One key set of images we identify with the Holocaust is the gas chambers. But this image causes us to overlook that hundreds of thousands of human beings, maybe more – Jews, Ukrainians, Gypsies and others – were executed in Eastern Europe by tens of thousands of other human beings, maybe more, who forced them to march, made them dig their own graves, then stood them in a row and mowed them down with machine guns. The murderers clearly saw the faces of their victims, in other words, they couldn’t deny the fact that they were about to exterminate humanity.
There are innumerable expressions in Judeo-Christian culture for the uniqueness, the intrinsic value, of each and every person. Perhaps one of the best albeit less familiar is that of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who said, in an oxymoron, that “we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”
Tens of thousands of human beings forgot these unique qualities when before their eyes, at a distance of a few dozen meters or less, they saw helpless children, women, men and the elderly, with the terrible knowledge of the death that was about to befall them within minutes evident in their eyes and their facial and bodily spasms – and yet they executed them practically without batting an eyelash (though the historian Christopher Browning claims that occasionally there were a few who fired over the heads of the victims or refused to embark on the missions).
That is the greatest moral failure of that terrible century, and the requisite conclusion is that it is impossible to rely on human reason in its crude state, as liberals do today again and again, with terrible simplicity. Reason must be subjected to intensive and profound shaping by means of mechanisms of moral education.
World War II, of which the Holocaust was a part, was only one of hundreds of international and civil wars that took place in the 20th century. In these wars tens of millions of human beings sacrificed their lives at the command of politicians, who were often total psychopaths, and at best – irresponsible. Tens of millions of human beings ended their lives unthinkingly, without asking themselves whether they identified with the politics that was about send them to their deaths. It is this astonishing phenomenon (and not the gas chambers, as claimed by members of the Frankfurt School and Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman) that is the major failure of reason in the 20th century.
In Israel, since the War of Independence, all the wars, with the exception of the Six-Day War, and perhaps the Yom Kippur War, were wars of choice. In other words, they were not wars of self defense, about which the political justification and wisdom that led to them is debatable. The heart always breaks anew at the sight of the young people who sent off to these wars, and casually and childishly obeying, as though there was not a real danger of losing the most important and unique thing of all: their lives. These young people reported for duty and ended their lives without asking themselves whether or not they identified with the political objectives of the wars. Yet the worst thing that happens in the context of the wars here is the action of powerful cultural mechanisms that depoliticize wars, although there is nothing in the world more political than wars. These young people are therefore victims of a failure of their own reason and that of their parents, their teachers, and the entire Israeli public.
None expressed this failure of reason in Israel better than the playwright Hanoch Levin, a matchless lover of humankind, who mourned the stupidity of the superfluous, irrational, herd-like and self-righteous death in our wars. And therefore, even in the case of Israel, the lesson to be learned is the same: the need to shape people’s reason by means of education, not just knowledge; first and foremost, political education.
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The way it looks now, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the representative of the extremist and benighted minority in religious Zionism, will continue to serve as education minister. If that happens, our children will receive the opposite of a moral, political and humanistic education. They will receive religious-ultranationalist brainwashing, which blocks humaneness and bars thinking.
This can be fought in two ways. One is to establish a separate educational system based on humanistic values. The late psychologist, philosopher and journalist Carlo Strenger, and current writers Ram Fruman and Neri Livneh, have even called on the pages of Haaretz in recent years for the establishment of such an educational system. The other way is to give secular children, through civil society, supplementary education based on humanistic values. Secular society in Israel has the intellectual and financial resources to do this.
The problem with both methods is exclusionism by sector. Even if both methods are implemented in parallel, most Israeli children will still get a different, perhaps even contrary, education. And if the behavior of these children, when they grow up, is devoid of morality and of reason, that will impact them and everyone else.
If Israeli humanists choose life – for their children and for themselves – they have no choice but to wage a political battle over the image of the country. Never have the chances of such a battle looked worse than at this moment. But there are no shortcuts, and as was proven in the past month, there is also no value to following a political leadership akin to a Potemkin village. If Israeli humanist fail to mobilize their intellectual and monetary resources to reorganize for decisive activity in civil society and in politics – who can foresee their future, and that of their children.
Professor Menachem Mautner teaches at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law.