Once there was a time when the experience par excellence of Jewish authenticity was a visit to Israel. In the 50's and 60's, rabbis and campaign chairmen, teachers and even youth group members could inspire their communities with their moving accounts of visits to pioneering kibbutzim, reclaimed desert, precarious border outposts. College students found models of Jewish authenticity in idealist socialist farmers; teenage girls were swept off their feet by cute soldiers, bringing home bullets as souvenirs; and middle aged couples came home full of anecdotes about their dear, dear friend, their salt-of-the-earth tour guide.
But then, after 1967, Israel lost its romance for us. The embattled underdog became a powerful conqueror, and the image of moral perfection that had held us for twenty years began to show signs of tarnish and doubt. Black and white began to fade to gray, and alas, complexity and ambivalence dont inspire commitment the way simplicity does.
And so, we turned our communal focus in another direction. Jewish history provided us with an alternative source of Jewish authenticity, unity, and inspiration: the refuseniks. In the 70's and 80's the movement to support the refuseniks grew from an outsider cause championed by rebellious students against the Jewish establishment, to the mainstream main interest. Speakers at brotherhood brunches and campaign dinners told not of their Israel adventures, but of exciting clandestine study sessions and holiday meals with their dear, dear friends in Moscow. Soviet Jewry was a cause no one could question. It linked all of our American and Jewish values, it enabled us to unite despite ideological and religious differences, it was clear cut, black and white, a good old-fashioned struggle.
But then, thank God, there was no more Soviet Union, and the issue turned to more mundane and complex questions of where to send the emigrants and how to pay for their integration - and what to do about the non-Jewish ones, and how much to invest in preserving Jewish life in the FSU.
Meanwhile, in the late 80's, a new educational wave began, offering an alternative source of authentic experience: the Holocaust, and especially tourism to the Holocaust monuments of Europe. Emotionally powerful, clearly black and white, the Holocaust and its remembrance became a powerful communal unifier (which, ironically, it hadnt been in the 40's in the American Jewish community), fundraising lever, and educational tool. And the wave continues, with Holocaust museums and memorials everywhere, the the March of the Living an established part of the educational life of many communities (as are Poland pilgrimages for Israeli 11th grade classes).
The trouble with the Holocaust education industry is that lends itself all to easily to trivialization and distortion, perhaps because its primary focus is not on idealism or on struggle but on death; perhaps because too many people use it instrumentally, as a tool, a technique, to create emotional involvement, or to justify political or ideological agendas. Once I was asked to do a one-shot study session on the Holocaust for small group of eleventh graders in Chicago, preparing to come on an Israel experience program. One of them, who had dropped out after his bar mitzvah, commented: all the years in Hebrew school, it seems like all they ever talked about was the Holocaust; the way I see it, if that is the meaining of being Jewish, then it would be better not to be Jewish; who needs it? So, while the Holocaust has a certain power to suppress rebellion and to put us in a place of clear moral high ground, it is not foolproof, and has its limits educationally.
Here in Israel, the Holocaust is even more problematic, as its study and commemoration are fraught with tensions, religious, ideological, ethnic, and political. And yet, analysis and cynical questions aside, when the siren sounds at 10 am on Yom Hashoah, everything stops, everything goes silent, and the sound comes from every direction, with an eerie power that resonates all the way to the bone.