Sunday, January 27, 2008

Holocaust Memorial in Israel: Of Trauma & Trust

Last Saturday night I saw a documentary called Hiding and Seeking which describes the attempt by Menachem Daum to leave his children an ethical legacy in a Shlomo Carlebach ‘love every human because they were all created in God's image' type of style. Overshadowing everyone's relationship in the film is the specter of the Shoah, which destroyed much of the Menachem and his wife Rivka's parents' families (although Rivka's father spent 28 months hidden in a pit under a haystack in the farmyard of a non-Jewish Polish family, the Muchas). And while the past (unsurprisingly) causes their parents to be suspicious of 'the goyim', what worries Menachem is how the Holocaust has also reinforced his children's' ambivalence towards the secular non-Jewish world and anything outside the four cubits of Jewish law.

In a moving journey to discover more about their past, Menachem takes his sons on a pilgrimage to Poland, ultimately finding the family who hid their ancestors and discovering that wars not only bring out the worst in people but also the best. The film concludes with a Yad Vashem ceremony in which Honorata and Wojciech Mucha are presented with a
righteous gentile award and the two families forge an inter-generational bond.

While the film deals with the Holocaust's role in affecting individual Jews, the question of how the trauma has shaped us on a national level has also been in the news. Last month Mohatma Gandhi's grandson
wrote of how Jewish identity is locked into the holocaust experience and that we have become a nation that believes its survival can only be ensured by weapons and bombs. On a different but related note, Avrum Burg recently argued that the experience of the Holocaust has become the primal, meta-fear of Israeli society and that unless we move from trauma to trust, Israeli society has no hope of preventing national disaster.

One doesn’t have to agree with Ghandi and Burg completely (
and I don’t) to realize that our 'checkered' past with the outside world has a subconscious influence on our approach to foreign policy. In fact, early Zionism was an attempt to liberate Jews from what was perceived as an ontological status of exile, of caring too much what the Gentiles thought of us (something Amos Oz describes beautifully in his book A Tale of Love and Darkness).

The creation of the State and a new Hebrew Sabra who would no longer care what the world thought was supposed to finalize this process. As Ben Gurion quipped in the 1950, ‘it no longer matters what the goyim say, but what the Jews do.’ An echo of this approach can still be heard today (often at Shabbat meals I attend) by those claiming that a proud Jewish leadership would stick two fingers up to the world (who stood by as we were being slaughtered) and do what's good for the Jews.

We mark the unimaginable evils of the Holocaust on the 27th January, 10 days after the anniversary of the disappearance of Swedish diplomat
Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Jews during the war. Both days reflect the potential of the humanity. Yet we seem to concentrate more on one than the other.

So as Israel marks this years' international
Holocaust Memorial Day with continued comparisons between then and now, perhaps we - as citizens of the state with the most powerful regional army, an assumed nuclear capacity and the support of the sole global superpower - should consider whether continued distrust of the outside world is liberating us or actually handicapping us from taking our rightful place in the family of nations.

It’s inevitable that the wounds of the past scar us, and the existential fear of many Israelis (including mine) over our future here is legitimate. But 60 years on, maybe we should harness the memory of Wallenberg and the countless other righteous gentiles like the Muchas to inspire us to become open and confident enough to begin the process of learning to trust again, of believing we can take risks.

Because ultimately, perhaps its this that marks the completion of our ongoing Zionist journey from an exilic past into a genuine independent free and sovereign future.

p.s anyone who thinks this blog should be updated more often should read
this story

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Myths, Sacrifices & Heroes

The eulogies for Ahikam Amihai and David Rubin - two off-duty soldiers murdered last Friday - focused on their love of the land and tiyulim. Every park supervisor knew Ahikam according to his brother, while David was described as intimately familiar with the Land of Israel, including parts of Jordan.

One friend described the difference between the boys and the youth of the 'lowland state' who care more about draft dodging and pop star Ninet's hairstyle than anything else. Another stated that "This is not just any funeral. And these aren't just any people. They are myths. We have stopped believing in myths and heroes, but they were just that."

Another mythic figure also known for his love of hiking (in both Israel and Jordan) is Meir Har Tzion. Described by Moshe Dayan as the bravest Jewish warrior since Bar Kochba, Har Tzion recently criticized the army for its fear of casualties in the Second Lebanon War, berating the commanders for failing to stick to the goal.

His words are recorded in a documentary film called
'May Every Mother Know' in which the authors interview an army unit (including Har Zion's son) who fought in the war, focusing on the same tension (if not the same dichotomy) described at the Amichai / Ruben funeral; between the values of collectivism and solidarity instilled in them by their fathers, and the culture of capitalism and hedonism that holds individual success as supreme and has grown weary of call-ups and wars.

One who never grew weary of such call ups was Ehud Efrati, a 34 year old combat reserve soldier, killed during a firefight with Hamas on October 29th.

An agronomist by profession who worked in his family's orchards in Zichron Yaacov, Efrati's death has largely been forgotten coming as it did on the same day a more famous Ehud announced he was suffering from prostrate cancer, news that relegated Efrati's death to the back pages.
"Just Plain Ehud" is survived by his wife Miri, their five-year-old son Tomer, three-year-old daughter Shai and four-month-old baby Raz.

When the children were told of their father's death, Tomer asked if he was an angel and whether angels could speak on the phone while later suggesting they buy a spaceship to fly to the sky and bring Daddy back. When Miri explained that Ehud was not in the sky but in their hearts, Shai suggested opening up their hearts to take him out.

It's probably true that Israel enters 2008 as an increasingly post ideological, de-mystified State in which the individual often trumps the collective. Aliya is on the wane and the upcoming Winograd report casts a shadow over public trust in our leadership.

Yet perhaps because of that, it's even more inspiring to come across those who reject the ideology of the 'lowland state', and still believe in the idea of self-sacrifice for the collective good.

So as we (justifiably) celebrate the 'record low' number of Israeli fatalities from Palestinian violence since 2000, let's hope the memory of those not here to usher in the new year with us will serve to renew our beliefs - not only in the myths and ideas that make this country's raison-d'etre so powerful, but in the many heroes whose sacrifice continues to secure our existence here.

Happy 2008