I found out about the Holocaust by watching, of all things, a TV mini-series. It was Holocaust, with Meryl Streep and James Wood, among others. It was 1978. I was 14. How could I not know about the Holocaust? How is that possible? Well, I was an American kid living about as far removed from the Holocaust as is possible. I grew up in a liberal, academic, Northern California family and in a community where there was little diversity unless you count the number of ways in which one could be a hippy. There were, in other words, no Jews.
I remember watching the mini series and being stunned -- STUNNED and sickened by what I was seeing. I had no idea. In my vague, 100-percent self-centered adolescent mind, I knew there was World War II and that the Jews (whoever they were) had been, you know, killed or something, but I had absolutely no idea of the enormity of it. Of the inhumanity of it. In fact, at that age, living in my relatively sequestered small-town world, I had no idea that any such large-scale evil had been perpetuated by mankind, anywhere, ever. It was an awakening followed by many more awful realizations. It marked, in many ways, my coming of age. The scales dropped from my eyes.
I failed to ever actually wrap my mind around the Holocaust. Nor, like most of us, have I ever really truly internalized and understood what happened in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia or Cambodia.
When one undertakes the dubious task of comparing one human atrocity to another, one is of course, bound to fail. It slips from our grasp as we sit in our comfortable living rooms, totally removed from the conditions that created a hot wave of irrational hatred. The systematic, ordered, institutionalized nature of the Jewish Holocaust makes me particularly ill. This was no rage, no flare up, no chaotic power grab. This was a popular movement, carried out with ballpoint pens and clipboards. It was a bureaucratic genocide.
Almost 20 years after I became aware of the Holocaust, I found myself raising two Jewish children. I had converted some years earlier in order to marry my Jewish fiancé. And now I had a parenting task that I would never have imagined. How do you tell your Jewish kids that not very long ago, six million of their tribe were summarily rounded up, killed in gas chambers and burned in ovens? And then there were those rounded up, shot in front of ditches and buried with tractors. And then there were those rounded up and put in barns that were lit on fire. And then there were those who were experimented on, tortured, raped, humiliated and marched out of their homes at gunpoint while crowds spat on them.
How's that for a bedtime story?
How do you begin to approach that? And at what age? And to what end? A Jewish parent worries their child will feel scared it could happen again, or feel permanently marked by these horrible events, as if they too must carry the burden of it, the awful, inherited legacy of it. My Jewish in-laws had all left the Ukraine just before the Russian revolution. Pogroms and other encroaching restrictions left them with no taste for life there. Nobody in that particular family died in the Holocaust. But if you're Jewish, that doesn't matter. They could have. It could be you. That was the bit I was reluctant to lay on my children. It could have been you. It might be you. Live with that fact, kiddos.
I do not know, now that my children are more or less grown, if they feel an internalized sense of connection to the Holocaust. They are American kids, raised in the Reform movement, Jewish at Passover and Yom Kippur, mainly. They are typical American university students, primarily concerned with grades, friends and hanging out. They live very far away from the Holocaust as any kind of a reality and there are no family stories of survivors or horrors. It is too early to tell, perhaps, the impact of the Holocaust on their now-evolving identities. My initial fears -- that they would be terrified of being singled out didn't come to any kind of fruition that I am aware of. Maybe, if anything, they gained a kind of pride that the Jews still exist and flourish despite near annihilation.
It is impossible for kids to ignore the Holocaust in Israel, where I now live.
Every year in Israel, we commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah. On this day each year, and in the days preceding it, there are many ways to remember the Holocaust, from museum exhibits and guest speakers to beachside prayer circles and special services in synagogues.
But the primary organizing event on Yom HaShoah is the sounding of a nationwide siren at precisely 10 am. During the moaning of the siren, cars pull over and drivers get out and stand beside their cars. Buses empty and do the same. Pedestrians stand still. Literally everything stops. Everyone stands in silence, heads bowed while the siren wails for what seems like forever. To say that this is surreal is an understatement.
Then, all day long, on every Israeli television channel, nothing but movies, documentaries and talk shows about the Shoah. It is a steady, uninterrupted stream of Holocaust. Every man, woman and child in Israel bathes in the dark, bottomless, sorrowful horror of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah. It is inescapable.
The siren enforces the idea that the Holocaust was THE defining moment in Jewish history. And in some ways, it was. Israel owes its existence to the events of the Holocaust. But the siren also perpetuates a consciousness of tragedy and paranoia. And this feeling seeps into the national identity in ways that create a template for Israel's policies and politics -- with devastating effect. The siren is, in my view, totally counter-productive.
The question is not whether Israel should recognize one of the most sweeping, devastating, brutal genocides of the 20th century, the question is how should this day be observed.
What if Israel made Yom HaShoah a day of mourning as a matter of personal choice and expression? There are numerous services, observances and lectures one can choose from without a wailing siren. What if Israel used the terrible events of the Holocaust to raise awareness of global inhumanities, past and present in order to prevent more in the future? What if every Israeli, instead of being encouraged to dwell in a dark past, were instead encouraged to attend events that celebrate goodness, peace, tolerance and diversity by way of focusing on the very real problems we have in our own backyard through activism and involvement?
What better legacy of the Holocaust is there than to remember it in a way that says Never Again -- for anybody, everywhere?
Ironically, here in Israel, it is no secret that the dwindling population of aging Holocaust survivors (less than 200,000) do not receive many of the social services and benefits that they so desperately need. Fully one in four survivors live in poverty. The care and support of this disappearing population has fallen by the wayside, as thornier concerns hold Israel's attention. And yet the siren howls across the nation each year, sending wave after wave out to all of us -- it could have been you. It could happen again. And naturally, we re-elect Netanyahu.
We cannot get together, Israelis and Palestinians alike and sing Kumbaya. That ship has sailed. It is not easy to rebuild trust that has been broken again and again on both sides of the conflict here. A siren once a year, sounded or silent, is not significant in and of itself. But the siren wails out a truth, all over the land of Israel: Never again, never again, at any cost -- never again. It's enforced, institutionalized Tragic Thinking.
Here I am, an American living in Israel, with so much to learn and so much humility and wonder at cultural differences large and small. I do not come from a perfect country, far from it. If there's one thing we need in Israel right now, it's not another visit by a diplomat. It's a new consciousness about our past so that we may have a future.
We need a new siren in Israel. I see an opportunity here, to take a page from the great American songwriter, Pete Seeger. We need a siren to ring out warning, danger, and love between the brothers and the sisters -- all over this land.