'Our Jewish identity not shaped by Holocaust'

Bar-Ilan University survey finds Shoah impacts worldview, not view of self among diaspora Jews.

Few Jewish Diaspora youths believe that the Holocaust has an impact on the shaping of their Jewish identity but many feel that it influenced their world view, according to a survey presented Tuesday at Bar-Ilan University. The survey took place over the decade that spanned 1992 and 2002 among 60,000 youths aged 15 to 17 who came to Israel as part of an "Israel Experience" trip. The youths, who answered questionnaires, came from 20 different countries including the US, Canada, France, Hungary, the Former Soviet Union, South Africa, Australia, and South America. Some 37.6 percent said that the Holocaust was very influential in forming their world view, while another 54.5% said that it was influential. Only 7% said it was not. In contrast, only 20% said that symbols of the Holocaust helped form their Jewish identity while components such as family (96%); birth (90%); religion (72%) and culture (67%) contributed to the forming of their Jewish identity. "I believe that these findings are very positive," said Dr. Erik Cohen, of Bar-Ilan University's Churgin School of Education, who conducted the survey and presented the findings and it was the first time they were being made public. "It shows the young Diaspora Jews' identities are being formed less by negative factors such as anti-Semitism and hatred, the epitome of which is the Holocaust, and more by positive factors such as education, upbringing and religion." Cohen presented his findings at a conference entitled "Representing the Holocaust: New Perspectives," which was organized by Bar-Ilan's Departments of Comparative Literature and French in honor of Holocaust survivor Simone Veil, former French Minister of Health, President of the European Union, and present Honorary President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust in Paris. Cohen said that his findings were consistent with a similar survey he conducted between 2005 and 2007 of Jewish youths who attended Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish summer camps in America. Cohen also revealed preliminary findings from a study recently completed among Israeli youths and educators. He said that according to the Israeli study, which includes 300 principals of high schools, 520 teachers and 2,540 students, respondents saw a strong connection between the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. "This is a negative finding," said Cohen. "It points to an overemphasis of the Shoah in Israeli educational institutions. It also belittles all the endeavors of the first Zionists to build the infrastructure needed for the future state. "True, the Shoah created a special situation which fostered the establishment of the state. But its importance should not be overemphasized at the expense of other developments." Jewish youths from eastern Europe were the only ones who said in significant numbers (43%) that the Holocaust had helped form their Jewish identity. "This may be due to the fact that over the decades these young Jews did not receive Jewish education and their families were discouraged from identifying openly as Jews. "As a result, one of the few components of their Jewish identity was the Holocaust," said Cohen. The study conducted by Cohen did not include a large number of unaffiliated Jewish youths who had never been exposed to an "Israel Experience" trip. Cohen conjectured that these unaffiliated Jews might have responded like eastern European Jewish youths. However, one of the big differences was that eastern European Jewish youth's families had been directly affected by the Holocaust. In contrast, Diaspora youth from other countries tend to come from families less directly affected by the Holocaust. The survey also found that Orthodox Jewish youths were more sensitive to the Holocaust's affects on them than Conservative, Reform and secular Jews. Youths with a stronger connection to Israel were also more sensitive to the Holocaust than those who did not.