We Should Move Our Commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day

Moti Milrod

We must bring up an idea that is hard to digest for public discussion. It should be done with awe and reverence, but with courage, and perhaps the visit this week by 47 heads of state – including kings, princes and presidents – to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial will make it possible to discuss the issue without it turning into a political confrontation. We must touch upon one of the components of the holy of holies of Zionist nationalism: Holocaust Remembrance Day. It should be moved to another date, the day on which all the nations of the world have chosen to commemorate it.

The date of Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day was chosen in Israel according to the date of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But the uprising began on April 19, 1943, the 14th of Nissan, the eve of Passover. Since the eve of Passover is not a date that is suited for a national memorial day, it was decided in 1951 to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th of Nissan, six days after the end of Passover and a week before Memorial Day.

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That’s a worthy date, of course, but it’s also problematic. Although the proximity to Memorial Day creates an atmosphere of holiness surrounding the “national days,” let’s admit the truth: It also creates overconcentration. This overconcentration, for which we have learned to give various and sundry explanations automatically, has no advantage; in fact it is even harmful.

In some cases and in some places, from schools to youth movements, there is a kind of ranking that isn’t discussed. Holocaust Remembrance Day has become less “invested in” (in terms of ceremonies, attention, the presence of masses of people) than Memorial Day. Nobody planned that – it simply happened.

Schools are beginning to prepare for the end of the school year. Observing two memorial days one after another requires a great deal of work, which is reflected both in the educational preparation and the attention paid by the school. The State of Israel also decided, for reasons that aren’t sufficiently clear to me to this day, to create a distinction between the two proximate memorial days. On Holocaust Remembrance Day there is one siren, in the evening. On Memorial Day there are two, in the morning and the evening.

It’s true that this is what we’ve become accustomed to. It’s a repetitive practice that has become tradition, and I’m the last person to make light of tradition. I admit that there is also a certain value to this memorial tradition, which is concentrated and so Israeli, and has already become an integral part of the Israeli rhythm. And still, because the memory of the Holocaust is so important, we must take action.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is important enough to stand on its own, not just existing for the purpose of preparing for Memorial Day and the subsequent Independence Day. The time has come for the coalition and the opposition (after the next Knesset is formed) to jointly reach a courageous decision to change the date of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and mark it on January 27, the date chosen for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

That is the day when the Auschwitz extermination camp was liberated from the Nazis. There is value, both Jewish and Zionist, for the State of Israel to stand alongside all the nations of the world on this day. Moreover, the decision to establish International Holocaust Remembrance Day resulted from a welcome and important Israeli initiative (by then-Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who deserves credit for it). There was no need for a vote in the United Nations General Assembly – the resolution was accepted unanimously.

It is clear to me that such a decision requires courage, and it’s even clearer that it should be formulated while attempting to refrain from any political dispute. In principle, it won’t cause a reduction in the status of the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day, but just the opposite. And together with changing the date, there should be two sirens on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Israeli society will be able to digest the change if it is explained properly, and if it is not accompanied by controversy. Is that possible?

Dr. Yizhar Hess is Executive Director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel.