issue 199 - September 1989
The Holocaust lives on
'Never forget' - that's the lesson Jewish Israelis are taught from infancy.
They see pictures of Nazi concentration camps and watch films of skeletal
bodies being bulldozed into trenches. What effect does this have on
Israeli attitudes today? Sarah Faith explains.
The Nazi genocide of six million Jews was one of the most appalling episodes in modern history. Its memory will live on forever.
But the memory of the Holocaust brings its own dangers. It has produced in Israel a state of national paranoia which menaces Jews and Palestinians alike.
A walk around the Holocaust Museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, the Kibbutz of Warsaw Ghetto Fighters - illustrates how the problems arise. A notice explains the museum's aim: 'To educate the generations that come, in Israel and the diaspora, about the Holocaust and resistance. To create a unique, living, educational memorial where groups of young people may reflect, pray and seek understanding about what happened to two million like them'.
The notice makes no mention of other groups which suffered at Nazi hands. It leaves the impression that Jewish children were the Nazis' only victims.
They were not. The Nazis aimed to achieve 'racial hygiene' by eliminating all groups deemed 'sick' or 'degenerate'. Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, the tubercular and a wide range of other 'antisocials' - as well as Jews - were all marked for destruction: 70,000 mental patients were among the first to die.1 A quarter of a million gypsies were murdered, thousands of them in Mauthausen concentration camp. And thousands of Poles were shot randomly; Auschwitz was originally built not to exterminate Jews but as a punishment camp for Polish political prisoners.2 Many millions of non-Jewish civilians were shot, starved, gassed or otherwise done to death by the Nazis.3
Modern-day Zionists do not generally describe the events of the thirties and forties as the 'Nazi genocide'. They prefer the term 'Holocaust', an emotionally charged expression which has been identified with a uniquely Jewish fate.
This serves Zionist leaders well, for it sustains their thesis that Jewish people cannot survive without their own territory and army. This is a doubtful proposition. If Poles and Russians - well-rooted territonal nations both - are vulnerable to mass murder, then sovereignty and military prowess offer no security. The ultimate guarantee against extermination - if there is one - lies in the eradication of ideologies which exclude any human group from the definition of humanity.
But with the idea of the Holocaust, Israeli leaders wield a powerful tool which encourages US Jews to feel guilty at not having done more to prevent the disaster. And it makes them feel insecure about their own situation; Israel is like an insurance policy for diaspora Jews (Jews living outside the Jewish State). It is a place to run to when the going gets tough.
Israel thus presents itself to US Jews as being under constant threat of annihilation from surrounding Arab countries, despite being several times stronger and in no imminent military danger. US Jews can then assuage their guilt by giving economic aid and political support to 'prevent the second Holocaust'.
Israel presents its wars as crises which threaten the country's existence. And if there are victories these are seen as miracles achieved through overseas Jewish support - allowing diaspora Jews a sense of having participated in the heroic events. Criticism from the rest of the world is silenced with the argument: 'You who stood idly on the sidelines during the Holocaust may not tell us what to do to prevent another Holocaust'.
'The guilt that US Jews - and enlightened
parts of the Christian world - feel towards
Jewish people, brings many benefits for Israel.
The image of Israel under threat is precious to American Jewry. Indeed many react angrily when they hear that Israel's proper objective should be to achieve full independence - including independence from overseas Jewish support. US Jews want the dependence to continue so that they can feel needed.
The guilt that US Jews - and enlightened parts of the Christian world - feel towards Jewish people brings many benefits for Israel. The country receives vast sums of unconditional one-way economic and political support. But it has also made the country dependent on foreign aid. The State of Israel was originally set up to allow Jews to lead a 'normal existence as a Nation State among other Nation States'. But it has adopted a policy which puts it outside the system of normal power relations between nations. It survives because of its reliance on the moral guilt of the outside world.
Israeli leaders, like those of many other countries, use the idea of an external threat to maintain a sense of cohesion in their own country. Zionist ideology demanded the building of a Jewish state. But when the State of Israel was created, a new Jew started to emerge, a Jew with an independent national consciousness distinct from the Jewish one. The leadership set out to reverse the process by stressing the vulnerability of the Jewish people and cultivating distrust of the Arabs. It argued that: 'Jews are always an object of hatred. The only difference between Jews in Israel and those outside, is that Israeli Jews can fight back whereas diaspora Jews have no alternative except to go like sheep to the slaughter.' The argument implied a similarity between the Nazis and the Arabs.
And sometimes the analogy is explicit. Even Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has reportedly compared Yasser Arafat of the PLO with Hitler. And because many Israeli Jews bear the psychological scars of persecution, this shallow propaganda works. Knowing little of Palestinians and their history, they do not find it hard to connect Nazis and Palestinians.
But the Nazi/Arab analogy is just a part of the process of dehumanizing Palestinians. They are also compared with animals; 'Two-legged animals' (Begin), 'Drugged cockroaches' (Raphael Eitan) or 'Grasshoppers' (Shamir). From here it is not hard for Israelis to conclude - as many have - that the only solution to the
'Palestinian question' is for Palestinians to be voluntarily or involuntarily transferred to an Arab country.
'I regret every wasted moment in the
army which I did not make use of
to be better, more dangerous.'
Concentration camp survivor, Dr Israel Shahak, says 'In Nazi Germany we saw the legitimization of Nazi aims, which meant encouraging Jews to immigrate by persecuting them and discriminating against them. Here today a very strong minority supports "transfer", which means inducing Palestinians to emigrate using Nazi methods. There are legal parties dedicated to this purpose. The extreme Right and religious Jews, who make up 20 per cent of the population, support transfer. And they face exactly the same difficulty that the Nazis faced, because Palestinians don't want to emigrate - just like German Jews didn't want to until compelled.'
The identification of Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, with the Nazis, together with the constantly reiterated threat of another Holocaust, arouses panic in the average Jewish Israeli. It freezes Israeli consciousness to a point where it is incapable of understanding the real forces operating in the political arena. The choices Jewish Israelis believe they confront are either 'Holocaust' or 'Victory' - and this relieves them from any moral responsibilities towards others.
The memory of the Holocaust encourages Jewish Israelis to consider themselves as perpetual victims of a hostile world. The following poem, which is on display in the Holocaust museum at the Lohamei Hagetaot Kibbutz, was written not in 1948 - as one might imagine - but in 1973, by Yitzhak Tabenkin.
'The coming world war will be terrible it is Imminent. There is no knowing how and when the Holocaust will come but we know what to do. We have to gather strength, for the future depends on strength, and our strength depends on numbers. We have to bring Jews to Eretz-Israel.'
But Jewish Israelis also extol the virtues of being invulnerable warriors. In the same museum, alongside pictures of Jews being barbarously murdered, hangs another quote from a book written by a young Jewish soldier killed in the 1967 war:
'When I attend our gatherings commemorating the Holocaust, I look into the eyes of those who were and are now with us and I see the terrible helplessness there. From amidst all the horror and helplessness I feel a tremendous force surging up in me - urging me to he strong. Strong to the point of tears. Strong and sharp as a knife. Calm and terrible. That is what I want to be like. I want to be sure that never- again will those cavernous eyes look out from behind electrified fences.. Every time I see an orthodox Jew or hear a word that brings all this back, 1 regret every wasted moment in the army which I did nor make use of to be better, more dangerous.'
This combined victim/warrior self-image seems to insulate Jewish Israelis from recognizing their potential as oppressors. On Remembrance Day at this Kibbutz, clumps of national Blue Star flags flutter in the breeze. Military-style music pounds and the place throbs with soldiers and school children. They troop through the darkened auditorium to watch the relentless images of bulldozers pushing skeletal bodies into mass graves. Then they re-emerge for sandwiches on the lawn. What does the Holocaust mean to them'?
Danni is 16 years old and soon he will be in the army. He says 'The Holocaust is a symbol for Israeli people that this country is the only place we can feel safe. All Jews must protect Israel against the Arabs. The Arabs want us dead. There is still Nazism in the world. We must protect Gaza and the West Bank and let no-one take our land. The Palestinians already have a country - Jordan. We didn't have a place to go during the war. Now we have one. We should throw them into the sea.'
The only way to avoid such conclusions is by understanding the Holocaust in human terms rather than as a Nazi/Jew phenomenon. At Massua Institute in Israel, Amira Hass teaches students about the psychological processes which enabled ordinary human beings to commit genocide. She says, 'SS men became the heads of concentration camps for very normal reasons. They wanted a uniform, a career; they had families to support. A person becomes a murderer by a process of accommodation - by growing used to atrocities. This could be true of anyone, including an Israeli soldier.'
Sarah Faith lives in the UK and is the daughter of a German Jewish refugee.
Many of the ideas in this article originated from an essay by Boaz Evron called 'Holocaust: The uses of Disaster', published by New Outlook, 1980.
1 Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis, Harvard University Press, 1988.
2 Atlas of the Holocaust, Martin Gilbert, Pergamon Press, 1988.
3 According to Martin Gilbert's The Holocaust, Collins, 1986, over 10 million noncombatants were killed by the Nazis apart trom the six million Jews. They included Poles, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Russians, and many more. We shall probably never know exactly how many died in the extermination programme.