Verging on Holocaust Denial

It is very convenient to invoke an event in which we were only right and the world was only guilty and wrong.

Hanna Yablonka
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Hanna Yablonka

The Jewish settlers in the territories who wrote their identity numbers on their arms, and the reasons they gave for doing this, testify to the necessity for the public to deal anew with the phenomenon of everyday use of the Holocaust.

With an increasing degree of sharpness, many Israelis are using motifs that they perceive as clear symbols of the Holocaust in the political debate. It seems there is no longer any point in the protests and expressions of shock that come as a conditioned response after any such incident - especially in light of the fact that they fall on deaf ears. Even the argument of hurting Holocaust survivors is no longer effective. Evidence of this can be found in the response of Ronny Bakshi, the originator of the idea of using the orange patch, to the use of the number on the arm: "I don't take into account what people think, but rather do as I feel."

There needs to be a rethinking of everything connected to the Holocaust in our national experience, on two levels: the first, a clarification of the reasons for the use made of the Holocaust in the political and ideological debate before us; the other, and the more important, national soul-searching concerning the question of the failure of our education system insofar as the Holocaust is concerned.

The story of the Holocaust has long been a key element in Israeli national identity. The story Israelis tell themselves, with a great degree of justice, depicts the Jewish people as the victim of an evil unparalleled in the history of mankind, an evil that is the fruit of German murderousness accompanied by the collaboration of the peoples of Europe or, at best, their indifference. In this story it is always the Jewish people that is in the right and is the accuser. The peoples of the world are obligated to stand before it abashed and ashamed.

In light of this, it is only natural that in the debate we are conducting among ourselves and with the world on the issue of the results of the Six-Day War, it is very convenient to invoke an event in which we were only right and the world was only guilty and wrong. The entire public gathers around the consensus of the memory of the Holocaust in this form. The discourse constantly heard about the lessons of the Holocaust and the testament of the murdered also contribute their part. Those who were murdered, as is well known, were not a uniform entity and did not leave behind any will and testament, and therefore the lessons of the Holocaust, as a huge human tragedy, must remain within the realm and sovereignty of the individual. The talk about the lessons of the Holocaust flattens the discourse on the Holocaust and leads to "herd phenomena" of mistaken and deceptive exploitations of its memory and the memory of its victims.

Astonishingly and distressingly, this above all spreads a cloud of ignorance, and not as a result of doing nothing: Tens of thousands of high-school students travel as a central part of their adolescence to the camps in Poland; they undergo preparation for the trip, study the Holocaust as a required subject for the matriculation exams, and year after year mark Holocaust Day - and still, they do not know the facts and they do not understand the essence of the event.

Our error is not quantitative and its sources must be sought elsewhere. When a youngster recently explained in justification of the number he has inked on his arm that "in the ghetto, too, it was possible to go in and out only with a number" (Yedioth Ahronoth, July 15), it is possible to shrug, say he is an idiot and does not know history, but unfortunately he is not alone: An entire generation of young people, to whom the equivalence of the Jewish settlers in the territories and the victims of the Holocaust seems natural, does not know the precise facts and the essence, but only the pornography of the event - and here there is already cause for concern, which is not rethought at the Education Ministry.

Such thinking must include posing questions about everything done thus far and, among other things, a review of the trips to Poland, the curriculum, the contents of Holocaust Memorial Day and of course the rhetoric of the leadership - the same leadership, most of which, to my regret, I did not see at the Knesset when they marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in the presence of dozens of emotional Holocaust survivors, the apple of our eye, who sat facing a plenum that was, disgracefully, nearly empty.

In this combination of lack of knowledge and the growing importance of the Holocaust in Israeli discourse and national identity lie strong elements of Holocaust denial, this time from a new and unexpected direction. If indeed, as implied by the symbolic analogies being used, this was the Holocaust, and the Jews sent to the camps had previously received millions of deutschmarks and reasonable alternative housing (my mother, as someone who came from there, for some reason insists this was not the case) - then in fact the Holocaust was not so terrible. Moreover, if indeed these are the prevailing comparisons - what will we, who were not there, remember after those people with the bluish numbers on their arms and a real memory etched in their souls disappear from our lives?

If such a process is not undertaken, now, at the juncture when the survivors are disappearing from our lives, and at the same time Holocaust "distorters" are springing up among us, in the next generation nobody's feelings will be hurt any more, because the dead are silent, the survivors will go the way of all flesh and we will have nothing left - certainly not the shared memory we owe them.

Prof. Yablonka is a lecturer in the Jewish history department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.



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