It’s been 30 years since Abraham Hirchson – then the head of the National Youth-Beitar Movement (Noar Leumi-Beitar), he went on to serve as finance minister and, eventually, a prison sentence for embezzlement – founded the March of the Living. It was among the most powerful forces in shaping the national consensus over the narrative of the Holocaust.
Like all important aspects of that consensus, it has become part of Israel’s annual Holocaust television ritual. “Of course, we’ll be broadcasting it live,” reporter Nir Dvori says on the morning news show. The president, the chief rabbis, the army chief of staff (did you know the chief of staff carries a Torah scroll in the march?) will all be there. All the symbols of the state and thousands of teenagers for whom the march is a mandatory milestone in shaping their identity as Israeli Jews: Like the annual class trip, like the Passover seder at your aunt and uncle’s home, like the day of induction into the army.
Thirty years ago, before the march became a station on the road to adulthood, Prof. Yehuda Elkana, a historian, philosopher of science and former president of Budapest’s Central European University, published in Haaretz an opinion piece whose very title, “The need to forget,” irked many. A boy of 10 when he was taken to Auschwitz, he immigrated to Israel when the state was founded, became a brilliant intellectual and wrote, “Lately I have become more and more convinced that the deepest political and social factor that motivates much of Israeli society in its relations with the Palestinians is not personal frustration, but rather a profound existential ‘Angst’ fed by a particular interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust, the readiness to believe that the whole world is against us, and that we are the eternal victim. In this ancient belief, shared by so many today, I see the tragic and paradoxical victory of Hitler. Two nations, metaphorically speaking, emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz: a minority who assert, ‘This must never happen again,’ and a frightened and haunted majority who assert, ‘This must never happen to us again.’
Thirty years later, nearly all of the March of the Living – year after year I watch, of course, the live broadcast on all of Israel’s main channels, taking in the words and images – is devoted to the frightened and haunted majority. I do not remember speeches that were dedicated entirely to humanism, to Anne Frank’s words, “I believe that people are really good at heart.” I don’t remember calls for all participants to look deep within and ask themselves what every person, Jewish or not, must do to guarantee that a murderous, totalitarian dictatorship whose foundation is a murderous, racist ideology does not bloom once more in a country that was once the symbol of progress and enlightenment, as Germany was at the beginning of the 20th century.
I did not hear or see a declaration or an act of moral Jewish-Israeli commitment to fight manifestations of racism wherever they raise their heads. The passing years only reinforce the pattern, and with it the sole narrative with which the majority of Jewish Israelis identify: the singularity of the Holocaust. No other people has every experienced a holocaust. The Holocaust is the singular justification not only of Israel’s establishment, but also of its continued existence. A strong state with a strong army, a chief of staff with a Torah and Israel Air Force flyovers in the skies above Auschwitz are the only guarantor of survival for Israelis. And all this, according to the consensus, must be learned through a march of teenagers with an official state escort.
For 30 years I have been waiting to see, on my home TV screen, an alternative narrative as well: the voices of people – a minority, certainly, but they exist among us – who take issue with the march. When I read the Ten Commandments to my children for the first time, I didn’t think I need to bring them to the site of a mass murder to make plain the horror, as if it wouldn’t be obvious otherwise. Over the years, this belief has only grown: Auschwitz is indeed stark proof of the zenith of organized evil, but the sights it holds – the crematoriums, the piles of teeth, shoes, eyeglasses and children’s toys – cannot teach someone, however emotional and wrapped in an Israeli flag he may be, how to defeat evil.
Like Elkana in his day, I think the victory of this narrative is a great threat to Israeli society, but the number of people who share this view is dwindling. Becoming a normal society begins in the place where the dictated narrative is not sanctified but is only a possibility, and where it’s necessary to raise doubts about its expression in the March of the Living broadcasts.