Thursday, April 19, 2007

Holocaust Remembrance Day

A couple of days ago was Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on the 27th of Nisan, kicking off a week of Holocaust-related ceremonies and remembrances. For me, I must admit, it's a struggle to really get into the Holocaust spirit. Part of the problem is with Halachah (Jewish religious practice.) During the month of Nisan, the month of Passover celebrating the liberation from slavery, public mourning is not permissible. Israel's founding fathers, believing Judaism to be on its way into the history books, to be replaced with Socialist Zionism, were not too concerned about what they considered halachic trivialities when they set the date for the holiday. After all, Independence was declared in Nisan, and Holocaust day had to be set before Independence Day in order to prove that Israel is the answer to the Holocaust. Being of the National Religious persuasion, participating in the daily life of the country without surrendering Torah observance, is particularly difficult on such days. The Haredi (ultra-orthodox) response has been to completely ignore the holiday, mourning the Holocaust instead on Tisha B'Av, the traditional day of mourning for the destruction of the second temple, and all other calamities that have befallen us. When the siren sounds and the rest of the country pulls over to the side of the road, or stops whatever they are doing to stand at attention, many within the Haredi communities simply keep right on moving with the day's business.

Part of my own discomfort comes from the focus on the Holocaust-ism as a substitute for Judaism I felt growing up. The majority (albeit a shrinking majority) of Jews in America no longer understand Hebrew, live by Torah precepts, or share common goals, so the Holocaust has become an identity-crutch for most. Since the only thing all Jews in America still have in common is that Hitler would have murdered them, that's really all there is to talk about. After I completed my Bar Mitzvah, an entire year of our Hebrew school was devoted to Holocaust Studies. That was the year everyone dropped out.

In Israel, the problem is different. In Israel it's not just "Holocaust Remembrance Day," but "Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day." The nationalist fighting ethic which originally energized the Zionists led them to look down on the Holocaust survivors as weaklings who were led as "sheep to the slaughter." Holocaust survivors who came to Israel were labeled with the pejorative, "soap," a reference to the Nazis' supposed conversion of the human fat of their victims into soap. These "soap" Jews embodied every stereotype of weakness and passivity the "New Jews" of Israel thought the Europeans despised in them, Europeans whom they strangely emulated and from whom they sought admiration.

While the Israeli hostility towards Holocaust survivors has certainly dissipated with the advent of post-Zionism, I still hear the occasional, "Why didn't they fight back?" from Israelis, as if the Jewish Shtetls of Poland were as flooded with M-16s and military hardware as Israel is today. Perhaps the most disconcerting is when Israel's leadership somberly stands at attention at various Holocaust ceremonies and firmly states "never again," and of the "need to learn the lessons of the Holocaust." It's not the sentiment that irks me so much as the hypocrisy. The day before, the Prime Minister was meeting with Dr. Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, whose very charter calls for another Holocaust on the Jews. And never mind that Abbas himself wrote his PhD thesis as a work of Holocaust denial, claiming that the Holocaust was invented by the Zionists for propaganda purposes.

Despite religious misgivings and my own discomfort, I certainly think it's important that survivors see that such an personal and national catastrophe isn't just a footnote in the history books. When the siren sounded at 10AM, I stopped what I was doing, which happened to be sitting in my apartment in my pajamas filling out California Building Code compliance forms. I stepped outside and stood at attention in my slippers. While the siren wailed on for a full minute, I looked out over row after row of massive apartment blocks hugging the succeeding ridgelines, my ridgeline being Pisgat Ze'ev East, the next being Pisgat Ze'ev Central, and beyond that, Pisgat Ze'ev North and behind the dusty haze, Neve Ya'akov, off miles in the distance. With my mind still in building code number-crunching mode, I had a horrible thought. The total population I could see, from where I stood to Neve Ya'akov in the hazy distance, is 60,000 people. On a "good" day, Auschwitz could get rid of 12,000 people. That is to say, all of Pisgat Ze'ev and Neve Ya'akov would be 5 days, a standard workweek, for the SS. In total, over 100 Pisgat Ze'evs were destroyed. But the thought doesn't make me sad, it makes me want to build another 200 in their place.

A small section of Pisgat Ze'ev North

No comments: