Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Zichronem livracha

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.


  1. I wouldn't equate colonialism with Holocaust. The colonial powers' goal was never to eradicate nations, "only" to use them to their advantage. The fact that some of the conquered nations perished was not an intended one.

    This takes me to a different thing. How far back into history should we apologize? The pagan tribes of East Prussia were slaughtered to extinction by Polish, Lithuanian and German crusades, which lasted up till the XVIth century. My father's ancestors got a nobility title for taking part in this. Should we apologize? Should the Europeans apologize for the slaughter of Jerusalem during the crusades? Should the Italians apologize for the Romans destroying the Carthagene? To whom? Should the Greeks apologize to themselves for the destruction of Troy?

    Aren't we carrying this "sorry for the genocide" game into the realm of absurdity? The Holocaust is a clear case: it happened just 60 years ago, there are both the victims and the criminals still living. But the earlier genocides?

    W/r to colonialism: it is quite difficult to tell to what extent the colonialism was a curse and to what extent it was a blessing, bringing technology and modernization. Just t hink that most of the countries which were never colonized by Europeans, do not appear now to be very successful. It is also difficult to tell whether the bad fate of some tribe was a result of colonialism or just of civilizational backwardness of this particular piece of Africa or Asia.

  2. Hello, Roman,

    I would urge you to read the Stannard essay I referenced in the blog entry. It appears in the collection Is the Holocaust Unique? edited by Rosenbaum. He will fast disabuse you of any idea that deaths due to colonialism were accidental.

    I'd also urge you to read the very slim "Exterminate All the Brutes" by Sven Lindqvist, who demonstrates rather ably that there is a connection between European colonialism and the Holocaust.

    I don't know if you live in the U.S. or abroad, but it's abundantly clear -- still -- in the U.S. that we are living on land that was won with the blood of American Indians. The condition of the American Indians today is a sorry state indeed. I would urge you, if you live in the U.S., to visit a reservation sometime -- one without a casino.

    How far back should be go back and commemorate? Obviously this should be taken on a case by case basis. If there's literally no one left to apologize to, then it's rather beside the point, isn't it? But the Pope did apologize for the Crusades a few years back. I can't state a "one-size-fits-all"

    Finally, I'd ask you to consider that the notion that cultures are "backward" is one that is frequently used by racists and Social Darwinists. It's what the Nazis said about Poles. Cultures are "behind" others because of two major factors: (1) isolation; and (2) that's right -- colonialism.


  3. Andrew, I live in Poland. I don't think that we can say that colonialism's purpose was to exterminate other nations. After all, who would serve the pukka sahib then?

    I'll try to find the text you referenced to and read them. I am especially curious about the connection between the colonialism and the Holocaust, given the fact that Holocaust was carried out by a nation with little tradition of (but large ambitions for) colonialism.

    I also don't think that the fact that racists call some cultures "backward" should cause us to take the stand that all cultures are equal. After all, we all prefer to live in countries where there is freedom of speech than in those in which there is not. So if someone says "all cultures are equal" he can't really mean that, it would be absurd. I think what he really means is "oh, some cultures are horrid, but they are good enough for these dirty barbarians (but not for me)". I'm sorry, but if in one culture a woman gets stoned to death by adultery, and in other it is forbidden, then it is clear which one of them is backwards.

  4. Roman, I don't think that Andrew argues that there are no "backward" cultures. In fact, he says just the opposite ;-)

  5. I just wouldn't use the word "backward."



  6. Cultures are "behind" others because of two major factors: (1) isolation; and (2) that's right -- colonialism.

    Not only because of that. Some simply developed faster than others. China and Japan were not colonized nor were isolated due to geography. Yet they are now catching up to Europe and North America. It seems to me that some ingredients of European culture, its capabilit of self-criticism and looking at itself "from outside" were crucial for the faster development of Europe and North America, but were lacking in Chinese and Japanese cultures.

  7. This is a good remembrance site:

    Click on it, and you find a name, date of birth and place and time of death. Use at your own discretion.


Please read our Comments Policy