More than two decades since I last recited Natan Alterman’s poem “Silver Platter” at the school ceremony for Memorial Day, I still remember all the words. In the same way, I’ll never forget the disappointment on my teacher’s face when I joked around on Holocaust Remembrance Day in seventh grade.
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For many of my generation, the memorial days for the Holocaust and fallen soldiers are remembered as highly charged events in Israeli schools, and when we become parents, we draw our own conclusions.
The Education Ministry is also aware of the trepidation many parents feel when, on those days, they send their offspring – from age 3 to the end of high school – off to school wearing a white top and blue bottom. The teachers and assistants are then supposed to convey some of the hardest facts surrounding Israelis’ lives.
The blunders have become legend – from the nursery school teachers who pinned yellow stars on their young charges, to the children who wrote letters to Anne Frank wishing her luck in the Holocaust.
But many parents are also worried about more likely effects of these ceremonies such as militarism, paranoia and horror stories that will keep their kids up at night. So some are opting not to send their kids to school on these days – and of course they talk about it all on Facebook, such as in the Hebrew-language Leftist Mothers group.
Zimra Vigoda is a director at an NGO with a long name: the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation – Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development. Vigoda, a mother of four who lives in Omer near Be’er Sheva, decided not to send her youngest daughter, a third-grader, to school on either Holocaust Remembrance Day or Memorial Day.
Vigoda was born in Hungary to Holocaust-survivor parents and grew up in the United States. She immigrated to Israel just over 20 years ago. All her children, three boys and a girl, were born in Israel.
About a year ago the family returned from a three-year stay in northern California, where they went because she wanted to show her kids “a progressive, multicultural and non-macho world,” as she describes it.
“I don’t think this politicization is appropriate for children in elementary school or preschool. In the rest of the world they don’t start with the Holocaust in nursery school as they do here,” she says.
“If feel there’s a cynical exploitation of these ceremonies as preparation for the army. By the time they’re 13 or 14, they understand very well that this terrible thing happened and that we’re a persecuted people, and then comes Independence Day and here’s the solution.”
She says her children, who are now 16 and 17, are eagerly waiting to enter the army.
“The indoctrination has already been completed and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m not saying there’s no obligation to serve the country, but I think the school system doesn’t allow for any critical thinking.”
She says that in Omer the enlistment rate is 95 percent, but military people still show up and encourage the kids to join the elite units.
“It starts in preschool, not in high school,” she says. “After my experience with my three boys, I don’t want my daughter to receive the messages delivered by the Education Ministry. We’ll decide how to teach her about these subjects, and when.”
Vigoda, who calls herself a progressive Zionist, says she doesn’t think it’s possible to teach the Holocaust to children younger than fourth grade without traumatizing them.
Meanwhile, a mother of 5-year-old twin girls from Holon says that every day on the school calendar is a memorial day, so she has kept her daughters out of school. She’s currently seeking the Education Ministry’s approval for home schooling and says she fears she’ll be turned down for political-ideological reasons.
“The education system’s entire agenda revolves around the nation and the holidays. I don’t want to put my kids in the regular school system because of my humanist and feminist beliefs, and because I don’t want my girls to be exposed to nationalist worldviews – to the racism that exists in the school system, to the exclusivity of Judaism in the school system, and to anything having to do with religion,” she says.
“This is a complex country, and this system serves the government and a militaristic outlook. I don’t think it’s good for my children to be a part of that.”
A flag and cotton candy
So her plan for Independence Day? Yes, the fireworks are okay. Last year she knew the kids would want a flag, so each drew one, put it on a stick and walked around with it. They also got cotton candy and that bubble-blowing gear, but sans patriotism.
“The flag has no meaning. What matters is that we are all human beings. There’s no difference between countries and nationalities. And the occupation is still going on. Maybe I would hang a flag if there was no occupation. As long as someone is suffering because of this flag, I don’t want to celebrate it,” she says.
“The girls know about the Nakba and the occupation, on the level that they are able to understand. They know that there are Israelis who are not Jews, they know there are Palestinians.”
She says she doesn’t think it’s forbidden to talk to kids about war, but it has to be done in a certain way. And she doesn’t trust the Education Ministry to have the sensitivity to do it.
Yair Mattias of Tel Aviv, a father of three, two of them of preschool age, says that after his 4-year-old daughter’s class was shown a scary film last year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, he and his wife became wary.
“To us it starts with being turned off by all the institutional expressions of mourning and bereavement, which we consider cynical and meaningless. And it certainly doesn’t seem reasonable to me to start with this at such a young age,” he says.
“On Holocaust Remembrance Day, our daughter told us about a movie they saw where the whole family was taken and killed, and only the dog was left. I almost burst out crying.”
He says that in his older son’s kindergarten it’s even more complicated. “Last year he came back from Memorial Day with the message that all the Arabs want to kill us and we need a strong army,” Mattias says.
“There’s an Arab boy in his class. And I’m thinking – what a terrible day this must be for him, and for his parents, who have to learn this proud Zionist narrative. Our neighbor told us he hasn’t been sending his kid to what he calls the ‘death happening’ for years. So we adopted the idea.”
So how does he expect these days to be taught to children?
“We’re being orchestrated as a collective around a certain script with particularist and militarist messages that we’re taught from preschool: that they tried to kill us so we killed,” he says. “I’d rather keep my children outside this conversation, at least until the age when I’d hope to have instilled some kind of critical thinking in them.”
He says they deserve a few years in which they think the world’s a good and safe place; they’ll learn the truth later on.
“When we talk about the Holocaust, let’s talk about it in a slightly broader context, of human behavior. Let’s tell them clearly that it didn’t happen only to Jews but to other peoples too,” he says.
“The beauty of childhood is that it’s a time when kids are exploring and don’t take things for granted, and these traits should be encouraged. I grew up as a product of the Zionist Israel school system and it took me many years to be able to open my eyes. I want to give my children something different.”