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How the Holocaust became part of Israel’s identity

Over the years, the memory of the Holocaust has shaped the new Israeli identity with notions of victimhood rather than lessons of tolerance.

“It was just about 70 years ago during the Holocaust that we were gunned down like this,” said Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was injured April 28 when a gunman opened fire at a Chabad synagogue in the San Diego suburb of Poway, murdering congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye. “I just want to let our fellow Americans know we aren’t going to let this happen here.”

Sadly, hardly a week passes without a radical nationalist, zealot or emotionally disturbed individual shooting indiscriminately at innocent men, women and children in the United States. It happens in public schools, mosques, churches and synagogues, too. In April alone, 25 Americans were killed and dozens were wounded in 33 mass shooting attacks, an average of over one a day. Each attack sets off the debate about controlling the sale of deadly weapons. The growing number of murders attributed to white supremacists also sparks criticism of the forgiving attitude and even sympathy that senior political figures express toward neo-fascist groups. However, anytime Jews are targeted in mass shootings because of their religion, someone invariably brings up the Holocaust.

As Israel prepared to mark the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day on May 2, officers of the Israel Defense Forces visited one of the Nazi death camps this week to salute Holocaust survivor Aryeh Pinsker and pledge “never again” — obviously under the watchful eyes of a Channel 13 News camera crew sent from Israel.

As he usually does, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used his May 1 remembrance speech to link the Holocaust with the Iranian threat. Speaking at the opening ceremony of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu said that faced with threats of inhalation, Israel won’t stand silent, adding, "Contrary to what happened during the Holocaust, we are able and determined to defend ourselves."

Some 30 years ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman remarked in his bestseller “From Beirut to Jerusalem” that Israel was becoming “Yad Vashem with an air force,” a reference to Israel’s Holocaust memorial institution.

In his forward to a new compilation of essays called “Victimhood Discourse in Contemporary Israel” (Lexington Books), editor Ilan Peleg argues that Holocaust Remembrance Day and even Jerusalem Day (marking Israel’s June 1967 conquest of East Jerusalem) are variations on the theme of Jewish victimhood, resistance and redemption. The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict buttresses this theme. Influential political leaders view any criticism by foreigners of Israeli policy in the occupied territories as a continuation of the old anti-Semitic regimes.

In a chapter called “Historical Victimhood and the Israeli Collective Consciousness Legacies,” professor Yechiel Klar describes the historical processes by which Israeli society transformed from an entity seeking to shake off the experience of Jewish victimhood into a society that wallows in a unique mix of victimhood and eternal masterhood. The chapter is based on a study conducted by Klar, head of the social psychology department at Tel Aviv University, along with Noa Schori-Eyal and the late Yonat Klar. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Klar explains that in recent years, the Holocaust has undergone a process of internalization and become an integral part of Israeli identity. Klar adds that paradoxically, this trend has surged even as Israel’s economic and military abilities have grown stronger.

Klar claims that the change in Israel’s perception of the Holocaust occurred following the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He cites historian Anita Shapira, who wrote in 1998, “The sense of helplessness, of there being no way out, that had hitherto been identified only with the Holocaust and life in exile was seen now as being possible in the free Jewish state as well.”

According to Klar, the Iranian nuclear program, accompanied by routine threats on the part of the Iranian leadership to annihilate Israel, gave rise to the terrible term “second Holocaust,” which often appears in Israeli discourse. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in 2006, “It's 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs. … While Iran’s president denies the Holocaust, he is preparing an additional Holocaust for the Jewish state.” At a 2017 bible study session, the prime minister noted that the Hasmonean Kingdom had only survived some 80 years and he was acting to ensure that Israel reaches its 100th anniversary.

“The Holocaust is present not only when it comes to weighty considerations of security and survival,” Klar underscores. “It is present in a wide variety of issues facing Israeli society.” For example, cultural assimilation and marriages to non-Jews are sometimes termed “the silent Holocaust” and even described as “worse than the Holocaust.”

However, while drawing links between the Holocaust and threats against Israel has become routine, any attempt to draw parallels between it and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians under occupation is a sharp deviation from the consensus. A telling example was the backlash against comments made at a 2016 Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony by Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, then the deputy IDF chief of staff. The career of this promising officer came to an abrupt end when he said, "If there's something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance it's the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then — 70, 80 and 90 years ago — and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016."

Israel’s education system makes sure that the lesson young Israelis learn from the Holocaust is not disgust with virulent displays of racism, but simply “never again.” Thousands of high school students travel every year to the Auschwitz extermination camp draped in Israeli flags and bearing national messages. Note that at exactly this age (just after high school), Israeli youngsters are drafted into the army.

After accompanying seven groups of high schoolers in the 1990s on these annual pilgrimages to Poland, sociologist Jacky Feldman wrote that the trips forge links between the Holocaust and the state in order to impart the value of self-sacrifice for the sake of the homeland. This idea is nurtured by overdoses of victimhood, fear-mongering and fear of anti-Semitism. Israelis are suffused with the sense of helplessness, persuading them to see in every stranger a potential anti-Semite. Xenophobia is the result.

There is another way. The Holocaust lesson could be epitomized in the exalted humane Jewish value expressed by Talmud-era scholar Hillel the Elder: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah.”

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