Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Final thoughts on Yom HaShoah

Today was Holocaust Memorial Day. I don't think I need, or can, say much about the horrors of the Holocaust here; they are well documented and any attempt by me to compress such events into a short blog post would be futile. In any case, I'm sure you are well aware of what happened at that terrible time.

Instead, the point of this entry is to try to marshal and share some of my thoughts here. Over the last few years, I've done a lot of thinking about the way we relate to the Holocaust and think it would be nice to put them out into the open and hear what other people think of my beliefs. Please note that my views are far from finalised; there's plenty for me to absorb yet and if you have any input at all, I'd be only too glad to listen.

Although I've spent a few years in Israel now, I'd never really felt the spirit of the day. Holocaust Memorial day is marked all around the globe; but in Israel it takes on an entirely different meaning. Here, it is so much more personal, so much more relevant, so much more palpable.

For those of you who haven't experienced it; it's an unbelievable sight; the whole country shuts down in a way that happens on only one other date on the calendar -- Yom HaZikaron; the memorial day for fallen soldiers of the Israeli Defence Forces. Not even Yom Kippur is this eerie; people stop in the street as the siren sounds and bow their heads in respect to the dead. Even cars cruising on motorways pull to a halt as the siren goes off. (Watch this video to see what I mean.) Like I said, the observance of the day is so deeply moving that it verges on the palpable.

The first year I was here I was in yeshiva and nobody actually heard the siren go off at 10am. I was dismayed that such a thing had been allowed to happen, but couldn't do much about it. The following two years I observed the day in the army, once with a relatively brief ceremony of about ten minutes. I can't remember what happened the following year. And the year after, last year, I was back in England. So this was my first real Yom HaShoah experience. I had volunteered to take part in one of the Hebrew University's ceremonies. At 11, the siren went off and the audience rose as one. We stood in total silence for two minutes and then quietly listened to the ceremony over the next hour or so.

Over the course of that two minute silence, my mind dwelt for some time on words that I often see and hear in connection with the Holocaust. Never again. At once, I feel both tremendously connected to that sentiment, but at the same time, I also feel that such a statement of defiance is whollry foolish. Of course such an evil must be stopped from ever occurring again, but how? We can call the Nazis the most despicable criminals to have ever existed on this blood-soaked world of ours, but I don't that we can do that. It is my belief that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were aided by the technological advances of the time. In an age where guns could be mass produced and where propaganda could be spread by radio and newspapers to turn an unsuspecting and trusting public into supporters of genocide, who's to say that the Nazis weren't simply anti-Semites in the mould of those who massacred Jews in the middle ages but with the crucial difference of having the right tools at their disposal to take their hatred for Jews to unprecedented proportions? Some say that they will "Never forgive, never forget", but isn't that irrational? Who hates the English or the French for their medieval brutalities to the Jews? The Germans just had the ability to transform their hatred for Jews into a genocide.

More importantly, why weren't the Nazis rejected internally and externally, by the people of Germany and by other countries, who should have realised well before the Holocaust started that the Nazis were up to no good? I don't know if there's a good or simple explanation for this, but I do know that this kind of situation could easily arrive again. We say "Never again", but who are we saying these words to? I only learned this year that the Hebrew name for the day is not merely Yom HaShoah, Holocaust day, but rather Yom HaZikaron laShoah v'laGvurah; Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. As I wrote above, in Israel, this day takes on an entirely different meaning. Here, an important part of the fabric of the day is to remember the heroism of those who saved lives and those who fought back. I must make clear that I completely respect and identify with this. Much as Israel is accused of "being caught up and stuck in the memory of the Holocaust", it should be entirely understandable that this is a country that will never, ever move on completely from such a horrendous tragedy. On this day, Israelis remind themselves that no longer will be weak or pushed around by other nations, and that from now on we will be the masters of our own fate.

If I may be slightly controversial, I disagree with this approach. In the time when countries had many dominions and rulers, and when villages and towns were isolated polities, the resident Jewish population were subject to the whims of the provincial authorities. As national governments began to form and replace local princes, knights or whoever else happened to be in charge, the Jews found themselves targeted on a wider scale, leading in numerous instances to Jews being ejected from their host country. As the age of statehood was being born, Theodore Herzl had a vision, a solution; the Jewish state. But now that we live in this age of statehood, we can see that the Jews are now being targeted on a national level. On each and every step of the journey, the persecution of the Jews has been accepted as logical and correct. With the benefit of hindsight though, we can see that every single time there was no justification at all for the atrocities that took place. Never again? I don't want to call it a silly, meaningless, cliched slogan because it clearly isn't. Not when it helps bring strength to a people who need unity and a community spirit to survive. But who can truly say that such a fate does not lie in wait for us in the future?

In an article published in today's Haaretz, Professor Robert Wistrich, who heads Hebrew University's International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, is quoted as saying: "Sixty-four years after Auschwitz, the politics of genocidal anti-Semitism and the indifference that made it possible are still with us." He later adds: "It is almost certainly unrealistic to imagine that we could eradicate anti-Semitism." Although there have been periods during which Jew-hatred has seemed to be relatively dormant, "it's always there beneath the surface."

As if to underline the point I'm trying to make, I just saw today's Dry Bones political cartoon. It hit the spot perfectly.

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