Israel, the Holocaust, National Identity

Below are some of my thoughts and opinions on what it means to be Israeli. The subject requires many chapters rather than a few paragraphs. However I’ve done my best and feel it is important to post something on this left-leaning (please excuse the categorisation) blog. I am aware that the subjects I touch on are sensitive and apologise for any offence caused by my rather sweeping statements. I would welcome criticism in such cases.

Before I commence, I would like to point Bathhouse readers in the direction of an article by a Marxist named Werner Bonefeld. Bonefeld attacks left-wing apologists for the anti-Semitic politics of current Middle Eastern liberation movements. I believe Bathhouse readers will find it valuable:

I am a Londoner, and have been raised with an awareness of different cultures and the problems caused by state discrimination. Fighting against state imposed discrimination is very important and for many in the international community the aggression by Israel against Palestinians and its neighbours is clear and apparent due to the obvious imbalance of economic, military and political power between the combatant sides. We witness state directed violence being conducted against non-state actors (PLO, Hamas, Palestinian civilians) and we cannot help but be astonished at the irony behind such an obvious parallel with the Jewish people’s own past. I have always wondered how this irony can fail to be recognised by Israelis. My time in Israel has given me some insights that I feel may answer this question. I will expound on these in the next few paragraphs.

The past few weeks have been very interesting for me. Israelis have recently marked Holocaust day and Commemoration day (for all their lost soldiers who almost always teenagers due to conscription) and on Wednesday I visited Yad Vashem which is the Israeli Holocaust Museum. It really is very important that people staying in this area make the time to visit the museum. At the age of seventeen, all Israeli school children are given the option to visit Poland, which most do, where they tour Auschwitz and talk with death-camp survivors. Taking these practices into account, one begins to understand how the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, culminating with the Holocaust is fundamentally and deeply imbedded within the Israeli national identity.

The Holocaust was the only time in history where the bureaucratic and industrial apparatus of a modern state had been directed toward wiping out a specific segment of its population. It is unique in this regard and the state of Israel emerging “out of the ashes of Auschwitz” is imbued with the conceptual survival of the Jewish race. In this sense, any attack on the new Israeli homeland or any question regarding the legitimacy of Israel is regarded directly as an attack on the Jewish race. Most Israelis today still feel as though Israel is fighting for survival.

For us in Europe, the 30s and 40s plays just as important a part in the creation of our national identity as it does to Israelis. We can understand the films, documentaries, national curriculum etc as an ongoing project to forge a national conception of the democratic west struggling against and eventually winning out over tyranny. It is to us a period of the triumph of western democratic values and free-market governance. We study the period with a focus on alternative models of the industrial state and understand anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, as an inevitable outcome of ultra-nationalism.

Israelis view the period from a different perspective. Visiting Yad Vashem enables an outsider to better understand this perspective and it places the Holocaust at the centre of the 30s and 40s. For example, the launch of operation Barbarossa by Hitler against the Russians is significant, not because he is now fighting on two fronts (as with British education), but because Jews have been linked with Communism by the Nazis and now that Communists are the enemy Jews too become fair game in the war of annihilation in the east. It is an important psychological step toward enabling the Holocaust to take place.

Many in contemporary Europe have moved onto new social causes in the fight against discrimination and injustice. I myself gave very little thought to anti-Semitism other than as resulting in a horrific and tragic episode in history that, although unique, was part of a wider period of horror. So blind am I to Jewishness as a distinct racial/cultural/religious identity, I understand my colleagues and friends here in Israel just as Israeli. Their Jewishness, or lack thereof, never enters my head. When I mention this, I am met with expressions of surprise. Without exception those I speak with understand themselves as Israeli first and Jewish second. In the UK the typical identity path I encounter of secular whites is British first followed by the person’s home town.

Israel is a full scale national project and people are connected with it at a far deeper and intricate level than in the UK. I am amazed at how connected those who live here are with the history, politics and economics of their local region. They know the families that originally settled in the area, its main agricultural product, which famous Israelis have come from their specific locale, the role of the locale in various of Israel’s conflicts. An intimate knowledge of Israel’s smallest areas and their contribution to Israel is commonplace at grassroots level. Israeli history is social and embodied in family lines and living relatives. In contrast, UK historical sites are empty of life but full of relics which visitors come to see; otherwise they are occupied by a family disconnected from the original famous inhabitants through many changes of ownership over the centuries. I point this out to try and give a feel for how connected Israelis are to their nationality not as a criticism of the UK. In Israel the history remains alive.

