Where does the Holocaust Belong in Israel Education?

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Tomorrow – Tuesday, January 28th – we have the distinct honor and privilege to host a webinar with Professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi. If you have not heard about him or learned from him, this is a phenomenal opportunity. Please make sure to register.

I mention Dajani specifically in the introduction to today’s piece on the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, because in 2014 Dajani was at the center of a controversy for taking his students to the notorious death camp. For Dajani, the way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to “walk in each other’s shoes.” Tragically, many of Dajani’s colleagues in the Palestinian community at the time condemned his decision to take students to Auschwitz, and he even received death threats. While I may not agree with everything the professor says, we certainly agree on ensuring that the values of compassion and empathy are front and center in the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Perhaps, that is why many others and I were touched when Mohammed Al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, led 25 Muslim religious leaders to Birkenau this past week in what is being described as a “groundbreaking” visit. 

Where does the Holocaust belong in the world of Israel education? I do not subscribe to the notion that if there were no Holocaust, there would be no Israel. The Jewish people do not require the liquidation of its people as a justification for the existence of a Jewish state. However, I do subscribe to the idea that if there were a State of Israel, there would have been no Holocaust. And because of the latter, the Holocaust and the State of Israel will always be linked to one another. Riffing off of Professor David Weiss HaLivni: the Holocaust was a revelation of God’s silence, and the declaration of the State of Israel was a revelation of God’s presence.

There is so much to unpack in this week’s Weekly.

  • When should the Holocaust be commemorated? There seem to be conflicting ideas.
  • What were the highlights and lowlights of this past week’s commemoration? 
  • How was the Holocaust incorporated into the culture and fabric of Israeli society?



What happened?

This past week week, diplomatic delegations — including 47 world leaders — came to Jerusalem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The largest diplomatic event in the history of the State of Israel included notable dignitaries such as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Britain’s Prince Charles, and French President Emmanuel Macron. The various dignitaries came to Israel to attend the 5th World Holocaust Forum during the week of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the opening remarks of the forum, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin stated: “At a time when more and more survivors are leaving us, this gathering is an expression of our shared commitment, to pass on the historical facts and lessons of the Shoah, to the next generation.” Click here to watch President Rivlin’s opening remarks.

Why does it matter? 

What is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and why is it different than Yom Hashoah?

International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been commemorated annually on January 27th since it was instituted by the United Nations in 2005. The day is intended to be an international memorial day, on which countries around the world are urged to teach the lessons of the Shoah to future generations in order to prevent future acts of genocide. 

Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah (Remembrance Day of the Holocaust and Heroism) is the Jewish memorial day for the Shoah. It is marked on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, a week before Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism). In 1951, the Israeli government declared the 27th of Nisan as “Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Day.” But it was not until 1959 that commemoration of the Holocaust started to become more widespread that the day was renamed “Holocaust and Heroism Day,” or “Yom Hashoa Ve-Hagevurah.The day is commemorated around the Jewish world with services, ceremonies, and more. Along with similar events, Israelis come to a standstill as a nationwide siren blares. Yom Hashoah has been adopted by Jewish communities worldwide. 

Israel’s Early Struggles with the Holocaust

In the early days of the new State of Israel, it wasn’t easy for Israeli Holocaust survivors to speak about their experiences during the war. To many Israelis, hearing about the suffering faced in the Diaspora represented the “old Jew” — not the “new Jew,” which represented strength and heroism. In Israel, after the war, many survivors did not speak about their experiences even with close family and friends because people simply didn’t believe them. Controversial Israeli historian Tom Segev and many others write that it wasn’t until 1960, when Adolf Eichmann was brought to trial in Israel, that the taboo around the Shoah ended and survivors began to tell their stories. Due largely to the Eichmann trial, the Shoah went from an abstract issue to becoming an essential aspect of the historical, cultural, and educational discourse of the State of Israel. Today, thousands of Israeli high school students from all over the country travel to Poland to visit the camps and ghettos each year, and the Shoah has become an integral part of Israeli (and Jewish) identity.

Lowlights to the event? 

Leading up to last week’s event, controversy swirled in Israel as very few actual Holocaust survivors were invited to the landmark event. Yaron Hanan, the son of an Auschwitz survivor said, “What’s a greater symbol of the Auschwitz camp than those who are still alive and who are with us? I think they’re no less essential to representing what took place there than anything else this ceremony is intended to achieve.” In response, Yad Vashem responded that “the event is not a public ceremony but rather a gathering of leaders.” There were 60 spots reserved for survivors, despite the fact that there are over 100,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel today. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish himself, announced that he would give up his seats to Holocaust survivors.

Adding to the world of fake news, during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech, he claimed that 40% of Jewish Shoah victims were Soviets. This comment created an uproar among historians, who referred to the claim as “absurd.” Shoah historian Jelena Subotic said that Putin’s claim was “ridiculous and not based on historical fact” due to the fact that the consensus among historians is that 1 million of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Shoah were from the Former Soviet Union.

