History: To Remember and to Forget (Pt. 3)
Israeli memorialization of the Holocaust has trended toward opportunism while ignoring some inconvenient historical realities
This is part 3 of my attempt to clean up an old term paper on history vs. political memory as it pertains to Holocaust history and memorialization. This segment focuses on Israeli Holocaust memorialization. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 here. Part 4 will focus on Europe’s charged political memory of the Holocaust.
In Israel, the complexion of Holocaust memorialization is somewhat different from that in America. The overarching memorial narrative amounts to a political belief that:
- If there had been an Israel in 1933, there would have been no Holocaust.
- Because there was a Holocaust, there is Israel.
- Because there is an Israel, there will be no more Holocausts.
This view is somewhat complicated in several ways by historical developments in the Yishuv from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, which led to the establishment of Israel in the British Palestine mandate after the Second World War:
First, it is true that British restrictions on Jewish immigration into British Mandate Palestine (most notably those conditions announced in the White Paper of 1939) decreased the capacity for many European Jews to flee the Nazis into Palestine.
However, centering this fact overlooks the economic reality of the bulk of Jewish life in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. The overwhelming majority of European Jews simply would not have been able to afford to flee had there been an Israel to escape into.
Second, the Holocaust, in memory, provides a convenient moral narrative for the basis of the establishment of the Israeli state. But this narrative obscures reality.
Given existing pressures internal to British Palestine following the first four aliyot (1882–1929) and the financial burden of the war in Europe, it is likely that Britain would have devolved its control over Palestine regardless of the Holocaust. It seems, especially after the Balfour Declaration of 1926, that Britain may very well have favored Jewish interests in the region well before the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, or the Holocaust.
Third, Israeli memorialization of the Holocaust and the prevention of its replication as the chief raison d’état of Israel obscures the internal history of the difficulty integrating large inflows of Holocaust survivors.
It was politically convenient for Ben-Gurion to inquire, “where will we find people for Palestine?” and declare, “[Hitler] destroyed the country’s main support and central force.” But the capacity of the Yishuv to absorb holocaust survivors, as Segev points out, left much to be desired. Many survivors of the Holocaust often did not meet the Yishuv’s standards for ideal “human material” and were thus shuffled off from one camp in Europe to another in Palestine.
The kibbutzim, as Segev details, were therefore used as a means of improving the “quality” of this human material, with a disregard for care of the survivors. According to Segev, “Ben-Gurion admitted that the immigrants would suffer, but he was not deterred. ‘It’s all right,’ he said, ‘They suffered a lot in Europe.”
Reference: Tom Segev, The Seventh Million, (New York: Henry Holt, 1991), 113–114
(To Be Continued…)