Being comfortable and free from fear to express Jewishness (whatever this may be) is central to Israel’s nationality. There seems to be a regular pattern of holidays marking this, that, or the other Jewish celebration, suggesting religious and cultural homogeneity, although prejudice exists within Jewish Israeli society. For instance, some Israelis consider the Hassidic Jews to be parasites on the state since they contribute nothing to its economy and are paid to study the Torah. In addition, many Hassidic Jews establish settlements in the West Bank and this is perceived by some Israelis to drain state resources by forcing Israel to protect these settlements.  Also, you will find racial prejudice existing amongst the Jewish community between Eastern Jews, North African Jews, Ethiopian Jews and European Jews as well as classist terms such “Frecher” and “Arsim” which denote something equivalent to the UK’s Chav and Pikie.

The centuries of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust catalysed the creation of Israel making this event fully and deeply part of Israeli national identity. Israel is understood as the only place on earth where Jews can live this identity without fear of persecution or annihilation. This is an ongoing project (like all national identities) and for me, it is understandable given the ravages the 2nd World War dealt on Jews. But the national project seems to permeate almost every level of Israeli society as Israelis living their day-to-day lives (having babies, developing agriculture, educating themselves, serving their time in the army, working in the high-tech industry) understand this in terms of contributing to the ongoing maintenance of the Israeli state and therefore the Jewish people. The result is that any physical attack on Israel, however minor, or any questioning of its legitimacy and right to exist is met with a hard-line stance from the vast majority of Israelis who see this as a direct threat to their lives and the lives, the lives of their families, and the lives of Jews everywhere.

We in Europe may see Israelis as blind to the obvious ironies that can be drawn between state violence directed toward Jews and state violence directed toward Palestinians. The specific historical circumstances of Israel’s creation and it’s uniquely Jewish identity mean that no irony exists for Israelis. Rather, attacks against them can only be considered in the terms of their ongoing fight for survival against a world hostile to Jews.

I hope in this piece to have drawn attention to the fundamental link between Israel’s policy choices and the Holocaust. I hope I have given some insights into the unique nature of Israel as a national project and provided a route toward understanding how the Israeli perception of its policies toward Palestinians differs so markedly from many onlookers in Europe.


6 thoughts on “Israel, the Holocaust, National Identity

  1. Good stuff. I still find it difficult to stomach how Israel is indulged by Western governments and media, but as you point out, we’re better off trying to understand how it ends up being the way it is.

    As an aside, I do find it strange how this occupation (seems a more apt term than conflict) has become the world’s. Why is it that westerners, particularly lefty westerners find themselves so passionate about this, over the multitude of other occupations?

  2. I don’t think very many westerners are that worried really – a few of the people we know might be, but not sure it goes beyond that. I wonder what percentage of the UK would accurately describe it as an illegal occupation?

    I also think there’s a big problem in that many westerners confuse Palestinian anti-occupation suicide bombers with al-quaida anti-western suicide bombers…

  3. just read your bathhouse blog and find it very thoughtful and interesting, providing a lot of food for thought.
    I have never read anything that looks at these ideas before, and it seems to me that if you’re right there is a need to approach Israel differently. I’m not sure how, but by finding a way to work along with their fears rather than battle against them.


  4. to Vaughan – awww thanks mum.

    Sahil I understand your sentiments regarding Wetern indulgence of Israeli policy in the OPTs. I wrote the piece pretty shortly after visitting Yad Vashem and it was a profoundly moving experience. And I think it is revealing that every visitting dignitary from the West is taken to tour this museum before any kind of diplomatic activity takes place. You can see the message – “look what you guys did to us. So don’t you tell us what to do in our back yard”. I quote this from an insightful left-leaning Israeli non-conformist Rabbi. Yep – occupation is certainly a more accurate description of the OPTs. Though conflicts have been fought between neighbouring states as well as between Israel and proxy-nonstate actors. Israelis kind of conflate the two ideas since OPT policy is effectively foreign policy to them. . I should here state that they have problems of state-discrimination against Israeli Palestinians as a completely separate issue.

    With rgards to UK opinion – I believe you are right Will, that many now conflate the two terorisms. My experience in the business and sales arena was littered with anti Arab, anti Muslim sentiment. I think that the left-wing has a very different stance to the norm here in Britain. The Israeli friends that I have made here who have travelled to the UK say that they have been invariably met with friendly responses when divulging their nationality to Brits. A lot of Israelis love Scotland by the way.

    I have been lucky to work in an environment wherethe Israeli people I meet someties have similar opinions to the univeristy free Palestine groups. This is rare but I get the impression that the younger generationare a little more questioning. Interestingly, it’s often the immigrants who are the most hard line anti-Palestinian/anti-Arab/anti-Muslim. Maybe they do not yet feel secure in their life yet, and this is a way of better identifying with the state of Israel.

