Think about it: How we remember the six million – and the 24,000

There is a lot of dignity in this modest and symbolic act, as well as a sense of proportion, which we seem to lack.

Remembrance Day at the Western Wall, May 4, 2014. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Remembrance Day at the Western Wall, May 4, 2014.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
One cannot understand the ethos of the State of Israel without understanding the phenomenon of modern anti-Semitism, which led to the ultimate hate crime, the Holocaust.
The problem, from Israel’s point of view, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s admission on Sunday last week that the Holocaust was “the most heinous crime against humanity in modern times” is that he did not link this observation with the fact that in Israeli eyes the Holocaust is the ultimate justification for the existence of a Jewish state, to be defined and recognized as the nation state of the Jewish people.
From Abbas’s perspective, the Holocaust is the direct consequence of racism and discrimination, from which, he says, it is the Palestinians, who suffer today at the hands of the Israelis. Though Abbas didn’t say as much, the Palestinians view themselves as “the victims of the victims” and do not understand why it is they who were called upon to pay the price for the suffering of the Jews.
While we cannot determine how the Palestinians perceive the Holocaust, we are justifiably concerned with how Israel’s own citizens perceive it. The day of commemoration of the six million who perished in the Holocaust is part of how we deal with this issue.
The Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day Law of 1959 declared in Article 2 that “on Remembrance Day there will be two minutes of silence throughout the country, in which all work and traffic on the roads will stop; remembrance ceremonies, public meetings, and communion ceremonies will be held in military camps and education institutions. The flags on public buildings will be lowered to half mast, radio programs will express the uniqueness of the day, and in places of entertainment only topics that correspond with the spirit of the day will be dealt with.”
Today it is, of course, TV programs that have largely replaced the radio programs, and for several days around Remembrance Day most of content of these programs is documentary films – some of outstanding quality – which tend to emphasize the personal aspects of the experience.
While it is undoubtedly important that Israel’s citizens should be exposed to this material, so that they know and do not forget, there are also several “buts”. The first is that there is something totalitarian about the monopolization of the day’s events and content, which is disturbing to many.
The second is the fact that the concentration of so much emotional information can become “too much,” and actually result in feelings of nausea and aversion.
The third is that what one ought to learn from the Holocaust is not just the specifics of the particular Jewish experience during the Second World War at the hands of the German Nazis and their collaborators, but also more general universal lessons regarding the sort of moral and humanitarian failings that led to this particular event, and which are relevant to the whole of humanity, ourselves included. This aspect of the issue is totally absent from our Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The fourth is the fact that it is also small children who are exposed to the atmosphere created by the manner and content of the remembrance, which has led the Education Ministry to introduce instruction about the Holocaust into the kindergartens as well.
Here one touches upon the unbearable intrusion by the state into the autonomy of parents to decide when and how to expose their children to the phenomenon of death – both personal and collective.
Though I am certainly not advocating the abolition of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wonder whether the time hasn’t come for us to reconsider what and how we remember.
Today is the Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Victims of Terrorism (the latter added to the definition in 1998). The official number of fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism is approaching 24,000, of whom around one quarter were killed during the 1948/49 War of Independence.
AS IN the case of the Holocaust, those who were killed in wars, military operations and acts of terrorism are an integral part of the Israeli ethos – in the words of Nathan Alterman’s seminal poem, “The silver platter upon which the state of the Jews was delivered.”
The manner in which Israel has chosen to remember these fallen men and women has evolved over the years, and in 1963 the details of how the day is organized and its content were finally enacted in almost identical terms to those applying to Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Since the majority of Israelis are connected in one way or another to at least one of the 24,000, this Remembrance Day is much more personal than that commemorating the Holocaust, and there is no danger that the majority of the 24,000 will be forgotten, at least in the foreseeable future.
It should be noted that unlike the Holocaust, which was a unique experience by any measure (even though other peoples have suffered atrocities), there is hardly a single state whose establishment and being were not accompanied by bloodshed, and most states commemorate their fallen military personnel in one form or another, each in accordance to its culture and traditions.
Though it is certainly commendable that the state makes a point of telling all those who lost their dear ones in the wars and other attacks connected with the establishment and defense of the state, that they are not alone, and there are undoubtedly some very heroic stories worth telling concerning the circumstances in which some of them were killed, here too I believe that some fresh thinking is called for.
Every year I am impressed anew by the fact that at least some of the documentary films broadcast concerning the bereaved families show families that have not really dealt with their loss, such as a father who visits his fallen son’s grave every day, but does not talk to his living offspring, or a family that has turned its dead son’s apartment into a shrine, in which nothing has been moved for over a decade. These families need professional help – not public exposure.
Let us also remember that the 24,000 include military personnel killed in senseless training and traffic accidents, or poorly planned and executed military operations, some of which were superfluous to start off with, as well as persons who died of illnesses while in uniform.
I cannot help thinking that my eldest daughter, killed on a trip to South America several years after completing two full years of military service, might also have been one of the 24,000 had she actually got on bus No. 405 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on July 6, 1989, that was the target of a Palestinian terrorist, on her way home from her army base. She missed getting on the bus by a few seconds. A few seconds separated between her possibly turning into a “commemorated heroine,” and her ending up as the hapless victim of a freak car accident.
Either way she served her country, and is still mourned by those who loved her.
Again, I am not saying that we should not commemorate the fallen, or that there is no place for occasionally personalizing the commemoration. I am just suggesting that we tend to exaggerate in the glorification of “patriotic” deaths, and that some of the “buts” which apply to the Holocaust Remembrance Day apply to this Remembrance Day as well.
Perhaps more ought to be done on the collective Remembrance Day than just wearing red poppy pins, as is done in Great Britain around November 11, which is a public holiday marking the British Remembrance Day. Nevertheless, there is, in my opinion, a lot of dignity in this modest and symbolic act, as well as a sense of proportion, which we seem to lack.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.