Enlisting Memory: An extract from Yakov Rabkin’s ‘What is Modern Israel?’

We recently published Yakov Rabkin’s What is Modern Israel? Founded on the premise that every Jew is not a Zionist and not in favour of Israel, the book shows that Zionism is a sharp break with Judaism and not the zenith of Jewish history.What is Modern Israel?

In this extract, Rabkin shows how the Israeli
state all too often uses the Holocaust as an ideological apparatus to justify their actions; problematising the use of Nazism as a benchmark for evil and examining how memories of the Shoah inform Israel’s bellicosity.

During the early post-war years, the Israeli press presented almost exclusively articles devoted to the memories of resistance fighters, while those that dealt with “simple survivors,” accused by Zionist public opinion of having gone “like sheep to slaughter,” were often published at their author’s expense or by associations of survivors. During the first Zionist commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, not a word was spoken of the 6 million victims of the Nazi genocide. Some historians described the commemorations organised by survivors outside the official Zionist framework as a “semi-clandestine act.” In any event, the Israeli press lent far greater weight to the accounts of Zionist resistance fighters than to those of other members of the resistance, the Bund for example, creating the impression that Zionists held a monopoly of anti-Nazi resistance. It was not until the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 that survivors’ accounts, including their explanation of the absence of resistance on their part, emerged into Israeli public awareness.

Yom ha-shoah begins with a military ceremony the night before at Yad vashem, the memorial to the Nazi genocide in Jerusalem; then a siren sounds at 10:00 am, inviting the Israeli population to observe two minutes of silence; throughout the day special programmes are broadcast on radio and television, and public lectures are held. The principal message of the commemoration could not be clearer: there can never be another Shoah because our state will protect us. The Zionists frequently claim that if the state of Israel had existed before the Second World War, the Nazi extermination would never have taken place.

According to a manual issued to the educational officers of the IDF, Yom ha-shoah should encourage young recruits to develop a sense of belonging to the people and of loyalty to the state:

‘The Zionist solution establishing the state of Israel was intended to provide an answer to the problem of the existence of the Jewish people, in view of the fact that all other solutions had failed. The Holocaust proved, in all its horror, that in the 20th century, the survival of the Jews is not assured as long as they are not masters of their fate and as long as they do not have the power to defend their survival.’

The official text adds, “The position taken by the Jews during the Shoah reflects the moral and spiritual power that continues to provide the principles of our position in the ongoing conflict.” In other words, the activities of the IDF are presented as the logical continuation of the resistance to the Nazis. As early as 1947 the memory of the genocide was used to mobilise Zionist combatants in Palestine for the conquest of the country and the ethnic cleansing that accompanied it: “we have avenged our bitter and lonely death with our fists, our heavy, burning fists.” They were fighting in Palestine the battles they wished they had fought in Europe.

IDF auschwitz

The enlistment of memory to transmit a message of combat readiness has been a constant. In the course of an air show in Poland, over the protestations of the Auschwitz museum, three Israeli fighters bearing the star of David and piloted by descendants of survivors of the Nazi massacres overflew the former Nazi extermination camp while 200 Israeli soldiers observed the flyover from the Birkenau death camp adjacent to Auschwitz. The remarks of one of the Israeli pilots stressed confidence in the armed forces: “This is a triumph for us. Sixty years ago, we had nothing. No country, no army, nothing. We now come here with our own planes to honour those who can no longer be with us.”

Israeli soldiers and officers are often taken to the places where the Nazi genocide took place. But these visits do little more than reinforce what state schools have already accomplished: the Nazi genocide accounts for more than 15 percent of the contemporary Jewish history programme. More than half of all students and teachers consider the Shoah the most important event of the 20th century. Even among students of Arab, Turkish, and Iranian origin—whose elders had never experienced the Nazi regime—83 percent considered themselves as “Shoah survivors.” The same percentage of young Israelis fear the destruction of the state of Israel, while a third believe that another Shoah is possible.

It is highly symbolic that the first Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, a descendant of Second World War survivors, carried with him aboard the US space shuttle a memento of that era: a lunar landscape drawn by an adolescent in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The message was meant as one of rebirth, of pride in belonging to Israel as against the indignity of dying in Europe.

