Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (or, if you’re in Israel, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day). Israel takes the day quite seriously, at least officially. Restaurants and “places of entertainment” are supposed to be closed by law. Many Israeli TV channels are only broadcasting a still picture of a candle or an Israeli flag and a message that “broadcasts will resume after the end of Holocaust memorial day.” Other channels are showing Holocaust-related programming.
This morning at 10:00, the air raid/Shabbat siren sounded for two minutes, as usual. As usual, traffic came to a halt, people got out of their cars and stood at attention, passersby stood still, and everyone on the bus stood up. At my intersection, though, the taxis continued to zoom through, weaving around stopped cars, and the construction workers kept working, while the garbage collectors paused. On a friends’ corner the taxis stopped. I wonder whether the difference has to do with capitalism or the drivers’ degree of identification with the Jewish narrative or something else.
As another friend commented, it is also disturbing– though powerful– that the mode of remembering Holocaust victims here is via an air raid siren. Last night’s official government ceremony at Yad Vashem also had military undertones strewn throughout. The ceremony began with the entrance of a military honor guard with large guns. Throughout the ceremony they were told either to stand at attention with their guns or to stand at ease. The constant commands about shifting guns back and forth felt odd, distracting, and out of place.
Other parts of the ceremony were moving, particularly the stories told about six particular survivors who were present. The accompanying pictures were powerful, and I learned a number of things I hadn’t known before (including the fact that there were Nazi camps in Norway). I was especially struck by the fact that the oldest of the survivors was only 13 when the Holocaust began. This means that in very little time there will be no more survivors. I wonder what that will mean for the way in which Israel commemorates the day.
Sefardi Chief Rabbi (and highly sketchy character), Shlomo Amar, recited Kaddish toward the end of the ceremony. The cameras panned the dignitaries at the points when the communal response is supposed to be “amen,” and as far as I could tell very few people, including President Shimon Peres, responded. It can’t be that after umpteen million years of public service and ceremonies they still don’t know the response. It makes me crazy to think about how much the Israeli Rabbanut has alienated Israeli Jews from Judaism.
A cantor whose name I missed sang El Malei Rachamim (the prayer for the dead) and turned it into a bit of a performance, complete with uplifted arm waving and trills. The section where the dead person is usually named got lengthened significantly, with mentions that the six million were killed “by the Germans and the Nazis,” etc. A simpler recitation, without all the operatics and performativeness, would have felt more respectful, I think.
I was struck that all of the dignitaries opened their speeches by acknowledging the other dignitaries there, from the President and Prime Minister on down to the someone (Prime Minister?) of Australia. The actual Holocaust survivors were the last ones mentioned. Maybe this was a case of “acharon acharon chaviv,” but it didn’t feel that way. It sort of had the feeling of officialdom missing the point. (And yes, I know there’s probably some deeply entrenched diplomatic protocol about the order…).
Finally, it’s been interesting to see the different approaches the media have been taking to the day. Last night, one popular TV channel was running stories about the number of survivors left and how many of them live below the poverty line in Israel. Another channel was almost exclusively focused on anti-semitism and the number of anti-semitic incidents around the world. They’re very different approaches, with different associated politics.
Yehi zichram baruch. May their memories be blessed.