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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 of nations deeply affect their development. At a time in Israel when much of the national ethos and much of the political idiom were being formed, the images that were cast upon the dark mirrors of the mind were those of a veritable hell. The early Zionists had intended Israel to be a safe haven for persecuted Jews, yet Israel had come into existence too late to save the dead millions. To this day there is a latent hysteria in Israeli life that springs directly from this source. It explains the paranoiac sense of isolation that has been a main characteristic of the Israeli temper since 1948. It accounts for the towering suspicions, the obsessive urge for self-reliance, the fear—which sometimes collapses into contempt—of outsiders, especially of Arabs, and lately of Palestinians. Standing behind each Arab or Palestinian, Israelis tend to see SS men determined to push them once again into gas chambers and crematoria.

Israelis of course are not the only people who live under the shadow of a traumatic past. In Europe, the self-image of, say, the Poles or the Irish is rooted in similar notions of historic suffering and martyrdom. The murder of millions of Armenians provides perhaps the closest parallel. Hitler is said to have remarked: “Who remembers the Armenian massacres?”—so the Jews can be safely annihilated, too. But if others were also annihilated, the Jews’ case nevertheless seems different because (with the exception of the gypsies) they alone were singled out for extermination as a people, as an alleged “species.” Generations of Israelis have been brought up on this somber tenet: Jews had been singled out to die not because of their religion, or their politics, or because of what they did, but simply because they were there, they existed.

This message has been instilled in them for years and with far-reaching political, cultural, and religious consequences. Out of it grew a distinct political philosophy, a bleak, hard, pessimistic view of life. The late historian Jacob Talmon described this view, approvingly, as a “divine and creative madness which not only stills all fear and hesitation but also makes for clarity of vision in a landscape bathed in a lurid, distorting light.” Talmon wrote these words in 1960. Before he died twenty years later, he had come to regret them. For, if the prevailing traumatic memory of the Nazi holocaust had become more powerful and widespread over the years, it was now also manipulated by politicians and ideologues. It became more salient in political life, paradoxically, after Israel’s lightning victory over three powerful Arab states in 1967. Talmon’s “divine and creative madness” had accounted for much of the daring and energy of the young state. But after 1967 it was also one of the causes for much of the narrow-mindedness and sanctified nationalistic egoism that came in the wake of the Six Day and the Yom Kippur wars—the paranoia, of “the entire world is against us” and the disregard of Palestinian rights and of international opinion.

The resultant intransigence was probably one of the reasons why peace with Egypt, which was a distinct possibility in 1971 or 1972, was only achieved in 1978 after the terrible bloodletting of the Yom Kippur War. I remember being present at a conversation in 1972 between Richard Crossman, the British Labour politician, and a retired senior Israeli diplomat. Crossman, a longtime friend of Israel, complained bitterly of Israel’s intransigence concerning Palestinian rights and especially that of the then prime minister, Golda Meir. The diplomat sadly nodded his assent. Then he tried to make Golda Meir’s intransigence comprehensible to Crossman by evoking the memory of the Holocaust. “We’re a traumatized people,” he said. “Please understand!” “Certainly,” Crossman responded. “You certainly are a traumatized people! But you are a traumatized people with an atom bomb! Such people belong behind bars!”

After the Six Day War most Israeli political leaders were caught up in their own contradictions. The same right of self-determination Israelis claimed for themselves they now denied to others—in the name of memory. While vehemently opposing any attempt to see the Nazi holocaust in historical or comparative perspective—insisting that it was absolutely incomparable and unique—they, for their part, could call the Arabs Nazis and Arafat another Hitler. In a well-known letter to Ronald Reagan during the Lebanese war, Menachim Begin wrote that when Israeli tanks were rolling into Beirut he felt as though he were breaking into Berlin to catch Hitler in his bunker. Nor was this rhetoric a speciality of Begin or of the Likud. Abba Eban, the most moderate of Labour politicians, described the pre-1967 frontiers—frontiers which had enabled Israel to crush three Arab armies in only six days—as “Auschwitz borders.”

The original difficulty in confronting the memory of the Holocaust left an imprint on Israeli historiography too. During the first two decades the writing of Israel’s history was handicapped by truisms derived from mainstream Zionist ideology. The result was a series of ideological and apologetic works aimed at proving the historic need for a Jewish state. They are acutely analyzed in The Seventh Million, Israel, and the Holocaust,* an important study by Tom Segev, a leading Israeli scholar. Segev points out that despite the pervasiveness of the subject in Israeli life most serious works by Jewish writers on Nazism were written by non-Israelis, and—perhaps because they did not fully conform with current formulas—only a handful of those were translated into Hebrew, nearly always belatedly. Raul Hilberg’s monumental work on the Holocaust was never translated. Alan Bullock’s book on Hitler came out in Hebrew only after a twenty-year delay, Joachim Fest’s Hitler only in 1986—in Fest’s case, the Israeli publisher saw fit to add a subtitle that contradicted the book’s main thesis: “Portrait of a Non-Human.” I mention these maneuvers and delays only as a characteristic of the tendency at that time to prefer simplistic versions to more nuanced ones. It took more than a generation to produce Israeli historians able to detach the history of the Holocaust from their own biographies.

