The First Word: When should we commemorate the Holocaust?

Do we need yet another memorial day in our calendars?

Hirchson 88 (photo credit: )
Hirchson 88
(photo credit: )
In addition to Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Universal Day of Kaddish, the United Nations is today implementing an International Holocaust Remembrance Day, making a total of three days on which Israelis mark the terrible events of the Shoah. While it will never be possible to absorb the full horror of the Shoah, and we can never give enough respect to its victims, some will inevitably ask whether we need yet another memorial day in our calendars. They may perceive a particular irony in adopting a date chosen by many of the very nations who perpetrated the Holocaust. We should also be aware of how non-Jews feel about a day dedicated to Holocaust Remembrance. A survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League a few months ago showed that across Europe, close to half the population believes that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust. In Poland, that figure reached 52%. Here lies the root of the problem. The lessons of the Holocaust have not yet been learned, and the global war against anti-Semitism remains as relevant as ever. Just last week, for example, a man burst into a Moscow synagogue wielding a knife and screaming "Heil Hitler." He was out to kill and wounded 11 people. This was not an isolated incident. Across the world last year, there were numerous attacks on synagogues, community centers, Jewish cemeteries and businesses. Nor are anti-Semitic attitudes limited to the fringes of society. The Anti-Defamation League survey revealed that 30% of people living in Europe believe that Jews have too much power and 32% believe that Jews have too much influence over the financial markets. From the beginnings of our state, how to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust has been an issue. The immediate problem was that in many cases there was no trace of the victims' remains or even their identity. Where such information was available, the date of their death was often unknown, and many of the victims had no one left alive to mourn for them. For the survivors this magnified the grief that they were already suffering. It seemed inconceivable that following the mass murder of so many of our people the victims would then go unmourned and forgotten, so the Chief Rabbinate of Israel instituted a national day of Kaddish on the ancient fast day of the 10th of Tevet to allow us to remember those who had been killed. IN 1952, the State of Israel also recognized the importance of setting aside a day to remember by establishing Holocaust Remembrance Day. The original intention was to mark the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but the date fell during Pessah and religious leaders argued that it would be wrong to overshadow the ancient, joyous festival of our freedom with a day of grief and mourning. A compromise was reached in which Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated 11 days later. The day focused on the heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters while also remembering those Jews who were murdered with little or no opportunity to resist. For contemporary Jews to remember the Holocaust means to recognize consequences of powerlessness and to confront the ongoing problem of anti-Semitism. This was my motivation in establishing The March of the Living, which has now taken thousands of Israeli and Diaspora Jews to Poland to meet survivors and to learn for themselves what happened during the Shoah. Having witnessed the scenes of destruction, our groups make their way to Israel. Here, often for the first time, they grasp the need for a strong, democratic Jewish state to ensure that the Holocaust is never repeated. These reflections lead participants to greater national pride. But if we can do that by ourselves, why should we adopt another Holocaust remembrance day created by the United Nations? The fact that the world has finally accepted the need to commemorate the events of the Holocaust is new and significant. It is remarkable to see countries such as Croatia marking the day and using government funds to enable their youth to learn the terrible truth of what happened and why. The reality that anti-Semitic behavior is increasing around the world, that Holocaust denial is spreading and that the president of Iran is threatening genocide against Israel make it all the more urgent that everyone confronts the lessons of the Holocaust. Non-Jews need to do this as much if not more than we do. Thankfully, there are many decent people who understand this and are willing to dedicate this day to studying the Holocaust, even in countries where there is the greatest need to examine the role of their nation, their religious leaders and their communities in perpetrating the Holocaust and allowing anti-Semitism to resurrect itself on their soil. But if Israel wants the rest of the world to mark this date, we cannot exempt ourselves from that obligation. Israel must play its part in the world community by adopting Holocaust Day alongside the other days of mourning in our national calendar. The government is taking the lead in this process. On the morning of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, ministers will participate in a seminar at Yad Vashem, and in the afternoon there will be a special meeting of the Knesset. t that session, we will put aside the immediate problems of the country and put the forthcoming elections out of our minds. Instead, we will dedicate time to remembering what happened during the Shoah and to mourning its victims. We will also devote our attention to considering the problem of anti-Semitism around the world. Likewise children in our schools will take time out from their studies to learn about what happened, and the importance of combating anti-Semitism everywhere. Israel has a special responsibility to join the rest of the world in commemorating what happened in the past and to reaffirm our commitment that nothing like it will ever happen again, to our people or to any other people in the future. The writer is minister of tourism, communications, and of Israeli society and the world Jewish community.