“We Are You”: The Meaning of the Holocaust in Israeli Identity and Politics

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Photo: Laurien Vastenhout

By Laurien Vastenhout

By After the ‘march of unity’ of world leaders in Paris on the 11th of January, which was a response to the terrorist attacks on both the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish grocery store in the city centre, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu visited the memorial ceremony at the Grand Synagogue of Paris. The ceremony was dedicated to the remembrance of those (Jewish) citizens who had been brutally murdered by Muslim terrorists a few days earlier. Rather than mourning for the lives lost, Netanyahu used the opportunity to spread his own message. He encouraged French Jews to come to Israel since this, in his view, is the only country where Jews can live safely. The French authorities were offended. Clearly, Netanyahu saw the attacks in Paris as an opportunity to promote his election campaigns at the expense of relations between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of France. The Prime Minister of Israel even made a link between the horrendous attacks on innocent French Jews and his settlements policy, justifying the latter because he considers it a necessary policy in order to protect the Jewish citizens of Israel against any foreign threat.

Last year, during the Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, Netanyahu acted in a similar way. While the entire evening was dedicated to the remembrance of the suffering of the Jews during the Second World War, for example by reading poems and listening to survivor’s stories, he used the opportunity to give a lecture on the offensive policies of Iran and argued that Israelis should be aware that enemies are continuously trying to demolish the Holy land, Eretz Israel. The moment of national mourning was used to spread a highly political message. Rather than remembering the victims, Netanyahu used the Holocaust as an example of what might happen to the Jewish population in case they did not protect themselves to the maximum. 

When we take a closer look to the meaning or function of the Shoah in the politics of Israel and in the consciousness of the citizens of Israel, a particular development can be identified. In the years following the end of the Second World War, the idea that there had been many collaborators amongst the European Jews prevailed among citizens of Israel. Also, it was generally argued that Diaspora Jews had somehow contributed to their own suffering by easily submerging themselves to the German anti-Jewish measures. In short, the European Jews were considered to have been too weak. In this period, which lasted from around 1945 until the early 1960s, the Shoah hardly played a role in national consciousness of citizens of Israel; the establishment of the State was the sole focus of attention.

This altered with the changing of time.  As soon as the establishment of the State of Israel was no longer a ‘new’ reality, attention could be paid to more ‘peripheral’ topics. As a result, the story of the immigrant Jews whom had fled Europe either during or after the Second World War, surfaced on the agenda. Rather than arguing that European Jews had been too weak and collaborative, room was made for a more differentiated and compassionate attitude.  This tendency was reinvigorated by the Eichmann trial in 1961, during which the stories of the suffering of Jews in concentration camps in Eastern Europe and elsewhere played a central role. By then, 600.000 Jews living in Israel, out of the 2 million in total, were survivors of the Holocaust.  Because of the increasing tendency to pay attention to the traumatic experiences of Jews during the Second World War, this quarter of the population that had survived, began to fulfill a new social role. That was particularly true because, the Diaspora Jews were finally equalled with the autochthon Jews. As Shabbetai Keshev, a journalist of the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz stated in 1961: ‘we are you’, in which the ‘you’ referred to the Jews who had come from Europe to Israel either during or after the Second World War. In doing so, the burden of guilt of those who had lived through the Holocaust, was mitigated. The Diaspora Jews were now no longer seen as a marginal, weak and unimportant group, but rather as a bridge between Israelis and the Diaspora Jews that were still living in Europe. A new social reality was born.

This trend of increasingly incorporating the Shoah in the identity of Jews living in Israel has continued. As a result, the Shoah has become a key moment to which Israelis look back, and base their existential decisions on. Apart from the famous notion of ‘never again’, there exists in fact an additional view: ‘this will never happen again to us’. Currently, this notion plays a central role in Israeli identity and politics. Research has indicated that the large majority of Israelis consider the Shoah to be part of their core identity. Increasingly, the Jewish State is by now considered a safe haven, established in order to provide Jews all over the world with a country in which they can live safely. The Holocaust is an example used to illustrate of what will happen in case the Jews do not find protection in their Holy Land. The recent speeches of Benjamin Netanyahu re-emphasize this feeling in a clever way and take this notion even a step further. Not only is Eretz Israel a safe haven to Israelis, it is the only safe haven for Jews. In fact, the country should protect itself by all means against any foreign threat.

Strangely enough, with the changing of time the history of the Shoah has come to play a more central role in the identity to those Israeli citizens who have not personally experienced it. This is a good example of the way the meaning and importance of history and historical events can change, and can be reinterpreted, whether subconsciously or consciously. The increasing conscious approach of Netanyahu to use the Shoah as a justification for continuous repressive actions against Palestine is absolutely worrying. Not only because it is the view of one political leader, but because this concept is partly the result of an atmosphere that is reigning among the population as well.

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Laurien Vastenhout

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