Holocaust remembrances split Israelis

April 25, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Manfred Klafter was arrested by the Nazis and was on his way to the Auschwitz concentration camp when he escaped. Eighty of his relatives died in the Holocaust.

But he has little time for Holocaust memorials: "Too much is being spent on commemoration, and not enough on the living," said Mr. Klafter, who now heads a group in Israel offering counseling to Holocaust survivors.

The memory of the Holocaust does not rest peacefully in Israel. In the one country where universal agreement about the Holocaust and its lessons might be expected, there remains a national unease about it.

Even as those who lived through the Nazi horror grow old and their numbers become inevitably smaller, debate over how to keep the memory alive -- and for what purposes -- remains raw and painful.

The opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington this week sounds a distant echo to the debate here and stirs old divisions between the Jews in Israel and those abroad.

While all agree the Holocaust should be remembered, some think it is best commemorated here.

"We have nothing against the museum. We think the Holocaust should be studied all over the world," said Billie Laniado, a spokeswoman for the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. "Of course, we think for every Jew, Yad Vashem should be the center."

Yad Vashem is a sprawling, low-lying memorial on a hilltop overlooking the Israeli capital. It contains exhibits, archives, a register of victims and photographs showing how they died. It is a somber, sorrowful place, heavy with documentation of the atrocities of mass murder, the suffering of Jews and the artwork spawned by misery.

It is a mandatory stop for official visitors and many tourists. Ms. Laniado estimates half of the 1.5 million visitors each year are tourists. Most of the rest are Israeli youths who come on visits arranged by the army or their schools.

There is little chance of the Holocaust's being forgotten in Israel. The catastrophe in which 6 million Jews were deliberately exterminated has become an integral component of Israeli life. It is emphasized in classrooms: Holocaust questions are 20 percent of the history exam for high school graduation.

It is mentioned almost daily in Israeli newspapers. It is a common theme in Israeli art, literature and television. It is a part of the political discourse. Thousands of Israeli youths make pilgrimages the Nazi concentration camps in Poland, and each year the nation comes to an abrupt halt while drivers leave their cars to stand in respect for the long siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

But the national solidarity suggested by these acts is misleading. With a gingerliness of caution, some suggest this fealty to Holocaust remembrance is misplaced.

Shulamit Aloni, the liberal minister of education, recently complained that the emotional journeys by youths to concentration camps had become an Israeli "industry" that encouraged the view that "the whole world is against us."

Her comments sparked predictable outrage. But her criticism is not new. Complaints that the Holocaust is used -- and misused -- have circulated among Israelis since the ultra-Zionist government of Menachem Begin regularly evoked the Holocaust bludgeon political opponents.

Those complaints were renewed in a controversial book published in 1991 by Tom Segev, an Israeli historian and newspaper columnist. The book, "The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust," has just been published in English.

In it, Mr. Segev argues that the Holocaust is not used in Israel to teach tolerance but only to reaffirm a nationalistic view that Israel must be militarily strong.

'Insular chauvinism'

Israelis are "not warned that the Holocaust requires them to strengthen democracy, fight racism, defend minorities and civil rights, and refuse to obey manifestly illegal orders," he writes.

Instead, the "heritage of the Holocaust" encourages "insular chauvinism and a sense that the Nazi extermination of the Jews justifies any act that seems to contribute to Israel's security."

The criticism touches on the question of who "owns" the Holocaust memory. Many in Israel think the catastrophe was unique and must be jealously guarded as a signal event of Jewish history.

"From a Jewish perspective, it is just a very powerful family matter," said Ze'ev Mankowitz, who directs the Institute for Jerusalem Fellows, a noted program for Jewish educators.

"Historically, it has come to play a central role in the self-understanding of Jews," he said.

The Holocaust was the culmination of anti-Semitism that some contend has not disappeared. Its lessons of the terrible extremes of racial hatred are lost on the world, they argue: Witness the bloodletting in the Balkans. They say Jews must take from it the lesson to trust only in their own strength.

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