Where Are You for Yom Hashoah?

Once a restrained and austere one-day affair, Israel's Holocaust Memorial Day has over time morphed into a week-long festival.

Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav
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Illustration: IDF soldiers participate in a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in Jerusalem.
Illustration: IDF soldiers participate in a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in Jerusalem.Credit: Daniel Bar On / Jini
Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav

Should anyone ever wish to study how Israel imploded into a black hole of messianic-victim ultranationalism, the evolution of Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, could serve as an excellent metaphor. What began as a single memorial day, restrained and austere, has over time morphed into a week-long festival.

The preparations start the minute Passover ends. Israelis and all the institutions that purportedly serve them (government, military, schools, media) are beside themselves, and new projects are announced left and right. The Spokesperson’s Unit of the Israel Defense Forces, for example launched an Internet project in the spirit of the “selfie,” asking readers to take a picture of themselves with a Holocaust survivor and post it online. Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is making his contribution to those good old IDF values (“After me!,” “Let’s go!”).

Here’s a representative Facebook status, posted this week by that “ambassador of Israeliness,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid: “Where are you for Yom Hashoah? Three years ago, [my wife] Lihi and I were invited to a friend’s home for a ‘living-room memorial’ (“Zikaron Basalon,” or Memories@home). Instead of a formal ceremony, we sat in the living room with a bunch of other people – most of them younger than we – and we heard a Holocaust survivor relate her story. The ‘gang’ asked questions, tried to comprehend what it was like on that ‘other planet,’ and mainly listened. After the woman left, we kept talking. Someone brought out a guitar and sang. Someone else talked his grandmother’s Holocaust. I spoke about my father [former Justice Minister and Knesset member Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, now deceased], about how the Shoah defined him, and through him defined me.”

This is an important text. In style, it is remarkably similar to Lapid’s description of his party’s reconciliation gathering with wayward MK Adi Kol at the home of Education Minister Shay Piron. At the time, I termed it “Badulina in Oranit,” after the New Age best-seller that offered Israelis easy answers to complicated issues. Perhaps we’re now at Badulina in Auschwitz.

The key, of course, is the implication that we are eternally doomed to define ourselves as Israelis by means of Holocaust. But we should also focus on how it starts — “Where are you for Yom Hashoah?,” like “Where are you for Pesach?” Holocaust Remembrance Day has become the Festival of the Shoah. The few who try to resist either settle for a feeble, knee-jerk complaint about the state’s failure to provide adequately for survivors or take refuge in hopeless cynicism.

It’s no wonder that the hoary joke about Holocaust Remembrance Day being the Ashkenazi Mimouna is making the rounds again. Zikaron Basalon definitely seems to be drawing inspiration from the Moroccan-Jewish post-Passover holiday’s spirit of hospitality. And the whole Shoah commemoration thing goes far beyond the living room, of course. Soon it will be time for the Marches of the Living, the pathos-laden speeches and, of course, the inevitable slogan– “In every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.”

In the 1940s, God didn’t quite specialize in saving Jews, but Yom Hashoah has taken on a religious cast. Israel’s schools are saturated with this linkage. The education minister, a rabbi and devout adherent of the school trips to Poland, has directed the expansion of the Holocaust curriculum to all ages. This week, I learned that second-graders are being taught about the Shoah, by young religious woman who are doing national service in lieu of military service, of course. When these children reach high school, they will be sent en masse to visit the death camps, to recite Kaddish and the El Maleh Rahamim prayer, wrapped in the Israeli flag.

They will go on to the army, where they will fight the Nazis and their helpers. Perhaps they’ll be lucky enough to take a picture with one of the last living survivors. By the way, the hashtag chosen for the army’s selfie project is #WeAreHere. Where are you for Yom Hashoah? In the words of the Partisans’ anthem, we are here, and our marching steps will thunder.

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