No Monopoly on Absolute Evil

The Germans are not the only nation on earth capable of perpetrating a holocaust and the Jews are not the only nation capable of being its victims - and Israeli children must be taught this.

Yossi Sarid
Yossi Sarid
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Yossi Sarid
Yossi Sarid

"The Pain of Knowledge: Reflections on Holocaust and Genocide Issues in Education - in Israel and Elsewhere," published [in Hebrew] by the Open University of Israel, Tel Aviv, 248 pages

The Open University did the right thing when it decided to publish Yair Auron's book, "The Pain of Knowledge: Reflections on Holocaust and Genocide Issues in Education - in Israel and Elsewhere," for the general reading public, instead of earmarking it solely for the participants in Auron's university course on this subject. The book, which has just been published, is now available for all individuals who are interested in its topic.

May the number of interested readers increase, because "The Pain of Knowledge" deals with a subject of supreme importance that until now has been of concern only to a small number of Israelis - although Israelis, more than any other nation, should consider it both crucial and fascinating, because it is through that subject that they are building the ladder of their concepts and values. This ladder, like the one Jacob saw in his dream in the Genesis narrative, is planted firmly on earth, but reaches up to the very heavens.

Auron first presents his readers with articles that discuss theoretical issues pertaining to the formation of a collective memory. The second set of articles are concerned with issues pertaining to the teaching of the Holocaust in Israel and elsewhere. The third and final set of articles deals with the teaching of genocide in the world in general and in Israel in particular. Two chapters are of particular interest: the one on the annual excursions to Poland during which Israeli high-school students visit concentration and death camps, and the second on teaching genocide studies in the school system. The two chapters raise substantive questions of immense importance that touch on the very roots of our existence here in this country - as Israelis, as Jews and as human beings. I personally was powerfully drawn by these two chapters because they concern two central issues that are questions of principle, with which I was concerned during my term as minister of education.

Auron generally refrains from expressing his own personal standpoint and tries instead to offer a methodological, didactic and unbiased survey. Nevertheless, between the lines, readers can quite easily discern what Auron's position is. The only exception to this rule is the last chapter - on genocide - in which he explicitly enunciates the position he has openly championed for years, where he criticizes the fact that not all acts of genocide are given the attention they deserve and where he calls for their universal recognition. This is perhaps the most important and most interesting chapter in the book. Here is a classic illustration of the truism that the presentation of a clear position always augments interest because it sparks either sympathy or antagonism.

The `other victims'

During my stint as education minister, I held the view that, in failing to include genocide studies in the curriculum, the Israeli school system was neither fulfilling its role nor furthering its own goals and that, as a result, Israeli high-school students knew nothing about the Nazi regime's non-Jewish victims: gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, patients of mental health hospitals, persons with physical handicaps, Jehovah's Witnesses, Poles, Russian prisoners of war and "other victims." And it is not just the victims of the Nazis who are forgotten. What interest is shown here in this country in the genocide suffered by the Armenians, Bosnians and Rwandans? Or in politicide, which is a form of genocide to which a nation is subjected by its very own leaders, for example, the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, China under Mao Tse-tung, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and democratic Australia in its treatment of the Aborigines?

There are those who argue that, in the 20th century, more acts of genocide or politicide have been committed than in any other century in human history and thus they define it as the "century of genocide" or the "century of violence."

In his book, Auron expresses his surprise that, in Israel, school and university curricula make almost no reference to genocide. The curriculum entitled "Sensitivity to suffering in the world: Genocide in the 20th century," which was prepared for the Ministry of Education in 1994, was not approved. I fully share Auron's surprise and fully support his protest.

I tried to correct this distorted situation to some extent and on April 23, 2000, on the date that Armenians mark their own Memorial Day, I appeared, as an invited guest of honor, in the community's church in Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter. I came to the memorial ceremony in order to deliver the following message:

"I have come here in order to be with you, the distinguished members of the Armenian community, on your memorial day, which today marks the 85th anniversary of the massacre of the Armenian people. I am here, together with you, as a human being, as a Jew, as an Israeli and as Israel's minister of education. As you have done in past years, you, the members of the Armenian nation, are today gathering in Israel and in other places around the world to remember and to remind others of the terrible disaster that befell your people in the early part of the past century.

"For many years, for too many in fact, your nation has been alone on its memorial day. I am well aware of the special significance of my presence here today, together with other Israelis. Today, perhaps for the very first time, you are less alone. Armenian Memorial Day should be a day of introspection for all of us, a day of soul-searching. On this day, we Jews, victims of the Holocaust, will assess our attitude toward the pain of others.

"The massacre of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915 and 1916 is one of the most horrific events of modern history. America's Jewish ambassador to Turkey at the time, Henry Morgenthau, defined the slaughter as the `greatest crime in modern history.' This good person could not have possibly imagined in his wildest dreams what awaited us later on in the 20th century. At that point in time, the worst possible event imaginable - the Holocaust of the Jewish people - was still ahead of us."

Nurturing sensitivity

"One individual who was profoundly shocked by the murder of the Armenian people and who shocked many readers with his classical work, `Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh' (`The 40 Days of Musa Dagh'), was a Jewish author and a native of Prague, Franz Werfel. The idea behind the writing of this book was born in March 1929 when Werfel visited Damascus on his way to Palestine. He wrote: `The pitiful sight of Armenian refugee children, maimed and almost starving to death, working in a carpet factory provided me with the final impetus to liberate from the abyss of oblivion the cruel fate of the Armenian people.'

"Werfel's book, which appeared in Germany in the spring of 1933, shocked millions of people. Adolf Hitler was already in power. `The 40 Days of Musa Dagh' was one of the banned books burned by the Nazis. It was translated into Hebrew in 1934 and had a powerful impact on many young people in Palestine. I was one of them.

"For me and for many of my generation living in this land at the time, `The 40 Days of Musa Dagh' was a book that shaped our character and our overall outlook on life. In modern-day Israel, very few of our young citizens have heard of Musa Dagh and many of them know absolutely nothing about the massacre of the Armenian people. I know how much importance Armenians around the world attach to the attitude of Jews, especially the attitude of the State of Israel, toward the genocide that the Armenians have suffered. As Israel's minister of education, I will do everything in my power to ensure that our children will once more become familiar with this monumental work, `The 40 Days of Musa Dagh.' I will make every effort to see to it that Israeli children will learn, and be knowledgeable about, the murder of the Armenian nation.

"Genocide is the gravest and most abominable crime imaginable against humanity. One of the goals of the Israeli school system - indeed, a central goal - is to nurture sensitivity toward the suffering of innocent individuals whose sole `crime' is their ethnic identity. We Jews, the chief victims of murderous hatred, must show an exceptional level of sensitivity toward, and must feel immense solidarity with, other victims. We must arouse, among the members of the younger generation, a natural and profound sense of revulsion toward all acts of genocide in the past, present and future. Genocide is the root of all evil and we must make a major political and educational effort in order to eradicate it and banish it forever from human history.

"Those who are eyewitnesses, who sit on the sidelines, who choose to turn a blind eye, who feel that they have all sorts of accounts to settle, who remain silent, are only helping the murderers; they are certainly not helping the murdered.

"In 1918, Samuel Tolkowsky, who at the time was personal secretary to Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who would become Israel's first president, wrote an important article, with Weizmann's approval, called `The Armenian Question from the Zionist Point of View.' In that article, Tolkowsky states the following: `We Zionists look upon the fate of the Armenian people with a deep and sincere sympathy; we do so as men, as Jews and as Zionists. As men our motto is `Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto.' As Jews our exile from our ancestral home and our centuries of suffering in all parts of the globe have made us, I would dare to say, specialists in martyrdom; our humanitarian feelings have been refined to an incomparable degree, so much so that the sufferings of other people - even alien to us in blood and remote from us in distance - cannot but strike the deeper chords of our soul and weave between us and our fellow sufferers that deep bond of sympathy that one might call the solidarity of sorrow.

"And among all those who suffer around us, is there a people whose record of martyrdom is more akin to ours than that of the Armenians? As Zionists we have a peculiar question of principle. Zionism being in its essence nothing else than the Jewish expression for national justice, it is natural and logical for us to be deeply interested in the struggle for emancipation of any other living nation. ... We are convinced that the future peace and happiness of that part of the world - the Middle East - of which our own national homeland, Palestine, is only a part, will be best assured when `all well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction that can be accorded them without introducing new or perpetuating old elements of discord and antagonism that would be likely in time to break the peace. In our opinion, a free and happy Armenia, a free and happy Arabia, and a free and happy Jewish Palestine, are the three pillars on which will rest the future peace and welfare of the Middle East.'

"These words were written by Weizmann's personal secretary more than 80 years ago. Such true, important statements, which emphasize the value of human life, irrespective of the individual's identity - Jew, Arab, Armenian, Gypsy, Bosnian, Albanian or Rwandan. And I want to pass on this noble message to all the students in our school system. In our history curriculum, in the new curriculum that is now being formulated, I want to see a central chapter devoted to genocide, to this immense atrocity, to this inhuman atrocity, and I want that chapter to deal explicitly with the genocide suffered by the Armenian people so that the record can finally be set straight regarding the national and personal memories of each of you, of each member of your nation. This is our obligation to you, this is our obligation to ourselves.

"We are now in the midst of the intermediary days of the Jewish festival of Passover, the period that links up the first and last day of this holiday. This is the festival of our liberation, in which we were redeemed from bondage, in which we were released from slavery in order to become free individuals. This is what we wish each nation, including the Armenian nation: liberty and redemption, redemption and liberty."

