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A 'Trialogue' in Yad Vashem?

German President Christian Wulff recently visited Israel. The program was the usual one — including a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust Memorial  — and the usual speeches were made: to the effect that one cannot change the past, but one wants together to secure a better future. Only in one respect were the proceedings somewhat different than usual. Wulff was not accompanied by his wife Bettina, but rather by his 17-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage, Annalena, and by a whole group of German teenagers. Wulff explained that he wanted to make clear that “history is passed down from generation to generation.”

Wulff undoubtedly meant well, but one can fear that he did not realize all the implications of his words. In the meanwhile, one has to wonder, namely, whether it would not be better and healthier for Germans to draw a line under their history and to file away the issue of their “historical responsibility.” What began in the 1960s with the question “How could it have happened?” has, in the meanwhile, taken Germans from the vale of tears of their own guilt feelings to a stance of moral superiority. They no longer ask how “it” could have happened, but are concerned that “it” could happen again: not in Germany, but in Israel, because Jews — unlike Germans — have learned nothing from their history.

Not long ago, I came upon a book titled Trialogue in Yad Vashem. I knew what a triathlon is: swimming, cycling, and running. But what could a “trialogue” in Yad Vashem be? The answer is simple: “Conversations among Palestinians, Israelis, and Germans.”  The aims of the project are therapeutic in nature, since: “Palestinians, Israelis and Germans are connected via their respective histories. But Palestinians and Israelis almost exclusively perceive their own history and their own suffering.”

Germans play the role of mediator in this ménage-à-trois. They want to familiarize the Palestinians with the history of the Israelis and the Israelis with the history of the Palestinians, with the Holocaust and the Nakba. All of this in Yad Vashem, the memorial to the “final solution” of the Jewish question in Europe. It is a noble enterprise, since not only are the Palestinians the Jews of the Israelis, but the Nakba — the Palestinian catastrophe — is the continuation of the Holocaust in the Middle East. That is why more and more Germans feel obliged to take the side of the Palestinians and to warn the Israelis not to follow in the footsteps of the Nazis. It sounds a bit nuts, but that is the way it is.

Recently, a reporter from Der Spiegel traveled to Safed in Galilee to report on a racist incident: the local rabbi had called on the Jewish residents of the town not to rent rooms to Arab students. But that was not all. The Spiegel reporter noticed something worse: “On benches in Safed it is written ‘No sitting for dogs, pigs and Arabs.’”

The wording leaves one to understand that it is a matter of an official measure, akin to “No Jews Allowed” in Nazi Germany. In a later version of the report, the sentence now reads: “On benches in Safed, ‘No sitting for dogs, pigs and Arabs’ is scrawled in magic marker.” Although not entirely clear, the point has, nonetheless, been understood by Spiegel readers.

In the Spiegel online forum, commentators drew historical parallels: “There was precisely this sort of behavior toward Jews in Germany before the mass murders. An old Jewish man was not allowed to sit in the tram. My mom stood by him as a sort of silent protest.” “It is horrifying that precisely the descendants of those who suffered the most from racism have now become racist themselves.” “History is repeating itself. The comparison hurts — but it is apt! It cannot and must not happen that the state of Israel, by way of its deeds, statements and thoughts, even just approximates the National Socialist ideology of the German Nazis!” Citing a famous anti-Nazi saying, the last commentator concludes: “Beware of the beginnings — this holds even in the innermost being of Israel itself!”

And thus history is indeed being passed down from generation to generation. Now, the children of the perpetrators are taking care that the children of the victims do not do it again.

The above article first appeared in German in the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. The original German version is available here. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.