The Shoah Shouldn't Be an Israeli Brand

Universalizing the lesson of the Holocaust was the most important achievement of the last century in the battle against racism. Saying its ours alone harms us.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israeli soldiers look at an exhibition at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem January 26, 2014.
Israeli soldiers look at an exhibition at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem January 26, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Shoah is a rare word to enter the English language from modern Hebrew. Of course, Shoah first appears in the Bible, several times. But unlike other biblical terms that have been adopted over the centuries or made their way into English through intermediaries such as Yiddish, Shoah went global only after it appeared in the 20th-century revived version of the tongue of the prophets.

Ha’Shoah was the term coined by the Hebrew newspapers in Mandatory Palestine to describe the destruction of Europe’s Jews. Over the decades it became an alternative to “Holocaust,” popularized by Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour documentary "Shoah" in 1985.

There’s something slightly jarring hearing an English-speaker saying show-wah, mangling the original. Usually it’s a non-Jewish politician appearing before a Jewish audience, hoping to ingratiate himself by using the Hebrew term. It’s a bit like the rather fatuous way Western statesmen began calling Nelson Mandela by his clan name, Madiba, around the time of his death last year.

Aside perhaps from a few biblical scholars, none of the six million who perished in the Shoah were familiar with the word — not even the modest number of Zionists among them who spoke a bit of Hebrew. Six million people with no shared language, dozens of different citizenships and multiple identities.

Many of them, for ideological, religious and practical reasons, yearned for a new life in an independent Jewish state in Zion. But many others, perhaps more, were Communists or Bundists resolutely opposed to the notion of Zionism and the idea that Jews should pursue a separate national identity.

Some were so assimilated they didn’t even consider themselves Jews until the racial laws of Nazi Germany forced their identity upon them. And others simply wished to live in peace in the countries of their birth or any other country offering them and their families a safe and prosperous existence.

Israel was founded three years after the last Jew was killed in the Holocaust; most survivors preferred to build their lives elsewhere, and those who did arrive and their progeny have always been a minority. Despite that, Israel is considered by everyone — aside from a fringe element of anti-Zionists — the collective and rightful heir of the six million.

As historian Simon Schama put it in “Return,” the final episode of his television documentary “The Story of the Jews,” where he presented “the moral case for Israel”: The country’s Jewish population today is “six million defeats for the Nazi program of total extermination.”

Schama is right, of course. The flourishing Jewish state is the most poignant response to the Germans’ plan. But the downside is that the Holocaust has become too Israeli, too much Shoah. And in the dichotomy between Jewish tragedy and Jewish statehood, we too easily forget what each of them is about.

Shoah selfies

This week, to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit launched on Twitter its #WeAreHere campaign, borrowing a quote from “The Partisan Song.” This has been disparaged online as "Shoah selfies." Young people, particularly IDF soldiers in uniform, post photographs of themselves with their Holocaust survivor grandparents. While many undoubtedly see this as a beautiful gesture of Jewish continuity, others including myself who come from survivor families and have proudly served in the army, found it disturbing.

Of course, there is nothing new about the army-Holocaust fusion. Countless commanders in the Israel Defense Forces have tried to create this symbiotic relationship. In 1992, then-Chief of Staff Ehud Barak said in Auschwitz “we, the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, arrived here perhaps 50 years too late,” as if the next invention by Israel’s defense industries should be a time machine.

Eleven years later, the air force took it a step forward when a formation of fighter jets took advantage of an invitation to a Polish air show to carry out an unauthorized flyby over the death camp. To this day, the photograph of F-15s above the crematoria hangs on the wall in hundreds of IDF offices.

This has since extended to other initiatives such as the Witnesses in Uniform program, which each year sends thousands of officers to week-long educational tours of Poland. And next week soldiers will fan out across the country visiting elderly survivors and handing out flowers, as they do each year before Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s hard to criticize such projects, but they highlight the deep insecurity that the much-too-close identity between Israel and Holocaust has engendered.

Herzl and Balfour

Yes, Israel is the ultimate haven for Jews facing persecution and the only guarantee that another calamity will not befall our people. But in no way is that the sole justification, or the original one, for Israel’s existence.

Political Zionism was founded by Theodor Herzl more than 40 years before World War II, and Jews had been yearning, in prayers at least, to return to their land for nearly 2,000 years since the Exile — an aspiration recognized by the Balfour Declaration in 1917. By the late 1930s, most institutions of the Jewish-state-to-be were already in place.

If anything, World War II and the Holocaust hindered that process. Whether it lay on the conscience of the UN countries that voted for partition and a Jewish state in November 1947, and what factor this may have played in their decision, is immaterial. After all, Britain abstained, and the leaders of the Soviet Union, which voted yes, hardly felt any guilt for the plight of the Jews. Defeated and partitioned Germany wasn’t yet a member; the reparations and ongoing commitment to Israel’s security would come only later.

Israel does not owe the Holocaust its existence — that’s the argument of those who seek to abolish the Jewish state or hold it to impossible standards. But it’s the Israelis who continue to insist on our status as the sole heirs of the six million who are giving them ammunition.

There is no need to continuously justify our existence with the Holocaust, just as we shouldn’t be dictated to by its memory. It’s a shared memory that by rights the Jewish state has the largest share of, but it belongs also to Diaspora Jews, non-Zionists and even anti-Zionists. And since we have done such a great job of commemorating and documenting the Holocaust, it now belongs to all mankind. It’s history’s biggest warning sign against dehumanization and genocide.

Universalizing the lesson of the Jews’ unique tragedy was the most important achievement of the last century in the battle against anti-Semitism and all other forms of racism. Limiting that to an exclusionary Israeli brand of Shoah jeopardizes the achievement and harms us.

The IDF doesn’t make itself “the most moral army in the world” by going on about its nonexistent roots in the Holocaust. Our army is a necessity, but its unfortunate and necessary business of killing the right people can never be considered a moral one. That’s not up to the soldiers or the officers.

In a democracy, we the civilians have the moral duty as voters, parents, teachers and journalists to ensure that the army is not used in our name for immoral tasks; it must take every precaution to avoid killing the wrong people. No number of trips to Poland and photographs of our sons with their great-grandparents will do it for us. We shouldn’t need the Holocaust to teach us that.

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