Israeli Society and the Holocaust

On April 8, Israel commemorated the Holocaust, or the Shoah, as it is called there. There are probably few countries where one can attempt to understand the psychological mindset of an entire society through the context of an historical event. Terminology is a good starting point to examine the impact of the Shoah on the modern state of Israel. "Holocaust" comes from ancient Greek and means "totally burnt" (in other words, a sacrifice). This appears to have almost theological connotations. Who is being sacrificed to whom and to what end? Israelis use the word Shoah, which is Biblical Hebrew and means complete and total destruction. Modern Hebrew has integrated many words from the Romance languages (and, of course from English), but there are some expressions that have become taboo. For example, no one utilizes the term "Selectia" or selection in Hebrew, because that was the word used when the Nazis selected a Jewish victim for extermination.

The impact of the Holocaust on Israel began even before the establishment of the state. In 1945, when the magnitude of the murder started to become apparent, close to 90 percent of the Jews living in pre-state Mandate Palestine had lost a close relative. This caused the Jewish community there to unite in a revolt against British rule. The goal was to force the British to allow survivors to enter the country and to advance Jewish statehood in Palestine. During Israel's War for Independence, tens of thousands of survivors entered the country and many joined the army. By the end of the war, close to 50 percent of the Israelis in uniform were survivors. In 1960, 25 percent of the Israeli population were Holocaust survivors.

In Israel the survivors went on to raise families and their children are known as "second generation." Over 500 studies have shown the psychological impact of the Holocaust on the second generation. On the one hand, this population has suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. On the other hand, the second generation actively participated in Israel's wars, helping to create a fighting ethos for the Jewish state . Recently, a study showed that third generation -- grandchildren of survivors -- suffer more emotional stress than the overall population .

Despite the large number of Holocaust survivors in Israeli society in its early years, the subject of the Holocaust was not extensively dealt with educationally during the state's first decades. At the time, there was a need to engender a fighting ethos to meet the military challenges facing Israel. Viewed from the Israeli perspective then, it appeared that the Jews in Europe had gone to their deaths "like sheep to the slaughter," therefore the state emphasized the heroism displayed by the participants in the ghetto uprisings, as well as the partisans who fought the Nazis. These, were framed as Zionists (who wanted to make it to pre-state Israel), whose ideological values had given them the courage and convictions to fight against all odds. Survivors who arrived in Israel wanted to rebuild their lives. The local population was uninterested in hearing their stories and many survivors were too traumatized to tell them; there was an existential war going on, followed by a long period of austerity and state building (the 1950s). If questions were asked, they usually began with: "so how is it that you survived?" This was not exactly a sensitive way to encourage dialogue and a pact of silence on the subject of the Holocaust ensued; from both sides.

In 1952, Israel, the Jewish Claims Conference and West Germany signed the "Payments Agreement." The Germans agreed to pay restitution for Jewish slave labor and property stolen from Jews under Hitler. Although the agreement was controversial in Israel ("money for the blood of our relatives?" etc.) it was ratified by the Parliament. Over the course of 14 years, West Germany paid Israel three billion marks, in goods, industry and monetary instruments. Since the Israeli economy had no inherent means of survival in the 1950s, this significant economic infusion enabled the country to build a modern industrial infrastructure.

It was only in 1961, when Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem that Israeli society began to take intense interest in the Shoah. Survivors were encouraged to give testimony and to tell their stories publically; the Israeli population was glued to their radio-sets as the trial was broadcasted. For many, it was the first time they had heard the details of the Holocaust. In 1967, on the eve of the Six Days War, many Israelis feared that the threatening Arab armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan would bring another Holocaust on the Jewish people. During the Yom Kippur War, Israelis watched on television for the first time as soldiers were being taken into captivity as POWs. The sense of helplessness led many to empathize with the Holocaust survivors in their midst and what they had endured. In the aftermath of the war, the Israeli educational system began to treat the subject of the Holocaust as a central part of Jewish history and devoted more time to its study. In the late 1980s, Israeli schools began to send their students on missions to Poland, with an emphasis on visits to Nazi extermination camps like Auschwitz and Majdanek as well as Jewish life in pre-WWII Poland. In the mid-1990s, the IDF created a program known as "Witnesses in Uniform," which brings soldiers on educational trips focusing on Jewish heritage and the Holocaust in Poland. There has been a lively public debate about the educational goals and efficacy of these travel seminars to Poland. One of the critiques has been about the focus on a particularistic view of the lessons of the Holocaust; that Israel needs to be a strong Jewish state. And that the approach that emphasizes a strong commitment to fighting racism and prejudice to prevent future genocides is frequently neglected.

In recent Israeli history, the Holocaust has played both invisible and visible political roles. In the 1980s Israel had two Prime Ministers who had virtually lost their entire biological families in the Holocaust; Menachem Begin and Yitzchak Shamir. One can only conjecture the impact Begin's family history had on him when he decided to send the air force to bomb an Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981. In the past few years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly invoked Holocaust imagery in the public discourse on what Israel's policy towards Iran's aspirations to achieve a nuclear device should be.

Two very different "lessons" have been culled from the Holocaust by Israeli society. One approach takes a particularistic stance, declaring "never again" regarding the Jewish people. The other lesson is universal and seeks to prevent the genocide of anyone, anywhere, ever again. Personally, I've always ascribed to the latter view.