A litte more than 20 years ago, Israel started developing diplomatic relations with the newly independent Central European nations that had broken away from the Soviet block. At some point, a high-level government official from one of these countries planned a trip to Israel, but he refused to visit Yad Vashem. Israel’s Foreign Ministry was beside itself: after all, Israel’s official Holocaust museum had been a mandatory part of visiting dignitaries’ itinerary for decades.
“There was a long discussion and at the end of it, the head of protocol in this ministry said that if [the foreign guest] doesn’t want to go to Yad Vashem, then tell him that he shouldn’t come to Israel at all,” Talya Lador-Fresher, who was then a young cadet in Israel’s foreign service, recalled this week. “In the end, they surrendered,” she said, and the Central European VIP visited Yad Vashem, just like hundreds of statesmen before and after him.
Today, Lador-Fresher herself is the chief of state protocol at the Foreign Ministry. In that position, she oversees between 400 and 450 annual visits to Yad Vashem by presidents and parliamentarians, ministers and mayors.
“I have never had any problem telling people that this is Israeli protocol. It goes very smoothly,” she said.
Besides a short wreath-laying ceremony at Mount Herzl, which is mandatory only for heads of state, a stopover at Yad Vashem is the only obligatory item on the itinerary of high-level guests visiting Israel for the first time. (While dignitaries who already visited the museum while serving in a previous position are not forced to go a second time, a head of state who is coming to Israel for the first time since taking office does have to go again.)
A visit to the museum — which usually takes about 90 minutes and ends with a wreath-laying ceremony — has been part of the Foreign Ministry’s protocol since shortly after the Knesset passed the 1953 Yad Vashem Law, which mandated the creation of the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. Yet recently voices calling for a reassessment of this policy have grown louder, even within the government. No one should be forced to visit a museum, no matter how important the lessons it teaches, they argue. Some politically rather incorrect Israeli critics have gone as far as accusing Israel of exploiting the memory of six million Jews for political gains.
For Lador-Fresher, the issue is simple: “Yad Vashem is an important part of our history. You cannot understand Israel, even today, without understanding the Holocaust.”
Yad Vashem itself does not get involved in the ministry’s protocol requirements, opening its doors to whoever wants to come and visit. The museum’s spokesperson, Iris Rosenberg, told The Times of Israel that the Holocaust raises questions that humanity stills struggles with, and that “while modern Zionism and the efforts to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel predate the Holocaust, understanding the Holocaust’s place in Jewish history is an important aspect to understanding Israel today.”
Lador-Fresher says she also encourages foreign dignitaries to make time for a visit at the Israel Museum’s archaeological wing, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, to make them understand Jews “are not here by chance” but indigenous to the region. Yet the fact that only the only mandatory visit is to Yad Vashem irks many Israelis, who feel the Holocaust should not take center stage when their country is introduced to foreign audiences.
“I don’t think Yad Vashem should be the gateway through which every official guest should go through, because that’s emotional blackmailing rather than confidence building,” said former Knesset speaker and Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg.
Even Minister without Portfolio Yossi Peled, whose father was murdered in Auschwitz while Christians hid the son in Belgium, is unhappy about the current policy.
“In my opinion, it is neither possible nor appropriate to obligate visitors to the State of Israel to visit Yad Vashem,” the 71-year-old told The Times of Israel. While Yad Vashem is doing holy work and the memory of the Holocaust is a cornerstone of the state, it is unwise to require guests to visit any Holocaust museum, he added. “Dealing with the Shoah is a complex, sensitive and meaningful issue, and a visit should be a matter of personal choice.”
Because Peled is a Holocaust survivor who battled the odds to build so successful a life in the Israeli military and political arenas, the minister’s life story plainly resonates for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu often discusses the Shoah in front of international audiences — especially to warn of what he sees as the genocidal threat posed by a nuclear Iran — and personalizes it through Peled’s experiences.
“Yossi’s life is the story of the Jewish people, the story of a powerless and stateless people who became a strong and proud nation, able to defend itself,” Netanyahu said in March in a speech to the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby in Washington, DC. “And ladies and gentlemen, Israel must always reserve the right to defend itself.”
‘What would have happened if there hadn’t been a Shoah? Wouldn’t we have been left without a real justification for the creation of the state of Israel? This is a conclusion I really dread because as a good Zionist I believe that we don’t need the Shoah in order to justify the existence of the state of Israel’
Critics see this calculation — because there was a Holocaust, Israel needs to be given a free hand — as the intensification of a societal phenomenon that dates back to the 1950s and has grown stronger ever since. Use of the Holocaust to justify policies and actions got its first boost after the Six Day War, and in the 1970s Menachem Begin stepped it up another notch, according to historians. But critics charge that the current government like no other has mastered the art of using the Holocaust to make political points.
“If a state guest comes, say a high-ranking US general, and you want to force upon him some kind of decision, the best thing to do is show him Yad Vashem and explain to him that after the Shoah there is no other alternative but to accept everything Israel wishes to do,” Israeli historian Moshe Zimmerman said.
“We instrumentalize the memory of the Shoah not only to make the world aware that we are traumatized but also for the sake of our specific aims in international politics, especially toward the Palestinians. This tendency in Israeli policy is getting stronger all the time. It was not that explicit in 1948, but it became more and more explicit over time.”
