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


NSB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

699 words .. you unbelievable perfectionist! Sick luv...

Anonymous said...

Two unrelated points:

The Holocaust and 'not providing Hitler with a posthumous victory' is a negative basis for one's Jewish/Israeli identity.

The Jewish lesson from the Holocaust was 'we must be responsible for our own peace and security, we will not let anyone beat the crap out of us again' (i.e. Zionism). The European lesson from the Holocaust was 'in order to guarantee our future peace and safety we must create a system which stops us beating the crap out of each other' (i.e. The EU). These two messages, one particularist and one universalist, don't always sit so comfortably one with the other.

Calev said...


i agree with you re first point - its not only negative, but ultimately impossible to maintain an identity based on this.

re ure second point, I cant remember who wrote about this, (i think it was Yossi Klein Halevi)but the difference in approaches and perspectives between Israel and Europe on the use of force was demonstrated during an celebration marking the liberation of Aushwitz.

Israel wanted to fly its F16's over the camp - the Europeans were uncomfortable with this...

And its because of what u said - the lesson we drew from the Holocaust is that powerlessness is deadly, thus the importance we place on self reliance and a strong military.

The lesson the Europeans drew from the World War was that too much power can be deadly - thus the slide towards pacifism in some quarters of the EU.

Our challenge in terms of our relationship with Europe is to show them where we are coming from.


Anonymous said...

BTW, anon was me, don't know why it didn't say so this time round

Yellow Boy

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post!
I find it relieving, in a way, to see that my students (that is: students that are starting high school now) are a new generation and can look at the past with more distance. It will help them become less suspicious of 'the others' and grow up to be healthy young Jews, without forgetting the past.

Anonymous said...

jews have always and should remain suspicious of others. Hell, i'm suspicious of you!