Many tyrants have perpetrated appalling horrors during the past 60 years and tens of millions of people have been killed. But even with Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, with Vietnam and Rwanda, there is not another trauma that has penetrated the consciousness of the world as deeply as the murder of the Jews.
The heads of state who gathered in Auschwitz this week to mark the 60th anniversary of the camp, and those who attended the special session on the Holocaust at the United Nations, represented most of the inhabitants of this earth. This is not surprising: The slaughter of the Jews is now accepted as a universal code for absolute evil.
Many tyrants have perpetrated appalling horrors during the past 60 years and tens of millions of people have been killed. But even with Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, with Vietnam and Rwanda, there is not another trauma that has penetrated the consciousness of the world as deeply as the murder of the Jews. "Gulag," a book that has won author Anne Appelbaum a Pulitzer Prize (and is now available in a Hebrew translation from Ivrit publishers), attempts to answer the question of why the West has not internalized the crimes of communism to the same extent that it has internalized the crimes of Nazism.
It is not easy to answer this question. Possibly, the Western narrowness of vision led to this: The Soviet Union was outside of conceptual Europe and Germany was inside it. Nazism was exterminated through occupation; the lessons about West Germany's past were forced on it by the Americans. It was intended as the spearhead in the Cold War. The Soviet Union only disintegrated from within, and who cares anyway? The Holocaust, however, encompassed many countries and the entire Christian world felt it had a part in the guilt. Therefore, it has adopted the Holocaust as part of its fundamental values.
Many Israelis do not like the fact that the heritage of the Holocaust belongs to everyone; the tens of millions of dollars that have been invested recently in Yad Vashem express more than anything else the sense that the most splendid Holocaust museum in the world must be in Jerusalem and not in Washington or Berlin. There are also not many things that annoy the Israelis more that the comparison of "our" Holocaust to anyone else's genocide.
In the midst of all this, it is very difficult to distinguish between true senses of the Holocaust and manipulative uses of the Holocaust. Both of these exist in Israel. Over the years the Holocaust has become very central to the Israeli identity, but there are also many people who exploit it to justify political arguments, some of them right-wing and some of them left-wing.
This is a loathsome phenomenon, and also absurd; there is an element in it of Holocaust denial but it is doubtful that it reflects the true conflict of values that the Holocaust has provoked in Israel. This is a conflict between the nationalist lessons and the humanist lessons of the Holocaust. A strong Israel is supposed to ensure refuge to every persecuted Jew, but also to deter every anti-Semitic villain. A state in which so many of its citizens survived the Holocaust is supposed to be strict in its observance of democracy and human rights.
There is a certain tension between these lessons, and for the most part this is a political tension; there is no profound contradiction between them. But during the 10 years that have elapsed since the world marked the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the weight of the humanitarian values of which Israel was so proud in the past has declined.
The municipalities are in no hurry these days to erase the words "Death to Arabs" that appear again and again on the walls of buildings. Ten years ago these scrawls were still shocking. Nor does anyone stop a soccer match because of such heckling. The hatred of Arabs has become legitimate. The discrimination against Arab Israelis has increased in a number of areas; even deportations, in actual fact or by means of border adjustments, have become an idea that has supporters and detractors, all within the realm of supposedly legitimate debate.
Terrible things that happen in the territories, such as the demolishing of entire residential neighborhoods, get routine coverage at most; the debate about the separation wall, which has turned the West Bank and Gaza Strip into enormous prisons, has ended. The oppression in the territories, including the humiliation at the roadblocks and the ignoring of humanitarian needs, goes far beyond what is necessary for fighting terror.
Ironically, the oppression in the territories is encouraging anti-Semitism, and in various places in the world it is even endangering the safety of Jews. There is a study that shows that even the Germans have instilled in their young people a deeper commitment to the values of humanism than have the Israelis. Sixty years after Auschwitz it is possible, then, to say that many countries of the world have learned more from the Holocaust than the Israelis have learned. Here is a task to be accomplished before the 70th memorial day.