The writing of history, we all know, is one way of ridding oneself of the crushing, often debilitating weight of the past; in Benedetto Croce’s words, “it liberates us from history.” The Israeli political class, however, was reluctant to free itself from clichés. The use of memory as a political instrument became more evident under the right-wing government that came to power in 1978. I am sometimes reminded of its rhetoric when I read the statements—full of affirmations that history equals destiny—that come out of the former Yugoslavia these days. The late Menachim Begin habitually described every major policy act of his government—in Lebanon or in the virtually annexed occupied territories—as a milestone in Israel’s historic march “from Holocaust to redemption.” He tried, through legal measures, to expropriate the Holocaust from historiography. A law passed in 1981 made it a criminal offense to deny the existence of the Holocaust, as though that event was no longer a matter for historians but was now, in Segev’s words, a “doctrine” of national truth anchored in law, a state religion. (In principle the doctrine seems better protected under this law than religion. The maximum penalty for “gross violation of religious sentiment,” including presumably denying there is a God, is one year in jail; the mandatory punishment for denying the Holocaust is five years. Both laws are essentially expressions of the political rhetoric. Nobody has ever been tried under either.) Political language is still filled with early clichés about the Holocaust. Last year, General Ehud Barak, chief of staff of the Israeli army, with an entourage of adjutants and TV reporters, visited Auschwitz and, as he stood by the ruins of the crematoria, solemnly pronounced: “We came here fifty years too late.”

By the same token, it was only very slowly that the way was opened in Israel for an understanding of the nature of the German Federal Republic: that it was a new beginning, and not such a bad one after all; that it was an open society and a fairly well-functioning democracy, a complex place, a place that didn’t resemble a painting by Otto Dix or George Grosz but one, say, by Anselm Kiefer. On the German question, David Ben-Gurion was the great exception among politicians. He often contradicted the prevailing hostile view of West Germany by insisting that it was now a liberal democracy. He must have done so for reasons of state, but also because he was convinced that there was now “another” Germany. He did not get very far, even within his own party. And he failed to convince his successor. A revealing incident took place in 1966 at a state dinner in Konrad Adenauer’s honor in Jerusalem at which I happened to be present. In his after-dinner speech Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, reading a prepared text, hailed Adenauer for his past and present record and then declared that “penance is impossible…. Israel seeks proof that Germany deserves to return to the family of nations.” Adenauer put down his wine glass and told Eshkol that he was breaking off his visit; in his statement, he complained, Eshkol had denied his life’s work.

Eshkol was flabbergasted. The guests at the table looked at one another with pained faces. Eshkol did not understand what had gone wrong. He tried to placate Adenauer: “But I praised you personally,” he said. This seemed to make things worse. Adenauer announced that he was ordering his airplane to stand ready to take off early next morning, In the end Adenauer did not cut short his visit. Diplomats of both sides huddled in the next room and found a reconciling formula. But the incident was telling. It was not just the slip of a speech writer, or the fatigue or absent-mindedness of a politician.

Levi Eshkol was a singularly humane, moderate, and conciliatory man. He was among the early, by now legendary, wave of pioneers who had settled in the country before the First World War and founded the first kibbutz. Unlike Begin or Shamir he had no personal experience of Nazism. But he was representative of Israelis of all ages and all ethnic origins for whom, long before, the Holocaust had become larger than a personal trauma. It had become one of three main pillars of collective identity; the other two being nationalism and religion. The Holocaust was an event many native Israelis felt they had experienced vicariously, as it were, irrespective of age, origin, or education. Even many non-Jewish Israelis, including Arabs and Druze, share in the same feeling by a kind of osmosis.

