Fear and Loathing in Israel’s Collective Memory

Maj. Gen. Yair Golan’s remarks interfered with memory and created a new definition for Israeli identity, on the continuum between victim and perpetrator.

Deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, May 5, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

The question of how to remember has been discussed recently in a number of settings, each of which stirred powerful emotions, and no wonder. Memory is identity. The things we have done are retained in our memories as symbolic actions, and they are what define us. When we forget what happened, we forget who we are. The argument over the past, then, is in effect an argument over the present continuous, and that is why it is so vicious and bitter.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, remarks by Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan likening certain trends in Israeli society to Germany in the 1930s evoked terror.

In response, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said: “We, the officers, must think about what we say and when we say it.” This is understandable. It was the link between Golan’s remarks and Holocaust Remembrance Day that generated most of the wrath, because they interfered with memory and created a new definition for Israeli identity, on the continuum between victim and perpetrator.

“Often I have asked myself whether one can live humanly in the tension between fear and anger,” Jean Amery, a Holocaust survivor, wrote in his memoir “At the Mind’s Limits.”

Golan’s remarks intimate that he believes that we must not forget what was done to us, but we must also remember how and why the human spirit became deformed, as this was manifest in the German people.

Israel’s Memorial Day this week took place in the shadow of a new threat to the project of shaping the national identity — the draft of the State Comptroller’s report on the conduct of Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in 2014.

The aim of the attacks against the report is to control memory through forgetting. If the purpose of the report is to disclose shortcomings, it is known that deficiencies are the pin that pricks the bloated balloon of identity.

If it does emerge from the draft report that the leadership did not seriously examine the possibility of easing economic restrictions on the Gaza Strip that might have delayed the outbreak of the war; if it emerges that Israel never had a strategy and goals for the Gaza Strip, and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and then-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz kept most of the intelligence from the inner cabinet, turning it into a useless entity groping in the dark, as Amos Harel reported in Haaretz — whose fault is it? How should we remember the fallen of Operation Protective Edge in light of these facts? What does the destruction in Gaza symbolize and how does it define our identity?

The new high-school civics textbook, “To Be Citizens in Israel,” also deals with memory and uses it to establish identity. In its reorganization of the national narrative, we are all religious Zionists. Hence the justifications for the existence of the State of Israel are to be found in the archives of the main creators of identity: Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day.

Not only does “the Torah of Israel and the vision of the prophets command the Jewish people to establish and maintain Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel,” and therefore the settlement project is not imperialism but rather the realization of God’s will, but “the Jewish people are still bleeding from the murder of six million of its children,” as the textbook says.

One important thing that can be learned from recent days is that we who have been swinging for years now between fear and anger, as Jean Amery put it, we who have been struggling over the facts found in our collective memory as a way to control reality, suffer from guilt and deep anxiety over everything that touches on the nature of our identity.