Sunday, May 15, 2011

Who owns the Holocaust – Israel, or the Diaspora?

[Please note: Blogger has been having trouble, but I understand that the comments which appear to have been lost will be restored in the coming days.]

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

I’ve been thinking about the triangular relationship between Israelis, Diaspora Jewry, and the Holocaust.

That relationship has been emotionally fraught since the beginning; Israelis and Diaspora Jews have seen the Holocaust in fundamentally different ways since the war itself. For example, the latter tend to emphasize the suffering while the former emphasize the Jews who fought back, as well as the imperative to build a state which can defend itself.

For the past sixty-five years, in part due to the fact that the majority of survivors lived outside of Israel, Diaspora Jews have dominated the Holocaust narrative. Despite the presence of Yad VaShem, the world’s leading Holocaust memorial, in Israel, it has still seemed – based on news media, published literature, academic studies and conferences – that the Holocaust’s heirs, if you will, were the Jews around the world.

Two events from the past two weeks have made me change my thinking about where we are, though:

1. An Israeli friend pointed out to me that Israelis postponed this year’s Yom haShoah commemoration from the 27th of Nisan (a Sunday) to the following day, to avoid violation of Shabbat in the evening’s ceremonies. He was upset that much of the Diaspora did not follow Israel’s lead.

To me, this was surprising; unlike Yom ha’Atzmaut or Yom Yerushalayim, there is nothing inherently Israeli about Yom haShoah. (The concern for Shabbat violation in holding ceremonies on Saturday night was not relevant, either; faced with a Sunday Yom haShoah in lands where Sunday is a day off, communities tend to use Sunday for their Yom haShoah programs.) So why should world Jewry follow the Chief Rabbinate’s decision on marking this day? But to him, and I suspect to many Israelis, it was obviously the correct thing to do.

[PS Thanks to Michael Sedley's comment, I recognize that the preceding paragraph is actually incorrect - The idea of remembering the Holocaust on the 27th of Nisan is actually an Israeli concept. I was always taught that Yom haShoah was a global day, but that's an error, product of a Diaspora education. Fascinating. I'm leaving the original post as-is to point to that common error.]

2. When John Demjanjuk was convicted this week in a German court for his role in the Nazi genocide, local radio went looking for Jewish reaction not in Jewish Toronto, or even at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but instead in “man on the street” interviews in Israel.

I think one reason for this shift is the passing of so much of the Survivor generation. As those who witnessed it personally disappear, there is less reason for their Diaspora communities to represent the Jews who were lost. But more, I think it’s because of a growing clarity that the only viable Jewish community in the world, long-term, is Israel. As powerful Jewish communities in Galut shrink, there is decreasing reason to consult them on “Jewish matters”.



  1. Why do you say that there is "nothing inherently Israeli about Yom haShoah".

    The date and manner of commemerating the day were created by an Israeli act of Parliament - this is one of the few events that is exclusively Israeli, not based on a historic event or traditional jewish observance.

    It is appropriate that Diaspora Jewish communities commeorate the Holocaust on the same date as Israel, but the origin of Yom Hashoa is definately Israeli

  2. I agree with Michael Sedley about the date. About the Shoah itself, my first reaction before reading the post was that there is enough to go around for all of us.
    What is true is that we must keep the terms Shoah and Holocaust both Jewish. What is happening is that it is being generalized and de-Judaized (if you know what I mean) to mean any massive (and sometimes not so massive) action against any identifiable group. So any kind of group of hate crimes (I guess they mean other than a personal vendetta or random murder?) is being identified as a 'holocaust'.
    This was a specifically anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish crime. It was not about being tolerant of the 'other'. It was about Jews .
    therefore own it.

  3. Michael-
    Of course, you're right - I was always taught to view Yom haShoah as a global day, and that mentality drove that part of my post, but it's actually Israel's day. I'll add a note in my post to reflect that.


  4. Tisha B'Av is most suitable for commemorating the great calamities in Jewish history.

  5. Religious Zionists in Israel use the fast of the 10th of Tevet as the general day of kaddish for those whose yahrtzeit is unknown and by generalization it is also the memorial for the Shoah. Rev Yisrael Meir Lau, in his book mentions that he says kaddish for his mother on that day because he doesn't know a specific date for her death.

