“Israel and the memory of the Holocaust” by Tom Segev

Reference: Le Monde

April 2001

On 15 February last year hundreds of people gathered in Jerusalem to hear a philosophical discussion on memory. Bernard-Henry Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, who had come to Jerusalem as guests of the Institut d’études levinassiennes (1) in France, tried to formulate the “meaning” of Auschwitz and the uniqueness of the Holocaust. They debated whether remembrance has suppressed oblivion or oblivion remembrance, and they tried to evaluate whether Israel was benefiting or losing by cultivating the memory of Holocaust. Perhaps it was losing, Finkielkraut suggested, because, as Jews stress the nature of the Holocaust as the absolute evil, they are in a way denying Europe an important element in its cultural heritage – anti-Semitism.

This kind of abstract grand debate is rare in Israel. Most Israelis simply remember the horrors of the past as part of their own personal biographies or have internalised the extermination of the Jews as part of their collective identity. Hardly a day passes without reference to the Holocaust in at least one Israeli newspaper, and yet few Israelis reflect on memory itself. Symbolically, the discussion took place in the same hall where the trial of Adolf Eichmann was held 40 years ago and the speakers were sitting on the same stage where Eichmann’s judges sat. It was then and there that Israel began to design its collective memory of the Holocaust.

Eichmann, a senior officer in the SS who dealt mainly with the organisational aspects of the extermination of the Jews, was abducted by Israeli secret agents in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in May 1960. The Mossad agents could have killed him, but that was not their aim. Hunting former Nazis had never been high on Israel’s lists of priorities. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was not interested in Adolf Eichmann the man; it was the trial he cared about. “It is not the punishment that is the main thing here,” he said, “but the fact that the trial is taking place at all and that it is taking place in Jerusalem.”

Ben Gurion had two goals: one was to remind the nations of the world that the Holocaust put them under an obligation to support the world’s one Jewish state. “In Egypt and Syria the Nazis’ disciples wish to destroy Israel, and this is the greatest danger awaiting us,” Ben Gurion said, adding that the anti-Zionist propaganda coming out of Arab capitals was anti-Semitic and inspired by the Nazis: “They generally say ’Zionists’ but they mean ’Jews’”. This led to the conclusion that the enemies of Israel were the enemies of the Jewish people and supporting Israel was equivalent to fighting anti-Semitism. Thus the Holocaust was to confirm the moral validity of the Zionist idea and serve the purposes of the state of Israel.

After the second world war the Zionist movement also used the Holocaust as a diplomatic tool to promote Israeli independence. Yet there is no basis for the frequent assertion that Israel was established as a result of the Holocaust. Clearly the shock, horror and sense of guilt felt by many generated profound sympathy for the Jews in general and for the Zionist movement in particular. That sympathy helped the Zionists advance their diplomatic campaign. However, the social, political and military foundations of Israel were laid over a period of nearly 30 years prior to the Holocaust. In fact the extermination of the Jews of Europe caused great harm to the Zionist dream, and compelled Israel to bring in Jews from Muslim countries who greatly diminished the European character of the Jewish state, going against the distinctly European dream of the Zionist movement.

In fact it was the social unrest among this new population, including new immigrants from Morocco (2), that contributed to Ben Gurion’s decision to stage a big Holocaust trial. “They lived in Asia or Africa and they had no idea what was being done by Hitler, so we have to explain the thing to them from square one,” Ben Gurion remarked.

  1. After Emmanuel Levinas, Jewish philosopher of Lithuanian origin (1906-1995).
  2. There were in particular very violent clashes in 1959 in the Wadi Salib quarter of Haifa.

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