Responding to (Some) Critics – Part II
Having successfully silenced critics of my piece “Who’s to Blame?,” I decided to do the same this week with respect to another post, “Negating the Past; Dishonoring the Present.”
I began “Negating the Past; Dishonoring the Present,” which discussed a number of widely publicized incidents of outrageous behavior by Israeli teenagers on trips to the death camps in Poland, by noting my own discomfort with op-eds that are too eager to contrast the behavior of the Torah community to that of secular Jews. I should have stuck to my own advice, as some critics pointed out. If my wife had not just returned from a week in Poland with a group of American students studying at Michlala, I would probably not have included a comparative element at all.
I am grateful to all those readers who reminded me that there are many patterns of bad behavior in the chareidi community. Like the behavior of Israeli students in Poland, this behavior does not represent the majority of chareidi community, but it is too widespread to be simply dismissed. I am bit surprised, however, that any of my regular readers suspected me of being under illusions about the perfection of chareidi society.
In any event, I was not attempting to develop a general theory of Torah vs. secular society, but to explain one particular pattern of behavior so I’m not exactly sure what was the point of all those who noted various unattractive phenomenon within chareidi society.
I do regret, however, not having made clear how tentative my own explanation was. I do not really know enough secular Israeli teenagers – and certainly not enough of those involved in these unfortunate incidents – to explain their behavior with any degree of confidence. My question was not really why they hire lewd entertainment in Poland. They are, after all, teenagers. Rather it was why the experience of a day visiting the death camps did not make such behavior revolting even to a group of teenagers without parental supervision.
The most vociferous of my critics was Dr. Efraim Zuroff (Comment # 13), who sent the same missive to HaModia. Below is my response (not a refutation) to him in HaModia.
Let’s see if we can cut through the vituperation and ad hominems to the meat of the issue. In recent years, there has been a spate of stories in Israeli papers about the wild behavior – behavior of a nature that cannot even be described in these pages – of Israeli high school students or young IDF recruits in Poland. The harsh remarks of the Polish ambassador to Israel and the Israeli ambassador to Poland to the Jerusalem Post concerning the potential impact of these incidents were only the most recent evidence of a recurring pattern.
No one suggested that this behavior typifies most Israeli teenagers. Indeed I explicitly said the opposite. Israeli newspapers — which like newspapers everywhere tend to focus on the sensational — may have given undue prominence to these incidents, but no one has claimed that the incidents themselves were manufactured.
In trying to explain this recurrent pattern, I observed that there are certain things one does not do after visiting the grave of one’s grandparents. I offered as one possible explanation for the misbehavior of Israeli teenagers that they do not identify strongly with the Jews murdered by Hitler. I hope that my explanation is wrong.
Dr. Zuroff appears to agree that the phenomenon requires some explanation, and offers his own: the pressures of army service. Even ignoring that most of the reported incidents have involved high school students prior to the age of army service, that explanation frankly strikes me as about as convincing as the excuses heard last week for Palestinians throwing one another bound and gagged off high buildings – the Israelis made them do it.
In refutation of my hypothesis, Dr. Zuroff offers his own experiences as a lecturer to groups of Israeli youth who are doing their compulsory army service. He writes that he has found their knowledge of the Holocaust to be excellent and that they show a high level of identification with the victims.
I hope that Dr. Zuroff’s impressions reflect the broader reality of present-day Israeli Holocaust education. But there is reason to suspect they do not capture the full story. His own tales of derring-do as a Nazi-hunter, for instance, might have appealed to young IDF soldiers precisely because they fit with an older Zionist narrative that distinguished between the “new Jews” of Israel and those of the Galus – i.e., as an example of the proud, strong “new Jew” taking revenge for the downtrodden, defenseless Jews of Europe, who were Hitler’s victims.
Even Dr. Zuroff acknowledges that Israeli Holocaust education was not always good, and that there was justice to the chareidi critique that the Holocaust and its victims were treated with a certain embarrassment.
The victims of the Holocaust were often portrayed as the opposite of the proud and strong “new Jews” of Israel, and the Holocaust treated as something that could not have happened if Israeli had then existed and which cannot recur. Less than a decade ago, the prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu explicitly made that point on a historic visit to Auschwitz.
That older Israeli narrative has not completely disappeared, and strong traces of it can still be found in the impressive new exhibition hall at Yad Vashem. Religious Jews are greatly underrepresented in the exhibits and videos, and their spiritual heroism in the most dehumanizing circumstances is absent – e.g., the chadorim in the Warsaw ghetto, the celebration of holidays even in the death camps.
In his discussion of Israeli attitudes to the Holocaust, novelist Aharon Appelfeld was, in part, referring to the reaction to his first novel published in the ‘50s. But the interview with Ha’aretz’s Avi Shavit, in which he charged that there is a large segment of Israeli society that us embarrassed by anything that reminds them that they are Jews, took place n 2004. I would submit that it is impossible to be uncomfortable with one’s own Judaism and to identify closely with Hitler’s victims. (It is perhaps worth noting that the students who travel to Poland are disproportionately drawn from the upper strata of Israeli society.)
In 2000 – after the end of Dr. Zuroff’s duties as a lecturer in the IDF – Yoram Hazony, the founder of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, issued another critique of Israeli Holocaust education – a critique in some respects at odds with the earlier chareidi critique. In the context of an intense public debate over Israeli history textbooks produced by the Education Ministry in the decade after Oslo Accords, Hazony charged that new 8th grade history text had both downplayed and prettified the Holocaust from the treatment in earlier textbooks.
In the new text, Hazony noted, the entire story of the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion was removed, as was any mention of Allied indifference to the plight of Hitler’s victims. A photo labeled “a concentration camp” showed three or four apparently healthy men walking around; “the Auschwitz camp” pictured nothing worse than the backs of hundreds of people in striped clothes marching in formation and “Jewish women released from a concentration camp” revealed a group of seemingly well-fed, smiling matrons.
Hazony argued that the purpose of air-brushing the Holocaust, in the Oslo era, was to prevent Israeli students from becoming too nationalistic – former Education Minister Shulamit Aloni explicitly opposed trips to Poland on that basis – or from thinking too much about Jewish persecution and the fact that our history has not exactly shown the wisdom of relying on the kindness of strangers.
I should note that the Shalem Center’s campaign against the textbook was ultimately successful, though only after Hazony created a huge stir among American Jews with an article in The New Republic. And to its credit, Yad Vashem, has acknowledged the fairness of some of the chareidi criticisms of the new exhibition hall and undertaken to make changes. Some of the newer educational materials produced by Yad VaShem do address religious life in the ghettos and death camps and the heroism of the victims as well as the partisans.
Let us hope that as Israeli Holocaust education improves so too will the behavior of Israeli teenagers in Poland.