The Politics of Memory

Among Israelis at the end of World War II there was, at first, a stunned silence about the revelations of the Holocaust: a mixture of awe and shame. Older people suffered from pangs of conscience and guilt at not having been able to do something to prevent the disaster or at least reduce its dimensions. There was also an inability, frequently noted, on the part of younger, native-born Israelis to deal sympathetically with Holocaust survivors. This was, at least partly, a result of standard Zionist education and propaganda. Generations of youngsters had been brought up to believe that the existence of the Diaspora was not only a catastrophe but a disgrace. Jewish victims of Nazism were often thought to have gone “like sheep” to the slaughter. I remember a Hebrew textbook, widely used in Israeli high schools until at least the late Fifties, which included the following analysis of the Hebrew poet Bíalik’s great lament on the Kishinev pogrom of 1903: “This poem depicts the mean brutality of the assailants and the disgraceful shame and cowardice of the Jews of the Diaspora shtetl.”

In this odd text, the words “disgraceful,” “shame,” and “cowardice” were the key terms that pointed to the heart of Zionist education. In the shifting moods of remembrance and rejection, younger Israelis were at first torn between anger and shame at having such a cursed past. A number of leading politicians were haunted by anguish and feelings of guilt, which some of them could never resolve, that they might perhaps have done more to diminish, even marginally, the extent of the tragedy.

The first foreign minister, Moshe Sharret, was obsessed by such questions to the end of his life. He agonized for years over the case of Joel Brand, the controversial emissary who came out of Hungary in 1944 with Eichmann’s offer to exchange Jewish lives for shipments of trucks. The British held Brand in a military prison in Aleppo. Sharret interrogated him there and came away convinced of Brand’s honesty and of the need, not to accept Eichmann’s offer, but to continue talking to and bluffing Eichmann in order to gain time. The Russians were, after all, advancing on Hungary. The British would not hear of it. The rescue of Jews was secondary in their eyes to the main task of defeating the Nazis. Moreover, the Russians were vehemently against a deal and deeply suspicious of a possible separate Anglo-American German peace. To the end of his life Sharret reproached himself for perhaps not having been dramatic enough in his desperate appeals, or too disciplined in his loyalty to the Western allies.

By the late Fifties, the stunned silence about the Holocaust gave way to loquacious—often officially sponsored—national discussion of its effects. It became common to speak of the Holocaust as the central trauma affecting Israeli society. It would be impossible to exaggerate its effect on the process of nation building. Tocqueville observed that, as in the lives of men, the circumstances of the birth…

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