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Holocaust Remembrance Day didn’t used to be like this

The Holocaust lends itself perfectly to Israel’s two reigning ‘isms’ – nationalism and emotionalism. 

PM Netanyahu speaks at Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 8, 2013 (Raffi Shamir/GPO)

Aren’t historic events supposed to diminish in their impact over time? Not the Holocaust, not in Israel. Today’s Holocaust Remembrance Day just seems bigger, more enveloping, more sanctimonious, more commanding than ever.

John Kerry just arrived last night to kick off what is supposed to be the Obama administration’s last-gasp attempt at Middle East peacemaking, and I open up Yediot Aharonot – which, along with Channel 2, is the most accurate reflection of the Israeli public’s personality – and it’s page after page after page of Holocaust – more than half the paper.  I don’t remember Israeli newspapers giving that much space to Yom Hashoah. Even Haaretz went to town today.

The official explanation for this would be that the Holocaust survivors are dying of old age and soon there won’t be any of them left, so this is a way of hanging onto to them, or showing them respect at the end of their lives. But knowing how Israel has treated Holocaust survivors over the decades, especially when they first arrived, I’m not convinced. I think the reason for this counter-intuitively growing impact of the Holocaust, and by extension Yom Hashoah, is because it lends itself perfectly to the two reigning “isms” in this country – nationalism and emotionalism.

The connection between nationalism and the Holocaust isn’t new, of course, but with Bibi Netanyahu settling into his third term as prime minister, the association has become so much more raw and crude than ever before. Last night at Yad Vashem, Netanyahu delivered his annual Yom-Hashoah-bomb-Iran speech, and nobody raised an eyebrow – it’s become a ritual, like matza on Passover, and the idea of using the Holocaust to beat the drums for war with Iran has become so matter-of-fact around here, so embedded in the culture, that nobody notices it anymore.

The other factor in the Holocaust’s increasing impact – the rise of emotionalism, of tear-jerking as the key to mass appeal – is relatively new in this country. It “arrived” in full form with the campaign to free Gilad Shalit. As I wrote a few months ago (in a post focusing on the now-infamous craze of Holocaust survivors’ grandchildren tattooing their grandparents’ concentration camp numbers on their arms, or their ankles), my son reported that on his high school class trip to Poland, the agenda wasn’t to turn the kids into combat soldiers, but to turn them into a blubbering, hugging therapy group.

What’s a more emotional story, what’s more up-close-and-personal than the Holocaust? It’s the most written-about, dramatized, black-and-white, good-vs.-evil, awesome, tragic story in history – and it’s ours. For the media, for politicians, for anybody who wants to appeal to the Israeli public, the Holocaust, as they might say in America, is huge. As they might say in Israel, it’s a shlagger. It’s like Elvis, or Marilyn Monroe – an eternal superstar. I don’t think the aura is ever going to fade – there will always be a 70th, a 75th, an 80th, a 100th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the Wannsee agreement, or the Nazis’ surrender, or some other day to publicize. For Holocaust Remembrance Day next year, maybe Yediot will put out a special memorial edition; I’m sure it will sell like hotcakes.

I actually think Israel should observe Yom Hashoah and there should be a siren during which everyone stands still and silent. The catastrophe and its victims shouldn’t be forgotten. But Yom Hashoah didn’t used to be like this – it didn’t used to be such a festival, such an affair. There wasn’t this built-in escalation, the determination that this year’s show has to be better than last year’s. There wasn’t such exploitation – neither for the sake of politics or entertainment.

I can’t stand the term “Holocaust” anymore – it’s become a brand name, the whole subject has become “branded.” Yom Hashoah has turned into some kind of Holocaust Experience. Again, this is not new, it’s just gotten palpably worse.

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    1. sh

      Kristallnacht and Wannsee are already past their 70th.

      Yom Hashoa should be on international Holocaust Remembrance Day and there should be a separate Warsaw Ghetto uprising commemoration around Pessah at which the military and the politicians could go on doing their thing.

      Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        I think this is an excellent suggestion

        Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Lightbown

      Nationalism and emotionalism are displayed elsewhere with far less excuse. Britain still celebrates Armistice Day on 11 November and has two minutes silence which no one can lightly ignore. No public personality is going to appear without sporting a red poppy around that time. For what? All the combatants from the First World War are dead and the few that survive from the Second World War are very old. Most of them will not talk about the war even if you ask them. At the same time there is nothing done on this day to try to start initiatives to stop wars like the long running tragedy in the DRC or to scale down the arms trade.

      I just mention British behaviour to demonstrate that this is not exclusively an Israeli thing. There are plenty of parallels elsewhere. In my own backyard I do not consider the British fascination with ‘the war’ to be a healthy preoccupation.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        But in Britain does all the traffic come to a stop on the expressways?

        Reply to Comment
      • sh

        It is not quite the same. The State of Israel did not exist when the holocaust occurred. And the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped who were abused, experimented upon, murdered were civilian citizens of the country that committed those atrocities, or of the countries it occupied. Britain remembers a horrific but nevertheless conventional war between armies and the poppies signify the battlefields on which the bloodiest battles were fought, not the civilians who died in the devastated towns and cities.

        Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      Just some speculation on my part but I think that the increased interest in the subject is partly due, as Larry said, simply by the fact that there are fewer and fewer survivors and there is a fear that the story will become lost when the last ones leave us.
      However, it may be due to another factor….with Israelis grappling with their Jewish identity. Some time ago some of those who post here said “I am an Israeli and not a Jew and my friends feel that way too”. I heard that in the early years of the state, up until the 1970’s, there was a general deprecation of “Jewish identity” by the cultural elite of the country and the term “Jew” because a slur. Even Peres said upon his loss of the 1996 election to Bibi that “The Jews have defeated the Israelis”. Now, as the Arabs, including Israeli Arab Knesset members more and more boldy say all Jews here are invaders and should leave, those who disconnect themselves from Jewish identity now really have to look in the mirror and wonder what right they have to be here at all, since many claim it is ONLY by Jewish history and cultural and RELIGIOUS attachment to the land that we have any right to be here at all. Confronting the Shoah may be a partial way of rediscovering Israelis true roots in Jewish identity which is the only base for the Israeli presence here. Of course, Jewish identity must end up going beyond just “victimization” as represented by the Shoah, but it is a start.

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        On the contrary, it’s the Israelis* who are hung up about the holocaust not the Jews. The Jews (i.e. religious who remained equivocal about Zionism) saw the holocaust as a continuation of what went on before and did not institute a special day for remembering it precisely because of that. It can be an add-on to one of the fasts at best, but the grand tragedy of all-time remains the destruction of the Temple.

        *When I say Israelis I mean the secular and the religious who strove to accommodate with them on the question of modern Zionism, and then overtook them.

        Reply to Comment
        • sh

          That is to say the raison d’être of a Jew can never be the holocaust but the religious Zionists have, like XYZ, been conditioned to believe that it is. Mind-boggling.

          Reply to Comment
    4. J.Burrard

      In reply to Richard Lightbown, you don’t hear British politicians saying “we lost hundreds of thousands of gallant young men in two world wars, so how dare you criticise the way we treat other people today”.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Danny

      The reason Israel is so hung up on the shoah is simply because the shoah has been so profitable for Israel, both economically and, perhaps more importantly, politically.

      Israel uses the shoah to extract vast monies from Germany and even vaster political backing for its occupation policies by laying a guilt trip on Germany and Europe in general.

      The not-so-subtle message is: Don’t say a peep about our treatment of the Palestinians because we were YOUR victims 70 years ago, so you don’t get to lecture us about the Palestinians.

      The holocaust pays dividends, even 70 years later. Israel is not about to let this golden goose fly away.

      Reply to Comment
      • Arieh

        “The reason Israel is so hung up on the shoah is simply because the shoah has been so profitable for Israel, both economically and, perhaps more importantly, politically”

        Of course it could not possibly be because some of us normal Jews (the non progressive ones) actually feel upset about losing one third of our brethern by a programmed mass extermination campaign on an industrial scale, initiated by one of the most “civilised” nations of Europe and aided and abetted by many other “civilised” European peoples? Could it Danny boy?