  6. Bob-
    As a student of talmidei Rav Soloveitchik, I gravitate toward you view - but I also recognize the real need for people to grieve on a day which is unique for the suffering that touches them most closely, and I also recognize that historically, Jews did create such days for such tragedies - cf the 20th of Sivan for the Chmielnicki massacres, for example.

  7. "the only viable Jewish community in the world, long-term, is Israel." I've read the post you linked to, and I fundamentally disagree. The diaspora communities are the only ones pushing at the boundaries of what it means to be a practicing Jew in a democratic, pluralist framework. Since I think the only viable Jewish communities, long-term are not insular, charedi-run enclaves, that is where I see our future.

  8. Hi Tzipporah,

    I acknowledge what you're saying (other than the snipe about haredi enclaves, which was irrelevant), but I see it differently.

    To me, Israeli Jewry is doing far more to push the boundaries of what it means to be a practicing Jew, in any society or framework. True, Diaspora Jewry's communities generally have a power structure that enforces liberalism and pluralism. However, that model is not flourishing. Further, the range of Israeli practice is quite broad, and less addicted to the models created by 19th century European Jewry.

  9. Many Israelis consider the international recognition of the state of Israel as "compensation" for the Holocaust and even consider that without the Holocaust there wouldn't be a state at all.
    I don't like these theories, but you should recognize that things look very different from an Israeli perspective.

  10. Batya-
    I was going to put that thought into my original post, but I wasn't sure whether I was over-extrapolating from my anecdotal experience. Thanks for confirming it.

  11. "However, that model is not flourishing."

    I'm curious what makes you say this. Membership and involvement in liberal Jewish denominations (aside from Conservatism, which seems to be dying out) is up, and there are strong and active coalitions of liberal Jewish clergy discussing things which matter to these communities.

    "Further, the range of Israeli practice is quite broad." If by "broad" you mean it ranges from charedi to Modern Orthodox, perhaps. From all I've heard, liberal movements are still fringe in Israel, if you go by affiliation and official recognition. My jibe about the charedim is based on the way they are trying to redefine Judaism in Israel as Charedi Judaism. It is not a place that feels welcoming to a non-Orthodox but practicing Jew.

  12. Hi Tzipporah,

    1. There certainly are large and active coalitions of liberal clergy engaged in debate. At the same time, though, we are seeing that the liberal denominations - and not just Conservative - are seeing their children leave the movement, and are replacing those children with either disenchanted Orthodox or people who convert in.

    2. I'm very surprised to hear you say that Israeli practice ranges from "charedi to Modern Orthodox." What of the family that goes to shul only on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, or the family that keeps kosher in the home but not outside, or the people who observe Shabbat to the extent of not driving but will turn on lights? Why do their forms of practice not deserve recognition?
    Certainly, the liberal movements established on the model of 19th century European religion are not thriving there, but those are hardly the only forms of liberal religious expression.

  13. What of the family that goes to shul only on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, or the family that keeps kosher in the home but not outside, or the people who observe Shabbat to the extent of not driving but will turn on lights?

    Granted that in the USA, those people would be considered liberal, but in the UK, there are a lot of people like that who are members of Orthodox (United Synagogue) shuls. Do they count as liberal (which they are from a halakhic point of view) or Orthodox (which is how they choose - and pay - to affiliate)?

    I have no idea how this works out in Israel, whether it is closer to the American or British model. My understanding is that in Israel lots of people don't affiliate to any religious organization at all.

  14. I think the difference between the liberal movements in the U.S. and the pick-and-choose observance of individuals you're describing are fundamentally different, in that the former have articulated a philosophy and created communities around their shared practices, while the latter are simply individuals or families with idiosyncratic practices. That's not to say they COULDN'T form the next non-OJ denomination, but at this point, as someone said, it's an Orthodox shul they stay away from most of the year, right?

  15. Daniel, Tzipporah-
    That's exactly my point.
    In the 19th century, religion was about a philosophy, a systematic and rational approach to a deity-centered existence. Someone who practiced differently, not because of a philosophical approach but because "that's what I'm comfortable with", was classified as "Orthodox but only partially practicing", or some such label.
    I think we're past that, though. Today, there are 'movements' built up around unique approaches to practice that have no philosophical underpinnings at all. And I think those terms should be used to describe millions of Jews whose practice is neither Orthodox nor Conservative nor Reform nor Reconstructionist.