Saturday, November 14, 2009

Holocaust Education: Subliminal, Bibi, and my Baby

My father recently sent me a link to a video that is being distributed to Israeli teens. Grammy award winning Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari and Israeli rap/hip-hop star Kobi "Subliminal" Shimoni have used their talents to produce and perform a video about the Holocaust that is designed to reach young people who may be complacent about the Holocaust and unable to grasp its meaning, particularly as there are fewer survivors alive to give first-person testimonies.

It is a bit shocking, quite different than the Holocaust education I got at Hebrew school in New Jersey, and very powerful.

Why is this important to a Jerusalem Artichoke? I am skeptical of the role that the Holocaust plays in building Israeli identity, and even more so, Israeli foreign policy.

I believe that one of the key reasons for having a Jewish state is indeed to serve as a safe haven for our persecuted people, but this cannot be the only reason. If it is, we have no reason to aspire to a state that lives up to our ideals and values—we need not try to build an ocean liner but can be satisfied by cobbling together a lifeboat—and the moment our fear of persecution is lessened, our justification for having our own state dissolves.

It is important to remember that Zionism existed before the Holocaust—for 1900 years as a dream and for 60 years as a political movement. I was disturbed by President Obama’s statement in his (otherwise admirable) Cairo speech that

America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.
Really? So U.S. support for Israel really is based on Holocaust guilt and not on strategic interests? That’s reassuring.

I was equally skeptical of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent speech at the U.N. in which he waved memos on the Final Solution to prove that the Holocaust happened. He has been using the Holocaust rhetoric for years, and I believe that his apparent belief and aggressive marketing of the notion that Israel’s enemies are Hitlers extinguishes any possibility of rationally weighing the pros and cons of military action vs. diplomacy.

Closer to home, when my son reaches 11th grade, his class will probably go on a trip to Poland. According to Ha’aretz newspaper, Some 25,000 Israeli high school students participate annually in school delegations to Poland, where they visit the sites of former concentration camps and Jewish ghettos.

This is supposed to be a capstone event for Israeli education, and indeed some schools spend a great deal of time preparing the students for it, but for many of the kids, it is their first trip abroad, and they behave as one would expect teenagers to behave when let loose en masse away from home for the first time—with drinking, gambling, and violence.

Furthermore, making the Poland trip the main event of the year reinforces the centrality of the Holocaust in Israeli identity, which as I said above, bothers me. A colleague told me her son is participating instead in something called Masa Yisraeli Mibereishit—roughly, Israeli Journey from the Beginning—in which students use a series of trips around Israel to examine their identities as individuals and as part of a group, a society, a people, and a state.

I don’t know yet what I’ll want my son to do, but I’ve got a while to think about it, since his first birthday is tomorrow (Happy birthday, sweet boy!)


Rivster said...

Happy anniversary of parenthood!!!

I do think that Israeli and/or Jewish identity must stand on something other than the Shoah. However, having lost over two-thirds of our people, we are still struggling to get past the loss. With every passing year, we lose more and more of those who have first-person experiences. Which explains the sense of urgency.

To suggest that Zionism is in reaction to the horrors in Europe is historically inaccurate and just ridiculous.

me said...

"Masa Me'Breshit" is not instead of the delegation to Poland, it is instead of the "tiyul shnati" (annual class trip). It means more hiking and sleeping outside and less hotels and "attractions," which is a good thing in itself. But usually the 11th graders go both to Poland and to the masa. (Which means they miss A LOT of classes, but that's another problem.)
sara g

Commenter Abbi said...

Hi, welcome to the blogosphere.

To understand the Holocaust in contemporary Israeli society, you have to take a step back and understand that Israel wasn't ready to deal with the Holocaust at all until the late sixties/early seventies. When the survivors first got her, they were first sent to the battle lines to defend the country in 48 and then they were asked to please not talk about the atrocities they witnessed- no one here wanted to deal with what happened in Europe, the mass death of the "weak Jews" the inability of Israel to really help them, etc. Most Israelis really just wanted to forget what happened.

There is a whole psychological background to the present day "obsesssion" with the Holocaust.

Aharon Meged, an Israeli author from the 50's, is a good place to start.

Gayle Meyers Cooper said...

Rivster, thanks for your comments.

me, I appreciate the clarification.

Abbi, what you describe is something I've seen up close, since my aunt and uncle are part of that generation.