Differing Perspectives within Israel

When should the Holocaust be commemorated in Israel?

Yom Hashoah vs. Tisha B’Av vs. Asara B’Tevet

Before Yom Hashoah was established, there was fierce debate within the Jewish community as to how and when the Shoah should be memorialized in the Jewish calendar. One of the major questions was if the Shoah was a separate and distinct tragedy within Jewish history, or if it should be subsumed under the many atrocities to face the Jewish people. Ultimately, the date for Yom Hashoah was chosen based on the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, due to the fact that it represented resistance, strength and heroism. The uprising actually began on the 15th of Nisan, the first day of Passover, but Rabbi Shlomo Brody notes that, “27 Nisan was chosen as a date comfortably between the end of the holiday [Passover] and Israel Independence Day (5 Iyar).” 

Many religious leaders, including the Chazon Ish, were firmly against Yom Hashoah being held during the month on this date due to the fact that Nisan is a month of happiness, and it is forbidden according to Jewish law (halakha) to disrupt the joy of the month with public mourning. When Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977, he attempted to abolish Yom Hashoah, preferring to commemorate the Shoah on the fast day of Tisha B’Av.Tisha B’Av is considered the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the day on which the destruction of both holy temples and many other atrocities in Jewish history took place and are remembered. This idea was endorsed by both Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Soloveitchik preferred Tisha B’Av for Holocaust commemoration because, “the scenes described and the words of despair, mourning, and grief are the same.” Fascinatingly, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, preferred to keep the day of Yom Hashoah on the 27th of Nisan for “pragmatic reasons,” as students were in school then, as opposed to Tisha B’Av, which occurs in the summer. 

Some religious leaders even suggested that the Shoah be commemorated on the fast day of Asara B’Tevet. The idea was to incorporate this new atrocity into Jewish tradition without needing to disrupt any pre-existing halakha. Since Asara B’Tevet was thought of as the least honored fast day, combining the two would accomplish both goals at once. The Shoah would have a special place in the calendar, and more Jews would observe the fast day. Brody writes that the 10th of Tevet was chosen as the day to “recite kaddish for loved ones killed on unknown dates,” and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has designated the 10th of Tevet as “General Kaddish Day.”

Discussion questions

  1. Holocaust Scholar Yehuda Bauer, in a speech to world leaders during the Holocaust Forum, said that “Anti-Semitism is not a Jewish illness, but a non-Jewish one; it is a cancer that kills and destroys your nations and your countries”. He argued that the way for world leaders to protect their societies from this deadly cancer is to fight anti-Semitism. What can you do in your own life to help fight anti-Semitism and preserve the memory and lessons of the Holocaust?
  2. Take a poll. Which of the following days do you think the Shoah should be commemorated on in the Jewish world?
    • Yom Hashoah
    • Tisha B’av
    • Asara B’Tevet
    • another day
  3. During President Reuven Rivlin’s speech at the Shoah Forum, he said that the State of Israel did not come into being as a result of the Shoah, rather it came into existence because it is the home of the Jewish people. How do you think the Shoah relates to the story of the Jewish state? 
  4. Why do you think the Shoah was “taboo” in the early years of the state? 
  5. In a recent Pew survey, researchers found that the majority of Americans don’t know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Shoah. What do you think is the best way to educate the public about the Shoah, and what do you think is the most important lesson society can learn from the Shoah?

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Watch our Unpacked video about the Capture of Adolf Eichmann and use the educational resources included. 
  2. Play “spectrum” with your students. Designate one side of the room as agree and the other side as disagree. Have them stand along the spectrum where they most identify based on the following statements:
    • Yom Hashoah is the best possible day to commemorate the Shoah.
    • It is important for the Shoah to be an integral part of the State of Israel’s birth story.
    • It was more important to invite survivors to the World Holocaust Forum instead of world leaders.

      After moving to where they most agree, students should discuss with the other students there why they chose that area, and then open the conversation to the whole group to explain their stances. Students may change where they stand based on the conversation.
  3. Show the following video to your students and have them answer the following questions:
    • How did this video make you feel?
    • What do you think the main message of the video was?

      After answering these questions, ask your students to choose a song that they feel would get a similar message across and explain why.

In other news

  1. With the horrific news of the wildfires tearing through Australia, causing incomprehensible damage to wildlife and the environment, a new Israeli aid group was one of the first to enter Kangaroo Island to help locals affected by the fires. 
  2. This week, U.S. President Donald Trump will host both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, to unveil the “Deal of the Century”, the new US peace plan for the Middle East. Gantz announced that he will meet with Trump but will only meet separately from Netanyahu. Israeli Knesset members across the political spectrum have responded to this week’s events with skepticism due to the proximity to the upcoming March election. Some politicians have called it “very suspicious” and others referred to it as “interference”.
  3. A revolutionary new Israeli treatment for brain cancer has now become available in Israel. The device, called the “Optune Helmet” works to prevent tumor growth through electric pulses.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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