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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

Never again

Galilee Diary #419, December 7, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


..And they answered: We will not come out and we won't obey the king to profane the Shabbat. So the king's men attacked them, and they did not respond or throw a stone or work to fortify their hideouts, saying: We will die innocent; heaven and earth are witnesses that we are being killed unfairly. So [the army] made war against them on Shabbat and they and their wives and their children and their livestock died, a thousand people.
Maccabees I chapter 2

Last week I attended an in-service program for "Jewish Roots" coordinators in ORT high schools, in which a media developer from the ORT national office presented a new website they have developed for teaching Holocaust. The site has a lot of good material on it, most of it also in English ( However, I came away with mixed feelings about the presentation itself, as it aroused questions that have been bothering me for some time. The site is based on a new educational concept: that the Holocaust can be taught completely from the point of view of resistance. Historically, Israeli culture and education have been ambivalent about the Holocaust. The unwillingness of Israeli society to relate to the Holocaust or to its survivors in the 50s and 60s is well known. "Like sheep to the slaughter" was the antithesis of the Zionist revolution. The seeming helplessness and passivity of so many European Jews was embarrassing to Israelis; not to mention the complicated feelings, including guilt, for our (i.e., the Israelis) having "abandoned" European Jewry to their fate while we worried about building ourselves and our state here. The ghetto fighters and other manifestations of resistance were glorified – but alas, this had the side-effect of diminishing the memory of those who did not resist.

We've come pretty far in Holocaust education in the past twenty years, and the discourse is much more nuanced and understanding of the realities and what they did to people. Trips to Poland are now de rigueur for 11th graders. Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum dwarfs most other public museums and educational facilities. We have learned to live with the difficult memories of the Holocaust, not to flee them, not to deny them. And now, a new concept: not only is no invidious comparison to be made between resisters and non-resisters, but one can look at all responses as a form of resistance – active or passive, physical or spiritual, cultural or religious or military. Everyone, in his/her own way, stood up against the evil, and all the ways are worthy of study and memory.

The presenter at the in-service suggested using the new site as part of a Chanukah unit; after all, isn't Chanukah about resistance to evil? An interesting connection. And of course we could also use the site to teach Purim, and Pesach, and Yom Hashoah, and the 9th of Av… She also mentioned that our great need in teaching Jewish identity is to reach the kids emotionally, to move them – and this is the advantage of using Holocaust materials.

The Holocaust was a horrible catastrophe within the flow of Jewish history. But it was not all of Jewish history, nor does it sit at the core of any of the days in the Jewish calendar except Yom Hashoah. For years Jewish educators (and fund raisers) have been using the Holocaust to touch Jews emotionally when nothing else seemed to work. It appears that nothing has changed. My own feeling is that "using" the Holocaust perverts and distorts it. Here in Israel it is used constantly, amidst a constant din of protest over its uses. While the left accused the right of acting like Judeonazis in Hebron, the settlers wore yellow stars for their evacuation by the police. If everything is the Holocaust all over again and everyone we perceive as victimizing us is a Nazi, then we have stripped the Holocaust of meaning and we are all participants in the profanation of the memory of its victims. And if we are so Jewishly numb that only the Holocaust can touch our emotions, it is hard to imagine much of a future for us.

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