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Last November the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27 as an annual "International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust." With 104 co-sponsors, including Israel, the historic UN resolution selected that date as it is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
During the 1950s the Knesset debated which date to establish as Israel's Holocaust remembrance day.
The Chief Rabbinate had already designated the 10th of Tevet - an existing fast day marking the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem that culminated in the destruction of the Temple - as the date of "General Kaddish" for Holocaust survivors who did not know the date of death of their fallen family members. The ultra-Orthodox rabbinate suggested adding - as had been done to signify the destruction of Jewish communities by marauding Crusaders - additional piyyutim (liturgical poems) relating to the Holocaust to the lamentations recited on Tisha B'Av itself, the solemn fast day commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples.
While incorporating the Holocaust within existing fast days marking national calamities reflected the traditional view that the Holocaust was yet another chapter in a long story of Jewish suffering through the ages, others argued that the Holocaust needed to be commemorated on its own.
After long debate, the Knesset established the 27th day of Nisan as "Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevura," literally "Holocaust and Heroism Day." The date marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which in fact began on the 15th day of Nisan (April 19, 1943).
Since the actual beginning of the uprising coincided with Pessah, the Knesset, as a compromise, chose a date that falls a week after the end of Pessah and a week before Yom Hazikaron, our Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, and Independence Day - but within the span of the nearly month-long uprising. As a further compromise, the legislation provided that if the 27th day of Nisan impinged upon Shabbat (i.e. fell on a Friday or a Saturday), the commemoration would be moved to the following Sunday.
IN EFFECT, both sides of the debate in Israel in the 1950s wanted to place the Holocaust within an established context, either the traditional suffering of the Jew or the heroic Zionist model of the "new" Jew. Neither wanted to face the enormity and senselessness of the tragedy, especially in the first decade after World War II.
In its infancy, Israel could not bear the image of Jews as victims being "led like sheep to the slaughter" and, accordingly, latched on to the heroic (if doomed) resisters in the Warsaw Ghetto as the proper "Israeli" model on which to base Holocaust remembrance.
Moreover, the placement of Holocaust Memorial Day as a prelude to Independence Day conveyed the "Israel-centric" message that the Holocaust was a stepping stone in the founding of the State of Israel, the proverbial "darkness before the light" of national redemption.
But this focus on the perceived heroic aspects of the Holocaust to fit our tough (but vulnerable) sabra self-image, together with the implicit message that the Holocaust's true significance lies in its happy ending - Israel's establishment - has had unfortunate repercussions. Sadly, most Israelis don't mark Yom Hashoah in any meaningful way.
For its part, the ultra-Orthodox community has always opposed, on halachic grounds, the imposition of a day of mourning during the joyous month of Nisan, which commemorates the birth of the Jewish nation and its exodus from bondage in Egypt.
Sandwiched between Pessah and, to most Israelis, the more significant Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars and Independence Day, Holocaust Memorial Day has traditionally not been given the undivided attention it deserves.
THE HOLOCAUST deserves to be viewed honestly and in depth as a unique historic event. Adopting January 27 as Israel's Holocaust Memorial Day would:
signify Israel's appreciation of the unusual step taken by the UN;
ensure that the worldwide Holocaust Memorial Day will not be a passing fad since Israel's annual ceremonies can serve as the focus of global attention and as a model for other national commemorative events;
indicate that Israel has "grown up" since the 1950s to appreciate that Jewish victimhood in the Holocaust is not something shameful that must be obscured in the celebration of Jewish heroism;
unite the Jews in Israel, both observant and secular, to commemorate, discuss and ponder in an unhurried and thoughtful manner the manifold aspects of a tragedy that does not easily fit into any previous category of Jewish or world history.
The UN has finally acknowledged the global historical significance of the Holocaust. Israel should support this development for its own good as well as that of the world.
The writer, a Jerusalemite practicing law in Tel Aviv, is a child of Holocaust survivors.
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