Today is Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. Last night all the restaurants, bars and stores were closed, the TV programming was centered on the Holocaust and at 10 AM today sirens throughout Israel sounded for two minutes of silence. Everyone came to a halt to remember the six million who were killed.
At Yad Vashem last night Prime Minister Netanyahu gave his traditional speech in which he promised that there would never be a second Holocaust. He, as usual described Muslim unwillingness to accept Israel as a Jewish state as a continuation of the very same anti-semitism that resulted in the Holocaust. Usually on Holocaust Memorial Day the news cycle is filled with the stories of the Holocaust, stories of survivors and every once in a while, some of the difficulties that the ever diminishing number of survivors find themselves living under. Every year the government promises to do something to help, while continually failing to do so. I should write a whole article on the refusal of the government to pay a monthly stipend to the survivors who arrived after 1953 (when the reparations agreement was signed with Germany) and their attempts to defend the policy and delay court action long enough until the last survivors dies of old age, but that is for another day.)
Today’s news cycle has been dominated by two other stories – the first, being confrontations around the Gaza border and the discovery of another Hamas tunnel which was the cause of hostilities. The larger story, at least in terms of coverage, has been the reporting on the speech made by Deputy Chief of Staff Maj General Yair Golan. In his address given in at Kibbutz Tel Yosef, Golan stated: ”If there’s something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance it’s the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then – 70, 80 and 90 years ago – and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016.”
The speech set off a firestorm of criticism, especially from right wing politicians. Education Minister MK Naftali Bennett stated: “The Deputy Chief of Staff made a mistake and he must correct it immediately,” Bennett continued, “before Holocaust deniers will raise these erroneous words as a standard, before our soldiers will be compared to Nazis, God forbid, with legitimization from high above.” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked stated that Golan was “confused” and added that Golan was showing “contempt” for the Holocaust”.
This afternoon Defense Minister Ya’alon defended Golan saying that attacking Golan was another assault by some politician on the I.D.F.. Ya’alon asserted that it was the role of senior officers not only to lead, but to establish norms of conduct within the I.D.F.
Golan went on to say in his speech that purity of arms had always been a challenge that the IDF faced, but it was a challenge it faced with open eyes. He stated that the Holocaust “must make us think deeply about the responsibility of leadership, the quality of society, and it must lead us to fundamental thinking about how we, here and now, treat the stranger, the orphan and the widow, and all who are like them.”
Golan’s words cut deep to the one of the fundamental divides among those who try to understand the Holocaust and apply the lessons they glean today. On one side of the divide are those who say the Holocaust and its lessons are unique to the Jewish people and what it teaches us is that the world hates us and we can only rely on ourselves. That has certainly been the official message of this government. The alternative understanding that Golan had the temerity to present is that the lessons of the Holocaust are more universal, and they teach us about tolerance, about hatred of the other, and most importantly, show where extreme intolerance and hatred can lead. Golan was trying to say that our society has been very good at learning the first lessons, but not so good at learning the second. Unfortunately, attacks on Golan for even bringing up the question of acceptance of ‘the other’, of those less-fortunate, proves the very necessity for the speech. Have we become a society where self-reflection even on a day a solemn as today has become unacceptable?