes out of the best intentions. There is nothing like personal experience, teachers and counselors certainly believe. Moreover, 60 years after most of the witnesses have passed away and the rest are no longer young, the need to document and recreate seems urgent, because in a few more years there will be no one to tell the story in the first person.
But it is precisely this effort, the essential injection of the memory, that is problematic.
Holocaust studies have undergone several transformations since the establishment of the state and the educational system - from denial of victimhood and glorification of heroism to the use of the Holocaust and Jewish suffering as a singular justification for Israeli nationalism. Today, the move to illustrate the pain and horror of the individual Jew seems to be the preferred option for all of the systems supplementing, or competing with, the education system.
While in the curriculum itself the proper connection is made between the historical study of World War II and the extended study of the Holocaust, it seems that educators themselves feel this is not enough. They need trips and testimonies and seek face-to-face meetings for their students with survivors. The more shocking the meeting is, they believe, the more significant the internalization of the Holocaust will be.
But focusing on the terror and the private story takes the Holocaust out of its wider context; what sometimes becomes commercialization and the kitsch of the horror risks blunting its historical significance.
The Holocaust was not a phenomenon of nature. It is not only a horrific magnification of Jew-hatred floating in space like an evil spirit. It is also not, as some have tried to define it, something that happened on another planet. It happened in this world. Those who carried it out were humans, not monsters. The state that permitted it to happen was the cradle of western civilization, and it is alive and well to this day. There, in Germany, educators and philosophers are holding a deep, uncompromising discussion about freedom of speech and human rights, without letting go the complex and difficult context of the Holocaust.
It's not good, it's even dangerous, to teach the Holocaust as the isolated tragedy of a group of individuals unconnected to the historical, social and economic circumstances that engendered it. It's not good to avoid the important discussion of Facism and Nazism. But even the most gifted history teacher, offering the most intellectually fruitful discussion, will find it difficult to compete with the seemingly more human details of suffering, which more efficiently touch a nerve.
This is the contest that Israel, as a society and country fighting for its just existence, might lose. Because when competing against suffering, pain, and horror, the pictures on TV - always more powerful, newer and more daring - might obliterate the "previous" suffering and make it dangerously more banal. Those who claim first place in victimhood might get, or already are getting, smacked like a boomerang by other claimants to the title. And thus, with Auschwitz morphing into metaphor, the contest over pain and victimhood sounds vulgar, strident and empty.
As long as Israeli society does not surrender its messianic, fate-laced understanding of the Holocaust, which relates suffering uniquely to the eternally persecuted Jew, it will remain stuck in victimhood, moving farther away from the basic principles of sovereign Zionism. Those principles sprang from the historical context and should remain there. Only a process that puts the place of Jews in history and the context of the growth of anti-Semitism at its nexus, one that will re-historicize memory - without, of course, negating the value of memory - will allow Israel and Israel's students to shake off messianism and open a window to normalcy.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now