Today is Yom ha-Shoah (literally "Day of the Holocaust" in Hebrew), an observance of the Holocaust instituted by the State of Israel in 1959. It has become for many countries an official or unofficial observance of Holocaust remembrance. However, other countries observe Holocaust remembrance on other days. The U.K. commemorates the Holocaust on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Germany, over the sixty years since the Holocaust ended, has commemorated it either on January 27 or on November 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
I have very mixed feelings about Yom ha-Shoah, though I think it’s obvious I find value in Holocaust remembrance, or I wouldn’t be involved with this blog, with the Holocaust History Project, or with RODOH, all of which I view as important ways of keeping memory alive. However, as I have written earlier, I am among the minority of Jewish Holocaust scholars who are not Zionists, and, as such, I shy away from Israeli-ordained commemorations. Two chief considerations cause me to reject Yom ha-Shoah as a date of commemoration of the millions of victims of the Nazis.
First, it is not a rejection of Israel’s legitimacy that moves me to instead observe Holocaust remembrance on 10 Tevet, a minor fast day and the day set aside on the Jewish calendar for those people whose yahrzeit (death anniversary) is not known. It is what I would consider the highly politicized use of the Holocaust by the Zionist movement from the discovery of the Holocaust to the present day. For instance, one might consider why, given the Holocaust’s obvious role in the immediate superpower recognition of the State of Israel, why it took until 1959 to set a day aside on the Jewish calendar to commemorate the day.
The answers are several, but principal among them were the political considerations of David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, who was dealing with a handful of scandals in the same period of time, among them the Lavon Affair becoming public knowledge and a highly controversial arms deal with West Germany (Ben-Gurion agreed to sell weapons to Konrad Adenauer, a move many Israelis saw as treasonous). To raise his political capital, Ben-Gurion signed into law the creation of Yom ha-Shoah. At the same time, he prepared to bring Adolf Eichmann to Jerusalem to try him for crimes against the Jewish people.
In the end, Ben-Gurion ended up retiring before Israel’s next turning point in its relationship with the Holocaust, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Genuinely faced with destruction for the first time since its independence, Israel found itself face to face with a possible second Holocaust. The effect on the state has been profound. Not only did history repeat itself with the 1973 war, but the aftermath of that war catapulted into power the only leader of Israel who lost his family in the Holocaust –- Menachem Begin.
Begin made immense use of the Holocaust in his leadership over Israel, comparing Yasir Arafat to Hitler, comparing every enemy of Israel’s to Nazi Germany, and evoking the memory of 1.5 million murdered Jewish children in justifying his military actions against Lebanon and the Palestinians. The height of immorality is for the Jewish State to use the Holocaust as a bludgeon to beat down the Palestinian people, but far too often this has been the case in Israel over the last thirty years. The New Historians in Israel, most notably Tom Segev in his landmark study The Seventh Million, have made this a focus of their research.
The second consideration upon which my rejection of Yom ha-Shoah is based is the question of whether it is appropriate that Holocaust remembrance take place in every nation of the world. Certainly it is appropriate in Israel, and I do not begrudge the state its right to set aside a day for remembrance. But is it necessary, for instance, for the U.K. to have an official day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust? After all, the U.K. did not carry out the Holocaust. Neither did the United States, but there are more Holocaust museums in this country than there are in Israel. Granted, there are also more Jews here than in Israel, but the largest museum is in the nation’s capital where the Jewish community is rather small. New York’s museum in Battery Park seems appropriate (over 10 percent of New York’s population is Jewish), but an American landscape dotted with Holocaust museums seems a bit much to me.
What would be appropriate, then? Well, it seems that Germany, being the successor to the perpetrator state during the Holocaust has done a fine job of creating memorials where concentration camps once stood, as have the Poles, who live where most of the mass killing was carried out. Russia lost an immense number of people in World War II, both in the Holocaust and in other circumstances, and Holocaust remembrance there seems logical and right.
But what of the U.S., U.K., and other European nations who were more victimized than victimizers during the Third Reich? I would much rather see a museum in Washington, D.C., dedicated to remembrance of the tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of aboriginal peoples of this continent exterminated by successive French, Dutch, British, and American regimes. And it would seem also seem right that the U.K. and other nations with colonialist histories build museums and set aside days of remembrance for the victims of imperialism.
As David E. Stannard, author of American Holocaust, points out in his brutally frank essay, “Uniqueness as Denial: The Politics of Genocide Scholarship,” to commemorate the Holocaust and promote its uniqueness at the expense of remembering other equally brutal genocides both before and since degrades both Holocaust remembrance and the memory of peoples who have been made to disappear from the face of the earth in the name of white supremacy in the Western Hemisphere or fell victim to political democide in Europe and Asia in the twentieth century. I, for one, could not agree more.
Nevertheless, all that being said, as a Jew it is important to me to remember the Holocaust, not just on a day set aside by a government, but every day that genocides continue to be carried out all over the world. And so I say “Zichronem livracha” (“May their memories be a blessing”) and bow my head for a moment of silence in spite of myself.