Israel on Holocaust Remembrance Day

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Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day fell this year on yesterday evening and today. Yom HaShoah (literally “Day the-Holocaust” in Hebrew) was declared a national memorial day in Israel in 1953, five years after the state’s establishment, and is now observed throughout the Jewish world.

Unlike much older Jewish holidays, Yom HaShoah has had to be improvised. By now, in Israel (where I’ve been living for almost 30 years), the day has a structure and contents that rather effectively convey somberness and an intense identification with the Holocaust’s victims.

Yom HaShoah begins in Israel (at sundown) with a ceremony in a square beside Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. I’ve been watching it on TV now for years and generally find it tactful, authentic, and moving. It includes speeches by the prime minister and the president before an honor guard, the lighting of six torches (symbolizing six million victims) by Holocaust survivors, musical presentations, and most of all the heart-wrenching singing of the prayer “El Malei Rahamim” by the chief army cantor.

Yom HaShoah is a regular workday, but with places of entertainment closed and all TV and radio programs devoted to Holocaust-related themes. At 11 a.m. sirens blare throughout the country and all traffic and motion stops. Drivers exit their cars and, like the surrounding pedestrians, stand for the two-minute duration of the siren in silent commemoration. These are moments of eerie, slightly frightening power.

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The Holocaust is central to the Israeli ethos but it is not—as often claimed by Arab propaganda—the raison d’être or historical antecedent of the state. Zionist settlement in the Land of Israel began about six decades before World War II broke out. By that time, the Yishuv (prestate Jewish community) numbered hundreds of thousands and was called a “state in the making”; the effect of the Holocaust was to rob this community, and world Jewry in general, of immense riches of human life.

Zionist ideology, which was intense in the era of Israel’s establishment, regarded the Holocaust as huge, grim, and definitive confirmation that Jewish life outside of Israel was invalid and doomed. It was also seen as confirmation of the indispensability of a Jewish state, which, had it come into being about a decade before it did, could have prevented or at least substantially mitigated the Holocaust by interceding with world powers and offering a place of refuge.

Today, over six decades since the Jewish state’s rebirth, Zionist ideology has softened to something more like patriotism, with greater tolerance for the Diaspora’s existence and for Israelis themselves who go to live abroad. The Holocaust, too, plays less of an instrumental, ideological role. That change is usually associated with the 1962 trial in Jerusalem of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, in which harrowing testimonies by survivors riveted the country’s attention on the suffering of the victims themselves. For Israel it was a step toward maturation, toward greater Jewish and human empathy.

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Where does the Jewish state stand today in regard to the Holocaust and the nadir of antisemitism that it represents? There are two competing outlooks, both of them considerably fact-based.

One says nothing much has changed. Given the severe antisemitism in the Arab and Muslim world, the physical threat to Israel from Iran and others, widespread antisemitism in Europe, the BDS movement, the ongoing vilification of Israel in the UN, in academia, in leftist and far-right circles, the Jewish state has become the “Jew among the nations” and the reality remains one of hatred and danger.

The other viewpoint (well represented here, for instance) emphasizes Israel’s ongoing, successful integration with the world. Tourism in Israel sets a new record every year; trade, particularly with Europe, Asia, and North America, is multifarious and robust; the hi-tech and other products of the startup nation are increasingly appreciated and indispensable to the world’s functioning; the U.S.-Israeli alliance remains strong; and now, with Israel set to become a major energy producer, the trend toward integration can only accelerate.

Both outlooks have strong foundations; they are not really incompatible but different sides of a complex reality. On Yom HaShoah, Israelis are reminded of the grim legacy of the past and of the fact that the world, for all its undeniable, astounding progress in many fields, remains a very dangerous place.