In Israel, Holocaust obsession prevents real change

A new law punishing people for calling each other ‘Nazi’ makes clear that the Holocaust has became a tool used to keep us, the Jews, in a position of eternal victimhood – to blind us from seeing what is happing in Israel. That’s exactly what the right wing wants.

By Nir Baram

“Israel became boring,” complained a reporter who was obsessed with Israel for many years, “the world is changing and in Israel everything is the same…”


One of the most important articles ever to be published in Israel was “The Need to Forget.” In his 1988 op-ed, Yehuda Elkana, who was carried off to Auschwitz as a boy of 10 and survived the Holocaust, wrote:

Lately I have become convinced that the deepest political and social factor that motivates much of Israeli society in its relations with the Palestinians is not personal frustration, but rather a profound existential ‘angst’ fed by a particular interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust and the readiness to believe that the whole world is against us.

And he was right.

In Israel, the way in which we interpret events is rooted in the Second World War. Even in our childhood, the Holocaust was present at all times. During my adolescence I was curious about WWII but felt that the discussion was limited. I sometimes felt suffocated by the simplicity of the conclusions and by Israeli institutions’ tendency to use the Holocaust in order to lock us, the Jews, in an eternal position of victimhood.

As I grew up and became a writer I began giving lectures in high schools. To my horror, I discovered that what I remembered had become much worse: the distance between the Holocaust (“what they did to us“) and the lesson (“it shall never happen to us again”) had become smaller.

Among adolescents in Israel, the common interpretation of history goes something like this: “They” hated us throughout history – in Egypt, in Spain, in Russia, and then came the final strike, the Holocaust – and “they” also hate us now. It is us, the Jews, against the world.

The Holocaust, a historical event that should teach us always to say no to racism, became an important factor in the Jews’ own racism against the “other.” It did not happen accidentally: the Holocaust is shoved down our throats – the atrocities, the victim cloak. This is the way Israeli institutions grasp and teach the Holocaust. This is what children here are exposed to from their first day in school.


So maybe the new draft bill that would forbid people from using the Holocaust’s symbols should be an encouraging sign? Under the new law, if you call someone “a bloody racist,” that’s okay. But if you call them “a bloody Nazi” (who were bloody racists) – well, that’s a different story, and you can spend six months in prison. Naturally, people have pointed out how the law impinges upon freedom of speech. That’s obvious. But let’s look at it from a different angle.

As I wrote, the Holocaust became a tool that is used in order to keep us, the Jews, in a position of eternal victimhood and to blind us from seeing what is happing in Israel. The Holocaust is now the most effective ingredient in a grand mechanism of denial. Thus, could this new law be the first step on a road leading to an Israeli society that is less obsessed with the Holocaust? Absolutely not.

The real motivation behind the new law is simple: it’s not about building a less exclusive, less paranoid and less Holocaust-obsessed Israeli society. It’s about keeping the Holocaust sacred; it’s about taking the Holocaust out of petty fights between conservatives and liberals where everyone calls each other a “Nazi.”

Right-wing Israeli politicians understand that if people are brainwashed with the Holocaust, they will see it everywhere and all the time. That is a problem. For these politicians, the Holocaust should always separate us, the Jews, from “all the others.” It should not be a part of the endless internal political battles between Jews in Israel. After all, the Holocaust has become the most effective tool to unite Israeli Jews under a common assumption: they have always hated us, and nothing has changed since, beside the fact that now we have a “Jewish army.” The new law’s role is to keep the Holocaust as the sacred “uniter” in a society consumed by fear.


“Why does everything in Israel stay the same?” In the last few months I have been hearing that question more and more. Forty-six years of occupation, 20 years of negotiations – and still, nothing has really changed.

Professor Elkana understood that all the way back in 1988. Since then, not only has the way the Israelis understand the Holocaust become an obstacle for any real change in our society, but the Holocaust’s role in the Jews’ eternal-victim complex dramatically increased. The new law reflect an understanding by the right that the Holocaust has “gotten out of control”: it is everywhere,  all the time. It was great to use it against Arafat, Iran’s nuclear plans, proposed borders for Israel, any journalist from Europe who dares to mercilessly criticize Israel. In short, all the “others.” But lately, more than ever, Jews in Israel are using it against each other – and that defeats the purpose.

As always, the solution is quite pathetic, even funny, once you understand that the same politicians who believed they could control the Holocaust discourse realized that it’s uncontrollable, and that they must redirect it in order to make use of it for external enemies. But what’s hidden behind this law isn’t funny: the greatest tragedy in our history has become an obstacle to any meaningful change toward a more inclusive, open and democratic Israeli society. I have to believe it is still possible to build a real democratic society in Israel

Nir Baram is a writer whose last two novels, The Remaker of Dreams (2006 ) and Good People (2010), were nominated for Israel’s Sapir Prize for Literature. Good People was translated to 12 languages and was also nominated for the Primo Roma Prize. His new novel, World Shadow, published in July 2013, was a best seller and will be published in different languages starting 2014.