        Just wondering. Help me out here. Especially since I notice that you shed endless tears for the suffering of Palestinians who suffer because they just won’t give up on their idea of eliminating the safe haven that we created for ourselves so that we need never feel helpless again and dependent on others for our safety. Nor do we allow our blood to be shed with impunity any more.

        Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, you seem to easily dismiss the murder of 6 million of our brethern but you are less forgiving of Israel just because this time we won’t allow those who hate us shed our blood cheaply?

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          I do not dismiss anything. I am merely commenting on Israel’s cynical use of the holocaust for its own selfish ends. If Israel truly cared about the victims of the holocaust, why doesn’t it show it by giving the remaining survivors the money owed to them from the payments from Germany, which (surprise surprise) Israel took for its own uses?

          Reply to Comment
          • Arieh

            “Israel truly cared about the victims of the holocaust, why doesn’t it show it by giving the remaining survivors the money owed to them from the payments from Germany”

            This response illustrates the problem with “progressives” like you.

            For your information, many survivors in Israel were and are well looked after. But you are right, some are NOT. And it IS definitely a disgrace. A disgrace to the thieves who stole their money and a disgrace to the beurocrats who are so tardy at fixing the problem.

            But to blame ALL Israel and Israelis and to want to destroy Israel because of such things is tantamount to cheap hatred.

            The world is not perfect. And it never will be perfect. Thinking human beings aspire to fix imperfections one by one. Not to bring the entire system down and throw the baby out with the bath water, which is what you “progressives” are trying to do to Israel. And to Israel alone.

            Reply to Comment
    6. Aaron Gross

      The Holocaust also lends itself to another pernicious -ism, universalism. This is the Lesson Of the Holocaust that’s learned in Europe and among the beautiful souls in Israel.

      Also, speaking as a Jewish nationalist myself, I’ll point out that “jingoism” is actually a more accurate term for what you’re (rightly) complaining about here.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        What’s pernicious is the denial of universality.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          More of a denial of humanity’s willingness and ability to actually live according to it’s lofty designs.

          Reply to Comment
    7. rsgengland

      Jews are hung up about the ‘SHOAH’ because it is probably the biggest and most heinous crime in history, ever committed by the human race .
      A third of the worldwide Jewish population were eradicated in less than six years, just FOR THE CRIME OF BEING JEWISH.
      There have been attempts before Hitler to eradicate Judaism, and no doubt in the future, there will be another Hitler trying his luck.
      Three years after nearly six million Jews walked to their deaths, THE STATE OF ISRAEL was created.
      If Israel and her people want to remember and say ‘kaddish’ for those who were murdered, who has the right or the temerity to tell them otherwise.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        ” There have been attempts before Hitler to eradicate Judaism, and no doubt in the future, there will be another Hitler trying his luck.”

        No doubt. After all, that’s what Bibi keeps telling us over and over again. And Bibi is an honest man who tells his people the truth, right?

        Reply to Comment
        • Arieh

          “No doubt. After all, that’s what Bibi keeps telling us over and over again. And Bibi is an honest man who tells his people the truth, right?”

          Yes, Danny Boy you got it in one (NOT), the Shoah is about Bibi. If not for Bibi, Jews would already get over that “trivial” event years ago?

          That is what you were trying to say? There, there, I said it for you. Is your soul at rest now?

          Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        “it is probably the biggest and most heinous crime in history, ever committed by the human race”

        Which makes Jews the ultimate victims of all time. The eradication of the American Indians? Pshaw. American slavery? Yawn.

        For your information, 50 million people died in WW2; of those, 10 million in the battle of Stalingrad alone.

        Share some victimhood with others please.

