November 21, 2018

Memorial Days

It is sometimes quite amazing to see how the Holocaust, 70 years later, is still a daily subject of discussion in Israel. Not a day goes by without it being mentioned in the public sphere. Not a week goes by without it becoming a point of contention. If you think the Jewish people will ever begin to get over this tragedy, think again.

Or just listen to how Israelis discuss their daily affairs. It won’t be too long before you also realize that this trauma is far from being healed. It is constantly on our minds.

Some things force this constancy on us. For example, the fact that from January to May, Israel marks not one but three Holocaust Memorial days. There was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked this week, and there is the religious Memorial Day, marked, along with other Jewish tragedies, on the Asarah be-Tevet fast, and then there is the actual, official Memorial Day, a week after Passover.

Yet in most cases, the Holocaust occupies us not because of special duty — a day that calls for a pause. In most cases it is us, busying ourselves with it because nothing has more power to grab our attention. We do not pause to remember the Holocaust; we remember it while on the move.

We do not pause to remember the Holocaust; we remember it while on the move.

Consider the past two weeks. The fierce public debate over a government plan to expel thousands of illegal migrants from Africa (opponents to their expulsion insist on calling them asylum-seekers and presenting them as people whom Israel must absorb) quickly descended into Holocaust-themed arguments. The ultimate weapon was pulled out when Holocaust survivors began voicing their views on this matter — implying a moral authority that trumps government considerations in such matters of conscience.

And as this debate rages, a famous Israeli writer and artist, who wrote lyrics for Israeli classics, compared a Palestinian attacker of soldiers to Anne Frank — prompting a harsh response from Israel’s defense minister. The minister demanded that the Israel Defense Forces radio station cease from playing all songs written by this author, and was then reminded by the attorney general that he has no legal authority to enforce such a demand.

The artist, Yehonatan Geffen, later apologized for his foolishness, as did another, less prominent Israeli writer who was even more vulgar in his use of Holocaust imagery. This artist said — you need to pause before you read this — that he would gladly sit on the roof of a death camp to see the smoke coming out of its chimney, provided it is novelist Amos Oz who is put to death below him. He is so angry with Oz for using “Nazi” to describe the action of right-wing radicals that he felt an irresistible urge to make his point clear, before apologizing to whatever followers he might still have.

Then there is Poland. If the memory of the Holocaust divides Israelis when they have an internal political debate, it often unites them against external forces. Such is the case with the Polish Parliament, which now plots to pass legislation that makes reference to Polish involvement in executing the Holocaust unlawful.

Of course, the story of Poland and the Holocaust is complicated. The Poles were victims of the Nazis. The Poles were not the initiators of the mass murder of Jews, nor invited the construction of death camps in their midst. Still, evidence of Polish participation in the execution of Jews is vast and irrefutable. The attempt by Poland to silence the voices demanding acknowledgment of such participation, or the scholars who dig for more evidence of how, where and why it was done, was met with unified Israeli condemnation.

The Israeli government was adamant not to let this Polish law pass without response. Israeli opposition was sometimes even more robust in its demand for retribution (while also needling the government for having ties with right-wing European parties). In a heartbeat, the Holocaust ceased to be a tool of nasty division and has become a tool of guarded unification.

Lessons are few: It would be better for Israelis to count to 10 before they use the Holocaust to score cheap points in a conventional, if fierce, political debate. It would be better for them to ignore artists who cannot properly think before they speak. It would be better for Poland to come to grips with its past and stop trying to mask it.

Most of all, it would be better for us all to realize that we are still a traumatized people. The evidence is all around us — at times in the form of cynicism or stupidity, at times in the form of serious discussion. The only remedy is time. A very long time.