Lessons from the Shoah

As history becomes replaced by narratives and universalism sets the tone, the lessons of the Holocaust seem set to disappear.

Hungarian Jews arrive in Auschwitz-Birkenau (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Hungarian Jews arrive in Auschwitz-Birkenau
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Three statements come to mind whenever I write about the Holocaust. The first I can attribute to Elie Wiesel: “The Shoah wasn’t a crime against humanity, but a crime against the Jews.” The second was told to me by writer Haim Guri: “Israel was created not because of the Shoah but in spite of it.” I don’t remember who told me the third, but it is no less valuable: Had there been a Jewish state in the 1930s, the Holocaust might not have happened at all, or would have been on a much-reduced scale.
Do I get tired of emphasizing these three points? Of course. But I can’t bring myself to stop.
As history becomes replaced by narratives and universalism sets the tone, these lessons seem set to disappear. They are being transplanted by more fashionable inclusive versions: The Holocaust does not belong to the Jews, but to anyone who has been the victim of violence; and Israel grew out of the Nazi atrocities and not because of any intrinsic right of the Jewish people to their own land. Sadly, it is often Jews in the Diaspora who fail to internalize the last message: Israel isn’t the cause of anti-Semitism around the globe, it is the answer.
Twice a year the world marks Holocaust Remembrance Day. To be more precise, the world marks it once – on January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated. For the past few years it has become a set feature on the United Nations calendar. Unfortunately, for the rest of the year the world body raises motion after motion turning Israel into the source of all evil. Its protection of global peace and wellbeing is so advanced that having finally suspended Libya from the UN’s Human Rights Council, it seems set to replace it with Bashar Assad’s Syria.
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Israel commemorates Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day – or Yom Hashoah as we call it – in the spring, fittingly between Passover and Independence Day. This year it commences on May 1.
Here it is marked with an eerie twominute siren for which the traffic draws to a halt and people stand frozen. Fewer and fewer have their own dreadful memories, but this is not about the survivors. They don’t need a special day to remember how they’ve been through hell. This is about the people who didn’t survive but nonetheless live on in every generation.
Children in Israel learn about the Holocaust from an early age. Even toddlers in day-care centers are taught to stand for the siren, and schoolchildren hold ceremonies. But it’s hard to explain the horror or take in the meaning of the number of those killed. That’s why it’s so important to learn the personal stories.
It’s easier to relate to the individual experience than try to comprehend how six million lives ended, whole family trees cut down at the roots.
This year, under the title “Gathering the Fragments,” Yad Vashem launched a national campaign to rescue personal items from the Holocaust period, calling for ordinary citizens to provide documents, diaries, photos, artifacts and works of art from those terrible years.
Future generations will find it ever harder to relate to the Holocaust, not just because the firsthand witnesses are dying out, but because they are being brought up in a different world.
It is an ever-changing world dominated by the “now” and the “me.”
When President Barack Obama hosted a Seder at the White House earlier this month he coolly compared the uprising in the Arab world to the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It’s a perfect message for the Twitter generation. With the perspective of barely three months – during which he changed his mind more than once – Obama takes the most epic event in more than four millennia of Jewish history and reduces it to its lowest possible common denominator, and then distorts it some more.
I can’t wait to hear his insights on the Holocaust.
THE WORLD is marking 50 years since the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a trial which gave us terms like “the banality of evil.”
Have we learned its lessons? It doesn’t seem so when, under the same principle of universal justice, Israeli leaders cannot travel to places like Britain for fear of being arrested for “war crimes.”
As the Shoah becomes more universalized it is being dumbed down – the greater the attempts to apply it to all, the less relevant it becomes. The Holocaust, as Wiesel noted, was about the systematic attempt to eradicate the Jews, their religion and their culture.
That was it. We can and should learn from it but we can’t change it.
The Shoah was not about the Palestinians, but you wouldn’t know it from the imagery that floats around on “human rights flotillas” and among their land-based supporters.
As the Palestinians draw closer to the likely unilateral declaration of independence, they seem to grow further from acknowledging Israel’s right to exist. The Jewish state, as Guri noted, would have grown faster and stronger had there been no Holocaust; the Holocaust would have been smaller and shorter had there been a Jewish state to offer sanctuary.
Recently, the topic of teaching the Holocaust in Arab schools has been the focus of heated debates.
According to Palestinian Media Watch, this week the union of UNRWA workers in Palestinian schools said, “We emphasize our adamant opposition to confusing the thinking of our students by means of Holocaust studies in the human rights study curriculum, and emphasize study of the history of Palestine and the acts of massacre which have been carried out against Palestinians, the most recent of which was the war against Gaza.”
Confusing indeed.
By the “war against Gaza” I assume they mean Operation Cast Lead, a war against Hamas missile attacks from Gaza on Israel. Missile attacks that are still taking place, for that matter. The Palestinians are not the new Jews, and Gaza is not a ghetto.
If their version of human rights permits targeting an Israeli school bus and indiscriminately launching rockets on any civilian population within reach, then you can understand their reluctance to add the Shoah to study programs.
Several people have e-mailed me recently telling me they feel like this is a repeat of the 1930s. Those who live abroad cite attacks on Jews, but above all a pervasive feeling that permits and even fosters such incidents.
The tiny Jewish community of Corfu might have been surprised by the burning of Torah scrolls in the local synagogue this month, but Jews elsewhere in Greece are no strangers to anti-Semitic sentiment. Ditto the Jews of Spain, France, Denmark and Holland. A Canadian student told me she no longer wears a Star of David on campus, and some British Jews have removed the mezuzot from outside their doors, placing them inside where they cannot be seen.
My answer is that this is different from those terrible years partly because there is an Israel, albeit threatened by Iran with nuclear genocide and constantly assaulted by terror attacks and missiles, but a success story nonetheless. Indeed, a Gallup poll released last week declared Israel to be the world’s seventh most “thriving” country.
There can be no better way to avenge the Shoah.
The writer is editor of the International Jerusalem Post. [email protected]