        Reply to Comment
        • “share some victimhood with others” : I am beginning to think of the present use of the Holocaust as a cultural property like Jesus. Many believers own Jesus–they know exactly what he is, and he can only be shared among fellows. Aaron, above, warns of the danger of “universalism,” which amounts to property control. I would think that in both of these cases–Jesus and the Holocaust–one might think the issue so sacred to be beyond the control of any of us. But there is a powerful tendency to own the sacred–because it is powerful. I think my attraction to Gandhian nonviolence may rest somewhat on the refusal to own, to rather risk being wrong. I will leave this world, but the Holocaust will remain. How can I tell those living past me what it is?

          Reply to Comment
        • Arieh

          “Share some victimhood with others please.”

          You really are an exceptionally callous person aren’t you Danny Boy?

          Here is one Jew, me myself and I. If I could undo it all, I would gladly do so. Even if we Jews would lose all the so called benefits of the holocaust that you so relishingly accuse us of getting.

          Reply to Comment
    8. XYZ

      It seems to be the argument here is over the dispute of who gets the “honor” of being considered the biggest victim of history. Since Europe started commemorating Holocaust Day every year in January, it is interpreted as saying that Europe is giving the Jews the honor. In fact, in Britain, Muslims objected to teaching about the Holocaust because (1) some claim it never happened and (2) Muslims want the honor of being considered the biggest victims of all time.
      Since I vehemently reject the idea that it is an honor to be considered a victim and because, as I said elsewhere I reject the idea that there is any “universal” message in the Shoah, which is ultimately a Jewish -only experience, I would support renaming Holocaust day and calling it “Human Rights Day” or some such thing.

      Reply to Comment
      • directrob

        Indeed, the lessons learned from the senseless killing of civilians during the war gave rise to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

        Why should we not remember all 50 million or so civilians or even all deaths instead of dividing them into groups.

        Reply to Comment
        • sh

          I see no problem dividing them into groups if they’re more comfortable that way, but that still doesn’t prevent them from marking the event together. After all, the different regiments march to the Cenotaph in groups on British Remembrance Sunday, don’t they?

          Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Because most humans care more about people similar to them than random strangers. Because the lessons and historical context of a particular historical event is different between different groups. The Germans as opposed to the Russians as opposed to the British attach very different meanings to the events of WW2. Because the way that people mourn is culturally specific.

          Reply to Comment
      • Elisabeth

        XYZ, Holocaust Day in Europe remembers all people that were targeted by the Nazis for extermination because of who they WERE (Jews, Jehova’s Witnesses, Gypsies, homosexuals).
        As far as I know, people that were targeted for what they DID (such as opposing Nazi policies in Germany, or being part of the resistance in the occupied countries)are not included,as that is probably considered normal behavior for a repressive regime.

        Reply to Comment
    9. raul07

      In Israeli school’s every year a certain age grade is in charge of holocaust day, and when it would arrive to your year, everyone would always try to find what to do different that year. This is very simple, as Israeli’s we attend every year over and over again at least one (and mostly more) Yom Hashoah ceremonies and it becomes hard to hear over and over again the same speeches and same songs.
      The issue is not that. The issue is using this “brand” especially in times like this to push peoples nationalism to the extreme and to hide or completely deny or worse DISTORT the relation between what happened in history and what happens today, especially in Israel.
      Learning from the past should be a positive process and naively an event like the holocaust should be a day to encourage peace, tolerance, empathy, equality, humanistic approach to protect human rights above anything else.
      This is the lesson that the jews should have, by now, understood that is meant to be learned from what happened in their past.
      Unfortunately an event brand like this is the exact perfect target for Mr BIBI to lead the blind Israeli readers of Yediot Aharonot to feel like a poor victim who is allowed all, and especially think of anything but the human rights being completely neglected and taken from people living with them on the same land and instead, (much more helpful to the conscience of the israeli’s) worrying about their continuos victim status under theoretical bombs and being surrounded by haters.
      So, you see what I’m saying, if the Yom Hashoah being a festival and a brand would have been any kind of positive inspiration to the Israeli coming generations, then I would tell you you have nothing to worry about, but the issue to be discussed here is in the way this brand is used for only negative propaganda and brain wash that is not taking the Israeli’s into a better future nor any further away in the mentality and beliefs of their old enemies from the history, “Them who must not be named”….

      Reply to Comment
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