The official commemorations of the Shoah offer numerous occasions for transmitting the same message. The chief of the Israeli General Staff proclaimed, at the foot of the monument to the resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, “If you wish to know the source from which the Israeli army draws its power and strength, go to the holy martyrs of the Holocaust and the heroes of the revolt. … The Holocaust … is the root and legitimisation of our enterprise.” However, linking the history of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt to the Zionist cause is not always as easy as it might appear. The daughter of a Jewish fighter in the Warsaw uprising raised painful questions:

As long as hundreds of Palestinians are not being lined up and shot, but are killed by Israelis only one a day, are we Jews free from worrying about morality, justice? Has Nazism become the sole norm by which Jews will judge evil, so that anything that is not its exact duplicate is considered by us as morally acceptable? Is that what the Holocaust has done to Jewish moral sensibility?

Marek Edelman (1919–2009), a veteran of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, identifies with the Palestinian resistance and finds in it many similarities with his own struggle against the Nazis. “Nothing infuriates Zionists more than the arguments of anti-Zionist Jews, who have such a courageous and principled history.” It is hardly surprising that his memoirs, published in Poland in 1945, were only published in Israel a half-century later.

The same was true of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, published in Hebrew 37 years after it first appeared in English. The book undermines one of the founding myths of Zionism, the belief that anti-Semitism must be seen as an eternal, constant, and mystical force. Arendt did not find Eichmann “guilty of crimes against the Jewish people,” the verdict of the court. She saw, instead, a case of the “banality of evil,” a largely unconscious development of normal human behaviour under the impact of an implacable bureaucratic system. Arendt’s conclusion carries instead a universal meaning, which should stand as a warning to any state that adopts ethnic discrimination as state policy. This was one of the motives heard at a conference on her intellectual and moral heritage finally held at the end of the 20th century, and which yielded a book entitled Arendt in Jerusalem.

idfZionist educators must continually draw attention to the profound insecurity of Jewish life outside of Israel, for a fortuitous event, even of the dimensions of the Nazi massacres, cannot provide Zionism with lasting legitimacy. It was in this light that Reuven Hammer, Israeli minister of education, himself a member and leader of National Judaism, maintained, “The Holocaust is not a national insanity that happened once and passed, but an ideology that has not passed from the world and even today the world may condone crimes against us.” It is hardly surprising that only 4 percent of Israeli students draw universal rather than specific conclusions from the Nazi genocide (the necessity to fight against discrimination, racism, and so on).

The state is also seen as protection against any future threat to the Jews, a belief that explains how support for Israel in the diaspora is often seen as an insurance policy. But among Orthodox rabbis, even those who share to a certain extent the philosophy of National Judaism, doubts persist. For example, Rabbi Moshe Sober (1955–2006), educated in the spirit of National Judaism, remained sceptical about Israel’s capacity to come to the aid of American Jews in any meaningful way if ever the American government were to persecute them. He found the idea ridiculous, and citing the Talmud, concluded, “Your guarantor needs a guarantor! It is like taking out a life-insurance policy with a company that is guaranteed to go bankrupt on your death.”

From a traditionally religious point of view based on the premise of the existence of divine justice, the tragedy of the Shoah calls out for the closest scrutiny of personal behaviour, and for individual and collective atonement. It is not an occasion for accusing executioners, and even less an attempt to explain their behaviour by political, ideological, or social factors. The executioner— whether Pharaoh, Amalek, or Hitler—in this perspective is an agent of divine punishment, an admittedly cruel means of bringing the Jews to repentance.


If this book sparked your interest, please check the Pluto Press website for other similar titles. If you need a gentle nudge in the right direction, we recommend:

The End of Jewish Modernity by Enzo Traverso

With provocative chapters on the relationship between antisemitism and Islamophobia, the ascendance of Zionism, and the new ‘civil religion of the Holocaust’, The End of Jewish Modernity is both an elegy to a lost tradition and an intellectual history of the present.

Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine by Ran Greenstein

A challenge to the nationalist and Zionist hegemony through a discussion of the hidden history of Communist and bi-national movements in Israel.

Unfree in Palestine: Registration, Documentation and Movement Restriction by Nadia Abu-Zahra and Adah Kay

A masterful expose of the web of bureaucracy used by Israel to deprive the Palestinians of basic rights and freedoms, and calls for international justice and inclusive security in place of discrimination and division.


What is Modern Israel? is available to buy from Pluto Press here


Yakov M. Rabkin is Professor of History at the University of Montréal, Canada. He has published and edited five books and more than three hundred articles. His most recent book is A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Zed Books, 2006).

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