After the war, a great silence surrounded the destruction of the Jews. Then came moral and political conflicts, including the painful debate over relations with Germany, which slowly brought the Israelis to recognize the deeper meaning of the Holocaust. The trial of Adolf Eichmann served as therapy for the nation, starting a process of identification with the tragedy of the victims and survivors, a process that continues to this day.
The most fateful decisions in Israeli history, other than the founding of the state itself—the mass immigration of the 1950s, the Six-Day War, and Israel’s nuclear project—were all conceived in the shadow of the Holocaust. Over the years, there were those who distorted the heritage of the Holocaust, making it a bizarre cult of memory, death, and kitsch. Others too have used it, toyed with it, traded on it, popularized it, and politicized it. As the Holocaust recedes in time—and into the realm of history—its lessons have moved to the center of a fierce struggle over the politics, ideology, and morals of the present.
The Seventh Million concerns the ways in which the bitter events of the past continue to shape the life of a nation. Just as the Holocaust imposed a posthumous collective identity on its six million victims, so too it formed the collective identity of this new country—not just for the survivors who came after the war but for all Israelis, then and now. This is why I have called them the seventh million. […]
Israelis are obsessed with history. They are the offspring of a nation, a religion, and a culture that has dismissed the present and left the future in the hands of faith and fate. The past thus becomes an object of worship. Since the beginning of the 1980s, they have been worshiping moreshet hashoah—a somewhat peculiar term, meaning “the heritage of the Holocaust.” […] The contempt that many members of the yishuv felt toward the Diaspora did not disappear during the Holocaust. Rather, it deepened. And after the war the yishuv’s condescending attitude to the survivors, a posture born of regret and shame, gave rise to the great silence that surrounded the Holocaust through the 1950s. These were the years when Israelis refused to speak or even think about the Holocaust, almost to the point of denial. Over the last decades, in contrast, the Holocaust has increasingly become a major factor in shaping Israeli identity and a constant and intense preoccupation. Viewed dispassionately, though, the recent eagerness to embrace the past is often no less problematic and charged with contradiction than the earlier tendency to deny it.
There are a number of explanations, both political and cultural, for the current intensity of involvement with the Holocaust. Israel differs from other countries in its need to justify—to the rest of the world, and to itself—its very right to exist. Most countries need no such ideological justifications. But Israel does—because most of its Arab neighbors have not recognized it and because most of the Jews of the world prefer to live in other countries. So long as these factors remain true, Zionism will be on the defensive. As a justification for the State of Israel, the Holocaust is comparable only to the divine promise contained in the Bible: It seems to be definitive proof of the Zionist argument that Jews can live in security and with full equal rights only in their own country and that they therefore must have an autonomous and sovereign state, strong enough to defend its existence.
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