Opinion

Having Failed to Learn Its Lessons, Holocaust Remembrance Day Doesn’t Belong in Israel's Reality

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the opening ceremony of the annual Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, May 1, 2019.
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, children stand in their schoolyards, wearing their white shirts. They know no more about the Holocaust than their parents or grandparents before them did. No one told them. Our parents held their silence, we their children didn’t want to hear and our own children will have nothing to tell their children.

Into this silence marched the state. It talked and talked without saying anything. It tried to replace private grief with national grief, wanting national memory to replace the memories of individuals. Children did not know their families, but the state wasn’t interested in getting them acquainted. It disdained the dead and the survivors. It saw them as “human dust” and a financial burden. It used their names and suffering as a pretext for a campaign of revenge against its neighbors.

The state was ashamed of the Holocaust. In order to overcome the shame, it attached the concepts of bravery and nation-building to it. The Holocaust was presented as something unique, an inexplicable, sui generis event. It saddled children with this almost imaginary, one-time event that was impossible to explain, something from another planet.

No one tells them that though the annihilation was unique, the laws that led up to it were not. Go tell the children in the white shirts that the decision to exterminate was taken legally, and that the terrible killings were perpetrated not by monsters but by ordinary citizens who respected the law and observed regulations. Go explain to these kids in white that there are laws you must follow and laws you mustn’t. That there are good laws and bad laws, and that the accumulation of some laws is called a “process.” They won’t be told that even in legally-based processes one can identify worrying signs; go tell them that what begins as “court-overriding clauses” can easily turn into “tyranny.”

They won’t notice that “overriding” in German sounds strangely similar to “tyranny” in Hebrew. If they did notice, they’d ask questions connecting what happened there to what is happening here. You don’t have to exhaust kids on school grounds to teach them that “they hate Jews” and that “we have to be strong.”

If the Holocaust will never be repeated, what is there to remember? Perhaps the victims? What can one say about them? That they weren’t the silver platter on which the state was given to us? That they weren’t the handsome youths who in their deaths bequeathed us life? After all, you can’t keep lining up generations of schoolchildren in schoolyards for decades, only to tell them that entire families went to their deaths not knowing why, how, where and what for.

Ceremonies won’t provide an answer. National ceremonies in a tightly-knit state can strengthen ties between citizens – they can’t create these ties. One can’t hold ceremonies of alliance and association in a place that is all about separation and dissolution. We’ve broken our ties of solidarity with open eyes, under the auspices of our prime minister.

Memorial Day for fallen IDF soldiers, to be marked next week, is a vestige of the solidarity that existed here once, a solidarity imposed on us by an enemy that did not distinguish between one nation and several separate tribes. One can’t impose the grief of one tribe onto others. The head of the Zagouri family won’t stand at attention during the sounding of the siren until there is also a siren commemorating the victims of the transit camps in the state’s early years. The ultra-Orthodox won’t stand at attention because they don’t mourn in the month of Nisan. And the Arabs? After all, our tragedy engendered theirs.

Holocaust Remembrance Day doesn’t belong in our current reality. The dead are forgotten, the survivors abandoned. The lessons have not been learned. Racism is flourishing and hatred is winning. As if the Holocaust never happened.

Sad songs will no longer reconnect the broken fragments. One can’t coerce mourning, one can’t impose feelings of pain on people who don’t feel it, just like you can’t impose joy on people who aren’t partners to it.