While Americans are working to understand the latest affront to their security, Israelis are passing through the annual cycle of three days marking the tragedies associated with the Holocaust and Israel's security, and the nation's successes since Independence.
Claims of exploiting the Holocaust for political gain are prominent on the agenda of Israel's enemies and critics. Leaving aside the madness of assertions that it never happened, or was only a minor element in World War II, there are some closer to sanity who claim that Israel behaves too much like the Nazis in dealing with the Palestinians, yet covers its actions by citing its own greater losses at the hands of the Germans. A moderate version is that Israel's emphasis of the Holocaust, including the mandatory visits of dignitaries to Yad Vashem, is an excessive use of a historic tragedy to gain favor from those who criticize its current activities.
The Holocaust is institutionalized in Yad Vashem, visits to Auschwitz by school groups, soldiers, and ranking officers of the IDF, annual ceremonies, and the media's marking of Holocaust Day--as well as several days in advance--by programs dealing with new discoveries in the archives, new analyses of the origins and key events, coverage of the fast disappearing survivors, unanswered claims by Jews against governments of Eastern Europe, German volunteers in Israel, and encounters between the children and grandchildren of survivors with the children and grandchildren of Germans who were part of the Holocaust.
This year more than in the past, it appears that the Holocaust may be losing its prominence within Israel. It is still a day of great importance, and far from the status of the the 9th of Av that marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and engages few beside religious Jews who participate in ceremonies that have been observed for millennia. However, more gripping than remembrance of the Holocaust is the day that comes one week later to remember soldiers and other security personnel who fell in defense of Israel, and civilians killed in acts of terror.
Those deaths, now more than 23,000, touch just about every family via near or distant relatives, or friends.. Stories concerning those who died, told by spouses, siblings, or those who fought alongside of them strike more chords than the stories now heard on the day to mark the Holocaust. The Defense Ministry estimates that 100,000 people attended ceremonies and visited graves at the military cemetery on Mt Herzl in Jerusalem, more than 70,000 at Tel Aviv's military cemetery, and that all told 1.5 million people visited graves throughout the country
The incidence of those killed, in relation to population, is roughly ten times greater than the comparable statistic for the next ranked Western country (i.e., the United States), in military and terrorist deaths since World War II.
Both Holocaust Day and Israel Memorial Day have produced organizations that compete in emphasizing their activities and importance.
Israelis, overseas Jews and others who are tired of the emphasis given to the Holocaust speak of an "industry" of museums and organizations boosting their presence and importance, reminding us of what they are doing to uncover individuals who have escaped justice, telling us about the number and nature of anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred since their last report, and urging us to contribute so they can continue the good work.
Israel's Memorial Day comes along with mournful pronouncements by individuals leading organizations with missions to commemorate soldiers, erect monuments at the sites of prominent tragedies, give the current generation of recruits with benefits beyond those provided by the Defense Ministry, and to represent the parents, children, or widows of those killed. There remains tension between those who would preserve the day to memorializing the soldiers and other security personnel who fell in defense of the country, and keep it apart from ceremonies to honor those who died as a result of terror. Some years ago the name of the day changed to encompass both groups, and officials take pains to emphasize both those who have died in national service and civilians who have died because they have been Israelis or visitors to Israel. However, representatives of terror victims claim that they remain the lesser concern, shunted to secondary sites, and provided with less money to care for the emotional and financial needs of family members.
There was a media flap a week ago, and then an official apology for the lack of attention paid to the most recent fallen soldier, who did not qualify as a Jew according to Halacha, and whose grave is outside the fence marking the principal area of the Mt Herzl cemetery.
There is also a difference in the Israeli and Diaspora perspectives on Holocaust and Israel Memorial Day. Much of the impetus and the money to memorialize the Holocaust comes from Jewish communities overseas. They are primarily responsible for creating additional Holocaust museums, and contributing to school programs in their communities to teach about the Holocaust. While the Holocaust is a key element in the shared identity of Diaspora Jews and Israelis, the deaths of Israelis is more uniquely Israeli. In the Diaspora, as well as in Israel, there remain Holocaust survivors, as well as the children and grandchildren of survivors who absorbed their stories and their pain. Soldiers and others who fell in the defense of Israel, and the vast majority of terrorist victims have been Israeli. While overseas communities mark both memorial days in their synagogues and community centers, the weight of the memories and the extent of the ceremonies, stories, and pain about the more recent deaths are disproportionately Israeli.
Somewhere out in the weeds there may be an argument that Israel exploits its military and civilian casualties in order to justify the continued oppression of the Palestinians. If so, it is less noticeable than the argument about exploiting the Holocaust. Perhaps when this generation of commentators dies out, and Holocaust Day declines toward the status of the 9th of Av, anti-Semites and Israel bashers will place greater emphasis on Israel Memorial Day.
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