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Memory and Holocaust discourse in Israel

By: Shahar Agami

Translated by Mark Marshall

8 May 2005

Many books and articles have been written about the Holocaust. In today’s Israel it is one of the only subjects that links the past to the present. In the spoken Hebrew language there are many words related to the Holocaust. A few years ago I heard a relative who was in the habit of referring to Arafat as “Hitler” and the suicide terrorists as “Nazis”. Israeli soldiers, on the other hand, have been called “Judeo-Nazis” by Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and Shimon Peres has been called “Judenrat” by the settlers. These are expressions from the distant past, but they are charged with new meanings in the present.

Last year I participated as a teacher in a ceremony at one of the Hebrew schools in Israel. I closely examined the looks of the pupils as they stood at attention, moved as they heard the hair-raising texts, the melancholy songs and dance excerpts, but also emotionally overloaded. They did not know how to digest the bombastic sentences: “Remember and do not forget”, “Six million Jews” … how to behave? Cry or laugh? Stand at attention and be restrained or carry on as usual? The children’s ages and their distance in time and space from the victims and the historical events contributed to an atmosphere of artificiality and dissonance. In the ceremony there were many children whose families had no direct or indirect connection to the Holocaust - children of the third generation, children whose parents had immigrated to Israel from countries in the Middle East, children whose parents immigrated here from Ethiopia, children of foreign workers. It seemed that the connection between the participants in the ceremony and the subjects of the texts was completely coincidental and imposed from above by national command. Otherwise it is hard to explain why there were pupils who caused disturbances and talked to each other during the ceremony, played with their cell-phones, cried or laughed. The school’s director concluded the ceremony, emphasizing “how important it is to remember and not to forget, to remember the victims of the Holocaust, the six million Jews, and not to forget that the State of Israel is the answer to what happened, it is a shelter and a refuge for Jews who were persecuted for thousands of years.”

The ceremony ended after two hours. On the way to class I heard one pupil comment to another about her wrinkled shirt and her “Arab look”. During a break between classes a boy in Grade 5 called one of his classmates a “homo” because he took the ball from him. The next day the only Ethiopian girl in Grade 4 was called a “nigger” [kushit] by another pupil.

The media theoretician Marshall McLuhan once said, “the medium is the message”. If from this perspective we examine the ceremony, the director’s fiery speech and the pupils’ behaviour, it is revealed that in the rituals and the speeches of “Holocaust Day” in that school and in other places, it is not the victim and the story of his life in the past that stands at the centre, but the nationalist imperative, the feeling of victimhood and the existential fear in the present of what the future holds. Together they are intended to create a feeling of a shared fate among different groups in the same territorial zone.
What is the meaning of this feeling of victimhood, and what is the link between it and the manifestations of racism that emerged from those children’s mouths? The educational establishment is responsible for shaping the consciousness of the learner, but these days it does not do so exclusively. Movies, books, discussions with parents and friends are important factors that must be taken into account. The dominance of those means over the consciousness of the individual in society in Israel determines the way in which the individual perceives reality. The fear of “another Auschwitz” and the sigh of relief at the shelter that the nation-state provides to the individual who lives in it, in addition to the imperative that his life depends on his participation in the struggle against the “new Nazis” who want to destroy him again and again because “history repeats itself” are two dominant messages that are transmitted to every Jewish pupil in Israel even at the beginning of the 21st century. With a feeling of persecution and existential fear for his fate and that of his relatives, it is easy to see how racist expressions like “Arab”, “homo” [sic] and “nigger” that distinguish the Other, whose membership in the majority group is put in doubt, and undermine the identity of the individual in the majority group, come up again and again. Holocaust Day exempts the individual from the need to examine himself compared to other groups. The assumption is that from the feeling of victimhood a victimizer will not sprout.

Since the victims of the Holocaust were murdered twice, once in the Second World War and a second time on “Holocaust Day” and everything related to it in various media, groups and individuals in Israeli society seek alternatives. There were those who called for an end to the State’s monopoly over the memory and to set up an alternative discussion on the way we remember Holocaust Day and the mechanisms that stand behind the memory industry. There were those who wanted to change the character and essence of the day, from a day that marks the tragedy of one people to a day that includes the consideration of the tragedies of many peoples and various groups (Rwandans, Bosnians, Armenians, Kurds, Assyrians, homosexuals and lesbians, Roma, the disabled, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others), a discussion the message of which is not “we are a people that dwells alone”, but that racism and genocides are universal human phenomena that have taken place throughout history and could happen at any place and at any time, even here among us.

In the two cases the mechanism that defined what must be remembered and what must be forgotten was identified, and an alternative was proposed in the form of an epistemological discourse on memory or transition from the local to the universal. The two alternatives are still on the margins of the discourse.
Could there be manifestations of racism among us? Do we, who have suffered from racism, raise our hands against somebody else? Is there a chance that what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany could happen in Israel of the 2000s to minorities living within it – not with the same method, not to the same extent, but in different forms? Is it possible that a people that suffered from manifestations of racism at the hands of another people could turn from victim to victimizer? Are there cases in our modern history as an old-new nation on territory in the national context in which we have behaved with the “other” in our midst like the Nazis treated us over fifty years ago? This time I am not referring to crematoria or labour camps, because there is enough in the discrimination against minority groups in the economic and political spheres, closing places of work to people because they are members of a different group, neglect of communities, unjust distribution of wealth, strict control of study materials, the absence of investment and infrastructure in various domains. Racism has many faces, and you do not need crematoria or labour camps in order to oppress groups or individuals.

This year it was reported in the newspapers that supporters of Beitar [the Jerusalem football team] yelled at a game against the Sakhnin team, “Baruch Goldstein, we love you” [Baruch Goldstein was the Jewish settler who murdered 29 Palestinians at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron]. It was also reported in a survey conducted by the Israeli Institute for Democracy that 57 % of the Jewish public supports the encouragement of Arabs to emigrate from the State.

In discourse about the memory of the Holocaust two prominent camps can be identified. One supports the introversion and entrenchment of the majority in the nation-state and wants to use the memory of the Holocaust and the victims for narrow political ends. The other wants to make the discourse universal, and to teach the Holocaust as part of a broad discussion touching the ways societies and states use memory, and the question of racism as a supreme social concern. In the struggle over the discourse and the way to remember the Holocaust and the victims it appears that the first group still has the upper hand.

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