Ideological timing: How Israel scheduled its remembrance of the Holocaust

Published in Haaretz

The young State of Israel decided not to schedule Holocaust Memorial Day on an existing traditional Jewish day of mourning, to promote Zionism’s narrative of history.

Sixty years ago, the State of Israel chose not to link the Holocaust to summertime Tisha B’Av, the memorial day for the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, the expulsion from Spain and, in general, the most cataclysmic of Jewish catastrophes. Instead, the newly established Holocaust Remembrance Day was set for a week after Passover and a week before Israel’s back-to-back Memorial for Fallen Soldiers and Independence Days.

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The juxtaposition of special days created a three-week journey of catharsis and causality for Israeli Jews – exodus and freedom (Passover) to exile to catastrophe (Holocaust) to national redemption (Israel’s founding) – whether they are conscious of it or not. The timing of Holocaust Remembrance Day, however, was not necessarily intended to create this annual experience, but grew out of a political compromise between Israel’s leftist secular government and the religious Zionist leadership of the early 1950s.

Instead of commemorating loss, death and destruction, the young state’s socialist leaders wanted Holocaust Remembrance Day to focus on the courageous and self reliant New Jew that the Zionist enterprise was meant to create and embody. The day was an opportunity for education, or indoctrination, and the government chose to highlight Jewish armed resistance against the Nazis. The focus on wartime Jewish resistance was a rebuttal to the passivity of Jews who had been murdered across Europe for centuries, and the lesson that Jews should be comfortable taking up arms was no less important. If the easily-victimized ghetto Jew associated weapons with non-Jews, with goyim, who were seen as essentially violent and misguided, then in the new state, every Jew would engage in armed self-defense.

In giving armed resistance such a disproportionate place, the Israeli Holocaust narrative excluded both the overwhelming majority of Holocaust victims and most of the survivors who had reached Palestine to rebuild their lives. But concern for survivors was not key to the government’s agenda.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Holocaust survivors were accorded little respect in Israel and their suffering evoked aversion as much as empathy. These tragic figures with their ghosts and nightmares were anathema, a blot on the new society, and it would be decades before they were encouraged to share their stories and misery. Being a victim was a source of shame rather than pride, and the politics of victimization were at an embryonic stage. There was nothing of the secular holiness accorded to Holocaust survivors and the Holocaust itself today, not in Israel, and certainly not in the rest of the world, which had quickly moved on to other business.

Israel’s leftist government linked the timing of Holocaust Remembrance Day to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on the eve of the first Passover Seder, with the focus on fighting for freedom rather than God’s role delivering the Jews from slavery. The government lionized the leftist hero Mordecai Anielewicz, the Warsaw head of the Socialist Zionist youth movement, HaShomer Hatzair, (the Young Guard). The original name of the new day was The Day of Catastrophe (Shoah) and Ghetto Rebels, only later altered to The Day of Catastrophe (Shoah) and Heroism.

The religious Zionist camp opted for traditional paradigms, with the Holocaust located within the continuity of Jewish suffering. (The ultra-Orthodox did not take part in these discussions.) They wanted the new Holocaust commemoration to focus on the communities of Eastern Europe that had been destroyed and to plug into the existing framework of memorial days. They also had no interest in singling out a leftist hero, arguing correctly that leftists were not the only Jews who had fought back against the Nazis.

Surprisingly, the religious Zionist chief rabbinate had already determined that Holocaust memorials be conducted on the 10th of Tevet, rather than the Ninth of Av. The tenth of Tevet, a minor (sunrise-to-sunset) fast day which falls after Hanukkah, recalls the Babylonian army breaking through the walls of Jerusalem on their way to destroying the First Temple, Solomon’s Temple, in 587 BCE. But it had also had come to mark the most barbaric attacks on Jewish communities in Europe over several hundred years. Jews were directed to follow traditional mourning customs, to say kaddish, study mishnayot, and light memorial candles for those Jewish households that had left no survivors.

The scheduling compromise grew out of pragmatic desire for consensus and a still-potent awareness of the Jewish experience in Europe. The first night of Passover, and in fact, the entire holiday, did not serve the government’s purpose, because schools and workplaces were closed, making it impossible to stage the kind of didactic rallies and ceremonies the socialist leaders favored. But a date just after Passover was close enough to still glorify the Warsaw Ghetto revolt and its leftist champion, while also satisfying the religious Zionists’ desire to link the Holocaust to the history of Jewish suffering; April and May, the time just after Passover also followed Easter’s tribute to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. As the Crusades, the Inquisition, blood libel massacres and pogroms bore out, this post-Easter period was typically the season for Christian assaults on the Jewish communities of Europe.

Menachem Begin, of all people, tried to eliminate Holocaust Remembrance Day when he took office as Prime Minister 25 years later in 1977. Begin was still irked by the short shrift given to Beitar and other right-wing movements which had joined armed rebellions against the Nazis. Begin’s plan was to fold the remembrance of heroism during the Holocaust into Independence Day and the mourning for the victims into Tisha B’Av. But even in Begin’s day this argument felt arcane to most Israelis. The timing of Holocaust Remembrance Day had already become integrated into the calendar and consciousness of Israeli Jews, and Begin’s proposal was ignored.

Whether intentional or not, the placement of Holocaust Remembrance Day supports the Zionist narrative – the exodus brought us to freedom in the land of Israel as a nation, but exile led to 1900 years of vulnerability, culminating in the loss of one third of our people. All of this pain at least had some compensation in modern liberation and statehood, preserved through the sacrifice of our soldiers. And the State of Israel, of course, is intended to prevent the recurrence of the cycle, of another Holocaust.

This narrative remains potent, as evidenced by the continuous pilgrimage of young Israelis to the death camps, and the constant reference to the Holocaust in Israel’s political rhetoric – particularly, but not exclusively, from the right; think of Netanyahu’s addresses to the U.N. and the U.S. Congress, or Obama’s de rigueur visit to Yad Vashem.

While Israel still celebrates the few Jews who took up arms against the Nazis, attention is paid increasingly to the day-to-day battles fought by so many Holocaust victims during the war to maintain their personal dignity against overwhelming brutality and dehumanization. In part, this is done through the countless documentary films focusing on individual biographies that take over our local cable channels for 24 hours. Perhaps the current sensitivity compensates in some measure for the misguided disparagement of survivors during Israel’s early years.

With fewer survivors still with us every year, a peculiar dynamic has developed. For the majority of Israelis who do not belong to families of survivors, Holocaust Remembrance Day is a time to contemplate and reflect on ‘meta’-issues: The unfathomable numbers of the dead, the cruelty of the Nazis and the need for the State of Israel. But more immediate, and individualized, pain and anxiety is expressed on the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers next week, when the name of every fallen soldier is read out loud while his or her face is projected on a giant screen in the town squares, a grief of the present and future, and not only the past, which the following day’s Independence Day celebrations are aimed to assuage.

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