In 1978, with the sharp turn to the right in Israeli politics, “remembrance” was further institutionalized within the national ritual and the educational system. The history of the Holocaust had always been taught in the schools as a part of the regular history curriculum. It now became a subject in citizenship classes and religion classes as well. The “lessons” and “values” of the Holocaust, its religious “meaning” were regularly discussed. As Eastern Europe opened up to Israeli tourism in the mid-Eighties, Holocaust studies in the classroom were supplemented by government-subsidized school tours to Poland. Thousands of high-school students took part in these tours—called “Marches of the Living”—accompanied by former concentration-camp inmates who acted as special guides. The students usually flew first to Warsaw and visited the site of the former ghetto. From there they would continue to Treblinka and Auschwitz, which was the high point. Singing Israeli songs, waving Israeli national flags, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with big Stars of David and the inscription ISRAEL or ISRAEL LIVES, the young visitors would march through the Auschwitz Stammlager guided by a former inmate. At nearby Birkenau they would hoist their flags at the former crematoria and intone a special prayer for the safety of soldiers in the Israeli army, wherever they may be. They then recited the kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer to the dead.

Upon their return from Poland, some of the young participants in these tours told the press that on the site of the former extermination camp they had become “better” Zionists; they had become convinced that Israel must keep every square centimeter of Eretz Israel; territorial compromise was impossible. According to one of the guide books issued especially for the trips by a branch of the Israeli ministry of education, Auschwitz exemplified the immutable hatred for Jews, a hatred which has always existed and will always exist as long as there are Gentiles and Jews. Another text states:

We stand, with bitter hearts and tearful eyes, by the crematoria in the extermination camp and mourn the terrible end of European Jewry. But even as we cry and mourn, our hearts fill with pride and happiness at the privilege we enjoy as citizens of the independent State of Israel. We answer and promise with all our hearts: long live the State of Israel for ever and ever.

The same textbook, according to Segev, decries both current Polish anti-Semitism and the fact that even after the fall of communism, the Polish government recognizes the Palestinians’ right of self-determination, as though the two were one and the same thing.

The atmosphere that pervaded these tours, and that they generate in turn, has been the subject of heavy criticism in recent years. The debate was opened a few years ago by a leading Israeli educator, Professor Yehuda Elkana of Tel Aviv University, himself a survivor of Auschwitz. In an article published in Ha’aretz, entitled “The Need to Forget,” Elkana protested the current uses of memory for political purposes. He warned of their possible political and psychological consequences:

What are children to do with such memories? The somber injunction, Remember! may easily be interpreted as a call for blind hatred. It is possible that the world at large must remember…But for ourselves, I see no greater educational task than to stand up for life, to build our future in this land without wallowing day in and day out in ghastly symbols, harrowing ceremonies, and somber lessons of the Holocaust…. The deepest political and social factor that motivates much of Israeli society in its relation with the Palestinians is a profound existential “Angst” fed by a particular interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust and the readiness to believe that the whole world is against us, that we are the eternal victim.

In this ancient belief, shared by many today, I see the tragic and paradoxical victory of Hitler. Two nations, metaphorically speaking, emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz: a minority who assert “this must never happen again” and a frightened and haunted majority who assert “this must never happen to us.” If these are the only possible lessons, I for one have always held with the former. I have seen the latter as catastrophic. History and collective memory are an inseparable part of any culture; but the past is not and must not be allowed to become the dominant element determining the future of society and the destiny of a people.

Elkana was savagely criticized for this view. Yet he was not alone, in recent years, in admonishing Israelis, in Carlyle’s well-known phrase, wisely to remember and wisely also to forget. Nietzsche’s well-known argument comes to mind that life in any true sense is impossible without some forgetfulness. “There is a degree of sleeplessness, or rumination, of ‘historical sense’ that (in the victim at least) injures the living thing, be it a man, or a people, or a system of culture.”

I have lived in Israel most of my life and have come to the conclusion that where there is so much traumatic memory, so much pain, so much memory innocently or deliberately mobilized for political purposes, a little forgetfulness might finally be in order. This should not be seen as a banal plea to “forgive and forget.” Forgiveness has nothing to do with it. While remembrance is often a form of vengeance, it is also, paradoxically, the basis of reconciliation. What is needed, in my view, is a shift in emphasis and proportion, and a new equilibrium in Israeli political life between memory and hope.

For this purpose the recent change of government in Israel is a step forward. This is not only a matter of the government’s being ready to conclude a historic peace agreement with the Palestinians, who are no longer seen by government officials as latter-day Nazis. It also relates specifically to the Holocaust. Shulamit Aloni, Rabin’s first minister of education, argued along lines similar to those of Elkana. Before Rabin was forced by the ultra-religious bloc to remove her from the ministry, she canceled all organized school tours to Auschwitz. She took the position that the state school system must not propagate so-called “values of the Holocaust.” The very term, she said, makes her shudder: the Holocaust had no values. Instead of curing wounds, Aloni suggested, Israelis were constantly tearing them open again. Instead of “administrating” the trauma Israelis should begin to cure it. How this can be done politically I do not know, except that our hope lies in the possibility that the vision of Yehuda Elkana will prevail.

  1. *

    Hill and Wang, 1993.

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