Sunday, April 18, 2010


Israelis who feel more and more estranged from the collective psyche have some thinking to do tonight. If Holocaust commemoration day, which was observed last week, is charged, then Israeli memorial day, which begins tonight at sunset, is truly a challenge.

Israel has a powerful collective identity. We say "we" a lot, referring to Israelis as a whole. This is rooted in Jewish culture. The Passover Haggadah direclty states: "In every generation a person is obligated to see himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt." Later on in the text, historical first person is introduced: "He took us from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to festivity..."


Ok, let's fulfill our obligation and assume it was us. It shouldn't be difficult, since there's no baggage involved. "We" probably shouldn't feel bad for inflicting the ten plagues. Firstly, it was "him" who did it, not "us". Secondly, "we" were slaves. Alex Haley would have approved.

A week following passover comes yom hashoa - Holocaust commemoration day. "We" had our beards cut off on the street in the 30, "We" were starved and gassed in Birkenau, "We" were slaughtered in Babi Yar.

Yes, several of the people who live in this country are Holocaust survivors and can use the word "we" in its original sense. The rest of us should probably be more humble. We were never in Babi Yar. We have no idea what it feels like to be starved and tortured. Sabras poked fun at refugees who came from Europe in the late 40's, calling them "soaps". This state has for decades been delaying compensation payments to survivors.

The trauma of the Holocaust does of course filter to the younger generations. It is very real and effects the actions of the Israeli society and state, still, the collective Holocaust identity is problamatic. It carries even less responsibility than that of the Hagaddah. "We" may have inflicted one or more bullet holes on the SS men in the Warsaw Ghetto, but "they" deserved it big time. By the way, "They" are now in Iran and Gaza and even Jaffa and the Oval office. A collective fear and grudge can be an enormous political treasure.

Then comes Yom Hazikaron - memorial day. "We" mourn "our" dead, victims of the wars and acts of terrorism. The fact that hostility in the region is a current reality that tragically effects both "us" and "them" is forgotten. The idea that the definition of "we" may be expanded to include everyone who lives between the Jordan and the sea, or maybe even every human being, is not acknowledged. "We" are always the same "us", so "they" must always be the same "them". No chance we'll make this day a day of mutual mourning and of aspiration for peace. What? after Babi Yar?! You must be kidding us!

There are several brave individuals who challange this concept of identity. Tonight at 21:00 an alternative memorial event will be held in Tel-Aviv's Tmuna theatre. It is organized by "Combatants for Peace" and features the voice of Palestinian pain as well as the Israeli one. I attended the Tmuna event last year and left it tantalized. a song by Zeev Tene about losing a friend at war and a speech by Bassam aramin, whose ten year-old daughter was killed by soldiers, both left me in tears.

Tonight I'll skip the event and go have a low key dinner with friends, but trust me, I'm mourning. "I" mourn our fallen and their fallen and the very fact anyone has to die for this sad strip of gravel. Once "we" are no longer the issue, the actual dimensions of the tragedy are revealed, and the day becomes all the darker.

(Artwork by Samuel Bak)


maayan said...

Dear Yuval,

1. I suggesr to remember on the holaucast day, all the little german children who died during the world war - killed by the allies.
2.An alternative commemoration day requires no bravery When one is pampered by middle class families. Serving in 'our army' or volunteering for 3 years in Ethiopia is braver.
3. Haim Guri wrote about the loss of the sense of 'we'. This larger we you mention is no more than a fake big 'I'.
4. Even my arab students agree that if they would have won, i would not have been there to teach them. Unhealthy compassion is not transcending a low human condition. it is the lack of basic healthy instincts of self preservation.
5. Finally - the word 'our' u use is strangely semantically related to this awsom 'we' word.

maayan said...

it is not Maayan. It was Tsvika's comment

יובל בן-עמי Yuval Ben-Ami said...

Dear Tzvika.

1. I agree, every child who died at war should be remembered and mourned for, certainly German children who held no responsibility for the horrors of the war and the Holocaust. These children are victims of Hitler.

2. I never understood why being middle class or liking espresso deems one's political opinions nonsensical. In reality, it is an unfortunate fact that members of the middle class tend to receive better education than members of the working class, so Their opinions may even be more fact-based.

3. Here I think we see eye to eye. It really is a big fake I. The Collective experience Guri may remember from the battlefields of Bab al-wad would be very different than the one we are tought to experience on Yom Hazikaron.

4. What your Arab students say doesn't make war more sensible or diminish the need for empathy.

5. I'm aware of that. I am not necessarily an opponent of first person plural. What I want is to have the liberty to define my group on my own terms and to have the definition be fluid. Sometimes my "we" really is the Israelis, Sometimes it's only Jewish Israelis, sometimes it's those Israelis who are pro-compromise, care for human rights and are afraid of indoctrination, sometimes it's my family, sometimes it's me and you, more often than not it is all of humanity.