Universal lesson

Discerning readers will note that I did not define the genocide suffered by the Armenians as the Armenian "holocaust." At the time, I did not want to generate yet another controversy over a "semantic issue" - holocaust or genocide. At the time, I felt that it was more important to plant in the vineyard of education the central chapter on genocide rather than get into a quarrel with the gatekeepers.

Today, now that I fulfill no official capacity, I consider it my duty to state that, from my standpoint, there is no difference: "Genocide" and "holocaust" are synonymous terms - genocide is genocide. Every genocide - if it is truly genocide and not merely a propagandistic counterfeit of genocide - is a holocaust.

Israelis and many Jews in Israel and in other countries around the world fear linkage of these two concepts because they sense that such a link might eliminate the Jewish Holocaust's uniqueness, that it might turn the Holocaust into "just another catastrophe" that has befallen one more nation on the globe. I identify with the position held by Auron, who has written: "We propose that the teaching of both the Holocaust and genocide take place within a single context." Furthermore, he writes, the "basic axiom underlying the preparation of the course in whose context this book has been written is that all human life is precious to the same degree, regardless of the individual's identity."

Whenever the "lessons of the Holocaust" are discussed, prominence must be given to the central lesson: This entire atrocity could repeat itself and, in fact, it has already repeated itself and is still repeating itself. The lesson is that the Holocaust was not a just a single, isolated, demonic event, that the Germans are not the only nation on earth capable of perpetrating it and that the Jews are not the only nation on earth capable of being its victims.

The lesson is thus universal and not necessarily national and specific. From our perspective, the Holocaust will always be unique even if we identify more strongly with the horrible catastrophes of other nations. The person you are closest to is yourself. A nation always displays the greatest concern for itself. This is only natural, perhaps only human. It is inhuman to ignore the murder of another nation, to assume that, if the victims are not Jews, the murder cannot, by definition, be termed the holocaust of a nation. If we really want all human beings to consider genocide as the gravest crime that can be committed against humanity, there is no justification whatsoever in maintaining a Jewish monopoly on the term "holocaust" - although the Jewish Holocaust has, without question, certain unique traits, which are unprecedented in their malice.

The basic assumption must always be that absolute evil is not the exclusive province of Nazi Germany or Germans, just as a bitter and cruel fate is not exclusively reserved for the Jews, and that, in any case, no nation (especially if it is strong) is invulnerable to the possibility of becoming a victimizer, while no nation (especially if it is weak and dispersed) is invulnerable to the possibility of becoming a victim.

I do not believe in such concepts as good nations or evil ones. However, I do believe in the existence of good leaders and evil ones, who champion positive or negative ideologies respectively and who are capable of bringing their countries and nations into a world of light or a world of darkness. There are no guarantees against suffering and pain. Moreover, your own suffering cannot be used as justification for the suffering of others and does not provide you with the right to make others suffer, although it might provide you with the right to bring happiness to others.

The seemingly semantic debate goes far beyond semantics and conceals ugly considerations that are far beyond monopolistic claims. Indifference and numbness are not the only factors that can lock your heart and consciousness. We ourselves are helping to promote denial of the Holocaust for reasons of realpolitik. And, if our reasons are realpolitik, what right have we to criticize others and to blame them for their conceptual myopia or for their baseness? We ourselves, for example, deny the Armenian holocaust that was perpetrated by the Turks, because we attach great importance to our relations with Turkey, and because Israel's political, security and economic interests force us to adopt a policy of denial - a policy that will ultimately wreak its vengeance upon us when more and more individuals begin to deny our Holocaust. Holocausts must never be denied - irrespective of the reasons for the denial, irrespective of the identity of the victims.

Thus, it was not surprising that, immediately after I finished my delivery in the Armenian church, then-prime minister Ehud Barak and cabinet minister Shimon Peres hastened to emphasize that the speech given by the education minister did not represent the cabinet's position. Fear of the Turks enveloped them because the Turkish reaction was one of great displeasure and, indeed, profound indignation. Peres even went so far as to adopt, in a sadly inappropriate and obsequious statement, the official Turkish position that no genocide was ever perpetrated against the Armenians. I resigned from the cabinet and thus my plans for including in the school curriculum a special and extensive chapter on genocide is probably not being implemented. This is not only unfortunate; it is disgraceful.

The State of Israel would justify its definition as the "Jewish state" if it would spearhead every protest against and every condemnation of all acts of genocide and Holocaust - and without stopping to think about the consequences and without making any realpolitik considerations. This is a far more important precondition for the existence of a Jewish state than even laws concerning leavened bread on Passover.

"Remember what Amalek did to you" - we must certainly remember. But we should remember not just what Amalek did to us. Auron writes that what happened to "us" is supplemented, not contradicted, by what happened to "others." This sort of merging will add moral significance and universal strength to the memory of the Holocaust and to our justified demand that the world must never forget.



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