Culture, Identity, Politics, Religion

Random Observations from Israel on Yom HaShoah

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.

8 thoughts on “Random Observations from Israel on Yom HaShoah

  1. I have a a comment about the military aspect to the memorials, but I first wanted to say I take offense to a few of your points:
    1) “It makes me crazy to think about how much the Israeli Rabbanut has alienated Israeli Jews from Judaism.” Do you really think this is the reason why many people weren’t saying Amen to Kaddish? Because of alientation from the Rabbanut?
    2) I’ll take the risk of sounding racist here, even though I’m not. The people who don’t stop at the siren are generally Arabs. It has nothing to do with capitalism (I have been in multiple cabs before when the siren started, they were all Jewish cab drivers and they stopped immediatly – I have never been in cab with an Arab driver during that time, so I can’t say for sure). There seems to be a feeling of sincere bitterness of “some” in the Arab Israel population that less takes the Holocaust lightly, but more has an attitude that because most Israeli Jews refuse to recognize Arab suffering during the formation of Israel and in the years since (i.e. the exiling of refugees in 48 and 67, and instituional and cultural discrimination up until today), they in turn refuse to respect Jewish sympathy for the tragedies they have suffered. I of course stress, this is not all Arabs Israelis of course. But due to the people who you mentioned that kept on working – cab drivers, construction workers…I’m assuming, I hope accurately, that these people were not Jewish. Personally, though it’s not difficutlt to understand their bittnerness towards the pains that Arabs have had to feel during Israel’s wars, it’s disgusting to see that they cannnot as human beings give a basic respect to what is considered by most people in the world the most severe systematic genocide in human history.
    With regards to the military theme to the memorial, I agree with you that it seems out of place, and perhaps even disrepectful. The air raid siren aspect I think is mostly practical – that it’s the easiest way for everyone in the country to know exactly when to stop…even if you say “10:00am” than people’s watches are tuned to different times, people forget, etc. This way, something loud and heard everywhere works best. But yes, I understand why it’s a bit weird.
    That said, one of basic foundations of Zionism is that there is a need for the Jews to be able to defend themselves, because trhroughout the generations, wherever they were, non-Jewish governments did not protect them. Jeffrey Goldberg the journalist once pointed out, that as a young secular Zionist (he made aliyah and served in the IDF, eventually returning to the US), the lesson of the Holocaust and then Israel’s founding and survival is that “IT’S A LOT TOUGHER TO KILL THE JEWS WHEN THEY CARRY M-16’s”. That idea, that military power is the only ways Jews can survive as a nation long-term, is a key Zionist point, and it’s taken to the extreme of course numerous times. Ariel Sharon, while at Auschwitz a few years ago on the 60th anniversary of its liberation, said something very direct like “The Holocaust wouldn’t happen if Israel was founded in 1938 instead of 1948″…something like that. Right after he said that, an Israeli Air Force Jet flew over Auschwitz. That is why there is a military undertone to all of these Holocaust memorials in Israel.

  2. Obviously – and not to undermine Jason’s correct obeservation – that is a lie. The French and Dutch and Poles were carrying M-16s (or the equivalent) when the Germans overran them and pulverized their governments. If there was a state of Israel instead of a british mandate protecting the way to India, who exactly would have made a stand at El-Alamein to stop Rommel? Golani?

  3. Oh yes, RR, to agree with your point, the El Male Rachamim coined by the Rabbanut is full of ludicrous pathos, not only blaming “the murderous germans” and “their helpers from other peoples” but numerating at least eight different ways in which Jews were killed. Also, the epithet “al kiddush hashem” always seemed out of place for me because nobody really had much of a choice, and the grounds for killing were not religious. I also don’t really know how to “observe” yom hashoah (should I?) outside an educational/military setting. SHould I watch TV all day? should I go about my business? There’s missing ritual here, which I hope someone will fill up soon.

  4. I visited Yad Vashem a few months ago, and the taxi driver (who was definitely not Arab) didn’t know where it was, and had never heard of it.

  5. Also, the epithet “al kiddush hashem” always seemed out of place for me because nobody really had much of a choice, and the grounds for killing were not religious.
    This is what sickens me about some of the rhetoric surrounding Yom Hashoah (e.g. the decision to tie it to Yom Ha’atzma’ut), and now in the US, surrounding 9/11. They didn’t die for a greater cause (the state of Israel in the former case, “freedom” in the latter case), and it is an insult to their memory to suggest that they did.
    I also don’t really know how to “observe” yom hashoah (should I?) outside an educational/military setting. SHould I watch TV all day? should I go about my business? There’s missing ritual here, which I hope someone will fill up soon.
    Before that happens, I hope they’ll change the date (and if the Knesset doesn’t, Diaspora Jewish communities can lead the way; there’s no reason that Holocaust memorial ceremonies outside Israel have to be tied to Israel).

  6. Three very different vignettes came to mind when I read this.
    Vis a vis Arabs & Air Sirens
    Item One: Last year, for the very first time, a delegation from the Bedouin high school in Segev Shalom/Shqib just outside of Beer Sheva was selected to join in the Israeli youth delegation to the March of the Living. It was a curious sort of educational enterprise at best right from the start. I couldn’t imagine what the students would see in the trip, except for most it would be the only financially they would ever get to travel abroad. But after the trip I heard reports from those close to the delegation that the Jewish Israeli guide who was assigned to the Bedouin group ruined whatever good could have come from this experiment with his version of the lessons of the Shoah and Zionism that apparently left no place at the table for the population sharing the tour bus with him. I’m not sure if the experiment was repeated this year, but I’ve got my money on no way.
    Item Two: A grandmother of some very frum kids in J’lem shared that recently on Yom HaShoah her daughter in law told her youngest kids to expect a siren mid-morning. “Now, you know what to do when you hear that siren, right?” And her little ones answered, “Yes, run very quickly for the nearest shelter.” And she had to explain that no, for THIS siren, you should do just the opposite and stand very still and not move at all.
    And finally, ITem Three: remember that in the last Lebanon war we found out that no air raid shelters were ever built in Arab towns and villages? Reports are a little unclear about whether or not this has been corrected since. I’ve heard that in the north it has been somewhat, but I know for a fact that those Bedouin kids who went to Poland still have no shelters in their town. The point is this: Jewish Israelis, from their earliest ages, are taught that those air raid sirens are meant for them, and have to be taught very complicated & sophisticated responses to them, to discern whether they are a siren that represents a cultural or physical event. (I wonder what they do about Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron in Sderot—does anybody know?) Arabs don’t respond because all their experience has taught them that it isn’t meant for them. Their fellow countrymen who suffered so much as minorities in Europe, don’t give a hoot about the wellbeing and safety of those right next to them today. Why should they stop?

  7. This morning in downtown Jerusalem I saw a number of people running just before 10:00 – apparently they were trying to get inside before the siren.

  8. BS”D
    BTW, the reason why the Chief Rabbi said the kaddish is because most of the victims never received proper Kaddish, and sometimes we do not even know the exact day of their murder.
    Also in our time there are Jews who die without leaving anyone to say proper Kaddish for them. If you hear about any of those, please let us know as soon as possible. May we only hear good news…
    Chaye Netzach

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