  5. Interesting stuff indeed. Amusing that immigrants are the often hard-lined. It’s often a similar sentiment here – every Indian immigrant votes Tory and thinks it’s high time we sealed up the borders.

    Will H – I think the socialist left (who campaign in the way you don’t like) make a big noise about the Israel stuff. Obviously most of the country are most of the country. But the Lebanon protest was actually pretty big, for example, much bigger than, say any fuss about Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara.

  6. Really interesting comments and thoughts. Willz – thanks so much for explaining about the Israeli perception of the narrative – I definitely feel quite isolated from that living in the West Bank… I’ve been trying to overcome that isolation tho so, following on from your article, I went to Yad Vashem the other day. It was, as you said, incredibly interesting. The abhorrence of the Holocaust must understandably lie heavy and painful in the minds of many Jews worldwide. As the Yad Vashem shows, and as you discussed, Israel, as a Jewish state, is particularly sensitive to the Holocaust, and not surprisingly so. I can very much understand that remembering the Holocaust would and should be so important to the state. I read this response to Holocaust Day this year and found it very moving and it does, as you discussed, highlight just how central the remembrance of the Holocaust is to Israeli citizens.

    I do have a few questions left over tho…given how sensitive a topic this is I want to preface my comment by saying I absolutely do not want to cause any offense and am most certainly not attempting to undermine the attrocities of the Holocaust in any way. I am not questioning the facts of what happened during the Holocaust, but wondered if we could tentatively delve into challenging the Israeli perception of/attitude towards it? Is there any truth in the argument that says that the government manipulates the Holocaust to heighten the sense of threat in Israel in order to implicitly lend support to and justify its own policies in the occupied Palestinian territories? A few scholars, largely of Jewish background, have controversially suggested this…

    Finkelstein touched on it in his book ‘The Holocaust Industry’ (2000). Although lots of the information in his book is not directly relevant to the question of Israeli government attitude towards the Holocaust, what is interesting is his claim that “the purpose of this industry is, in my view, ethnic aggrandisement – in particular, to deflect criticism of the State of Israel and to deflect criticism of Jews generally”. I understand that much of what Finkelstein has written in this book (although I have not read it) is very outlandish and I question the existence of any ‘holocaust industry’, particularly one that focusses on ‘ethnic aggrandizement’ but, the second part of his statement very much interests me – is part of the emphasis on the Holocaust in Israel to ‘deflect criticism of the State of Israel’? You can read an article on his book here . Noam Chomsky also suggested , in 2002, that the Government manipulates the Holocaust (it’s a long article, do a search on ‘holocaust’ to bring up the relevant section).

    Interestingly, this idea that the Holocaust and the guilt that other nations feel because it happened provides Israel with a certain level of immunity, is also being discussed within Israel itself. Take a look at this Haaretz article from April this year, or this article from the former Deputy Director for Mossad, Menachem Navoth, written in 2009, which suggests a need to move on from what he calls the ‘Holocaust Syndrome’ to secure peace in the region. These articles do not say that the Holocaust is deliberately manipulated by the Government but they do say that “the world’s guilt feelings are gradually becoming dulled, making it possible for the global criticism of the occupation of Palestinian territories to strengthen” and that Israel “can no longer view the world through the lens of existential danger”.

    Whether the use of the Holocaust in this manner has been intentional or unintentional, I wonder if the focus on the Holocaust for Israeli citizens is more damaging than healing? If rather than providing a positive sense of national solidarity and remembrance for those that died and those that survived, that it fuels an unnecessary sense of insecurity which perpetuates a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which can only be harmful in terms of the current conflict, where a coming together of people and religions should be encouraged, rather than a splitting apart.

    A final point, in particular because I don’t want my questioning of the use of the Holocaust in Israel to be seen as at all disrespectful, I think what Avi Shlaim, an Israeli professor of international relations at Oxford, has to say about the potential to criticise Israel is very important. He said, in an interview in 2007: “I think that…. we must be very careful to separate questions of anti-Semitism from critique of Israel. I am critical of Israel as a scholar, and anti-Semitism just doesn’t come into it. My view is that the blind supporters of Israel — and there are many of them in America, in particular — use the charge of anti-Semitism to try and silence legitimate criticism of Israeli practices. I regard this as moral blackmail. Israel has no immunity to criticism, moral immunity to criticism, because of the Holocaust. Israel is a sovereign nation-state, and it should be judged by the same standards as any other state.” He said this in response to a question about Normal Finkelstein’s book ‘The Holocaust Industry’. You can read the full interview here .

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