Israel’s Declaration of Independence lists the Holocaust as “another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of [the Jewish people’s] homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State.” But it is just one among several reasons given for the state’s creation, Zimmerman said. And by making only Yad Vashem compulsory, Israel is implicitly declaring the Holocaust the main rationale for the state’s creation, he added.
“One should allow oneself the question: what would have happened if there hadn’t been a Shoah? Wouldn’t we have been left without a real justification for the creation of the state of Israel? This is a conclusion I really dread because as a good Zionist I believe that we don’t need the Shoah in order to justify the existence of the state of Israel.”
Zimmerman is a known left-winger, but even many on the right agree with his premise.
“For decades, Israeli governments have exploited the memory of the Holocaust to induce feelings of guilt and to stifle legitimate dissent of controversial policies,” said Yishai Hughes, for instance, a resident of the West Bank town of Efrat who works for a staunchly pro-Israel organization. While the Yad Vashem policy has achieved the “short-term benefit of blunting criticism,” it also has had unintended consequences: “distorting Zionist claims to the land of Israel by emphasizing recent Jewish suffering over ancient Jewish ties to the land” and drawing attention to the argument that the Palestinians shouldn’t have to pay the price for atrocities Europeans committed against Jews during World War II, Hughes said.
Israel is well-advised to change the way it relates to the Shoah and starts seeing it as one tragedy among many others, Burg suggested.
“I don’t think the Holocaust is our only history, not even the most dominant factor of our history,” he told The Times of Israel this week. “The entire Jewish history for most Israelis is something between 12 years, 1933 to 1945. That’s not our entire history,” Burg said. “Don’t take a selective, manipulative chapter and say this is all.”
Jews had good relations with the Muslim world in the past, but this is not emphasized during state visits or leveraged in the political arena, he lamented.
Burg, the author of a controversial book entitled “The Holocaust Is Over — We Must Rise From its Ashes,” says that there are many places in Israel more worthwhile for foreign dignitaries to visit than Yad Vashem, places that do not reinforce what he calls a “paranoia that the whole world is against us.”
“I’m waiting for the day in which visitors from the West come to the Middle East and see a different reality,” he said. “I want visitors to come and say, ‘Wow, it’s possible to have a Middle East that is the cradle of monotheistic civilizations and where Judaism, Christianity and Islam are living together.’ I hope that one day people who come here are taken to places in which the shared existence of faith and believers is possible. That should be the message that they take home.”
Israel acts as if Jews had a “monopoly on suffering,” Burg charged, adding that this will prompt a backlash at some point. “The Holocaust is a kind of credit account. And we’re already over-drafting,” he said. “In the 20th century, more than 160 million were killed in genocides and crimes again humanity. That’s a large number. We remember only six million out of them,” he added. “This is where the world wakes up and says enough is enough.”
The Foreign Ministry rejects these arguments. Showing the suffering of the Jewish people during the Shoah makes visitors think about the past and helps them draw lessons for the future, Lador-Fresher, the chief of state protocol, insisted. Visitors are of course free to ignore the lessons of history Israel seeks to teach them, she added. “You can go to Yad Vashem and say to yourself, ‘I don’t relate to it at all.’ It’s not like antibiotics, that once you go to Yad Vashem you forget all your criticism about settlements, about the Palestinian issue or whatever it is that you want to criticize Israel about. What we’re saying to the visitor is: Look at the story. We hope you it will make you understand better.”
‘I don’t think it’s the overuse of the Holocaust that’s creating a backlash of what some Germans have called Holocaust fatigue. This phenomenon exists but we don’t need to start accusing ourselves’
Hebrew University’s Robert Wistrich, a leading expert in the history of anti-Semitism, said that he has always felt the Foreign Ministry’s Yad Vashem policy was “problematic.”
“I understand that there are some people who would argue that the memorialization of the Holocaust can at times amount to some kind of exploitation,” he said. “It can be overdone, like everything in this world.”
However, Wistrich maintains that it is the Jewish state’s responsibility to keep the memory of the Shoah alive, “because we’re living in a time where we’re surrounded in so many parts of the world, including Europe, by a growing desire to obliterate the memory of the Holocaust, or to trivialize, relativize, devalue and/or invert the meaning of the Holocaust and even use it against the state of Israel.”
Wistrich also vehemently disagrees with the assertion that too much talk about the Holocaust causes people to grow tired of hearing about it. Such arguments confuse cause and effect, he said. “I don’t think it’s the overuse of the Holocaust that’s creating a backlash of what some Germans have called Holocaust fatigue. This phenomenon exists, but we don’t need to start accusing ourselves, as people like Avraham Burg tend to do.”
The real problem is not Jews mentioning the Shoah too often but the desire of so many Europeans to attack the memory of the Holocaust, “because it reminds them of things they don’t wish to be reminded of,” according to Wistrich.
“We do need to reassess the way we present and represent the Shoah and what it means to us today. And above all, what it means to us for the future,” he added. “Even if nobody can claim that Holocaust memory will prevent future genocides, how do we know that we wouldn’t have far worse than what we’ve already seen, if it were not that there is a degree of attention paid to Holocaust memory?”