Responding to (Some) Critics – Part II

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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.

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14 Responses

  1. Jewish Observer says:

    ” It constantly seeks ot update and include all the angles of a matzav.”

    in a perfect world, yes.

    in reality, organizations and people are driven by a strong underlying cultural orientation that is very hard to change. for example, how easy do you think it is for gedolim to influence their charedi constintents to stop the insanity re: shidduchim? how easy is it for CEo’s to promote a work environment of cooperation and collaboration in cases that it is against the existing cultural vogue?

  2. Mark says:

    cvmay,

    That response is wholly inadequate. A Museum that seeks to present the facts doesn’t make a one-time attempt and drop the project. It constantly seeks ot update and include all the angles of a matzav. If the Orthodox weren’t interested in 1948 does that mean that they should therefore be off the charts for the next 50 years? If anything, it means that they would have to wait a few years until the situation calmed down and people who could give that perspective were willing to be approached. I haven’t read her book but I doubt that this is her argument and if it is I think I’ll pass on the book.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    CVmay-As much as I am a fan of Rabbanit Farbstein’s book, I think that the picture is more complicated than what you mentioned. Yehudah Bauer, who was the head of Yad Vashem, has never been known for his sympathetic views towards Torah life.

  4. cvmay says:

    Anyone who has visited the Yad Veshem Museum will be confronted with the lack of exhibits, videos, writings describing the rich, warm, & spiritual home life of many communities and its people before and during the years of the holocaust. Is this under representation of Religious Jewry an oversight, on purpose, a new rewriting of history or what?

    Several years ago, a granddaughter of Rav Sarna zt”l who is curator and researcher at the Yad vashem Museum was interviewed.(in addition she teaches holocaust studies at Michlala). The question of why the lack of spiritual heroism, lifestyle and community life is missing at the museum was addressed. Her answer was direct, frank and to-the-point.
    (This is a summary of her answer, not verbatim…) After the war, when the State of Israel was established, plans to build a museum was enacted. Press releases through the radio and media requested survivors to contact the so called holocaust committee. Home visits & interviews were held with survivors and their families, calls were made for artifacts, Judaic memorabilia, letters, and photos to be donated. The majority of responses were from secular Jews, the religious population not trusting the purpose of this museum were absent in all areas. The Torah kehilla needed time to digest and absorb the devastation of WW2, silence and numb was the attitude of the day. Much time was needed before it could be spoken of openly, to share their personal thoughts and challenges with a Museum Committee was the last thing imagined. Therefore,,,,,,,,,if you do not participate in the prior plannings you are not part of the final project..
    Currently, this is a problem that the Torah Community faces in many avenues, we enter the scene in the 9th inning and then wonder why we did not win the championship game?

    Comment by cvmay — July 3, 2007 @ 9:56 pm Your comment is awaiting moderation

  5. cvmay says:

    Anyone who has visited the Yad Veshem Museum will be confronted with the lack of exhibits, videos, writings describing the rich, warm, & spiritual home life of many communities and its people before and during the years of the holocaust. Is this under representation of Religious Jewry an oversight, on purpose, a new rewriting of history or what?
    Several years ago, a granddaughter of Rav Sarna zt”l who is curator and researcher at the Yad vashem Museum was interviewed.(in addition she teaches holocaust studies at Michlala). The question of why the lack of spiritual heroism, lifestyle and community life is missing at the museum was addressed. Her answer was direct, frank and to-the-point.
    (This is a summary of her answer, not verbatim…) After the war, when the State of Israel was established, plans to build a museum was enacted. Press releases through the radio and media requested survivors to contact the so called holocaust committee. Home visits & interviews were held with survivors and their families, calls were made for artifacts, Judaic memorabilia, letters, and photos to be donated. The majority of responses were from secular Jews, the religious population not trusting the purpose of this museum were absent in all areas. The Torah kehilla needed time to digest and absorb the devastation of WW2, silence and numb was the attitude of the day. Much time was needed before it could be spoken of openly, to share their personal thoughts and challenges with a Museum Committee was the last thing imagined. Therefore,,,,,,,,,if you do not participate in the prior plannings you are not part of the final project..
    Currently, this is a problem that the Torah Community faces in many avenues, we enter the scene in the 9th inning and then wonder why we did not win the championship game?

  6. One Christian's perspective says:

    Has anyone taken the time to talk to the teenagers about the situation to gain a perspective from their point-of-view. This is not to say what they did was right but their may be a deeper underlying cause for their actions. For example, if you focus on the negative aspects of the Holocaust (and there is nothing positive about the death camps)and not on the positive actions of righteous individuals who did save Jewish people and also died in doing so, it may bring some balance (albeit not a large shift) into the picture. Also, the fact that many of these camps are still in existence and maintained speaks of the country’s desire to expose their shame and denial.

  7. Mark says:

    “They have just discovered a tablet from the time of the firat Beis Hmaikdas which states that when and if Rabbi Rosenblum and Dr Zurrof bury the hatchet, Mochiach will arrive.”

    I realize you’re joking but why should JR stop refuting Zuroff’s false and slanderous statements about the frum community and it’s leaders during WW2? I have no problem with him fighting him tooth and nail and applaud him for doing what the rest of us ought to be doing. Zuroff has many reasons to say what he does [$$$$$] while JR has nothing but the honor of the Gedolim at stake.

    Jonathan – please don’t stop countering EZ’s slanderous accusations with the truth.

  8. David Farkas says:

    I appreciate the humorous tongue-in-cheek opening, “having successfully silenced my critics ” over the conversion fiasco, and salute Jonathan Rosenblum for his good natured acknowledgment of sustained criticism (including my own). A soft response turns away wrath.

  9. Menachm Petrushka says:

    They have just discovered a tablet from the time of the firat Beis Hmaikdas which states that when and if Rabbi Rosenblum and Dr Zurrof bury the hatchet, Mochiach will arrive.

  10. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Steve Brizel: A historical period that is marked by persecution, ghettos and death camps simply cannot serve as a reason why someone would want to be a Shomer Torah UMitzvos.

    Ori: Well said. The way it was taught when I was in a Chiloni high school in Israel (1990-1992) was as a reason why one should want to be Israeli. The essence was: “You’re Jewish, like it or not. You can stay in Israel and accept the attendant difficulties (compulsory military service, high taxes, etc.). Or you can leave, and another Hitler will come and kill you”. For years afterwards I resented Judaism.

    As Steve said, if we want our children to be Jewish, they have to have positive reasons. Scaring teenagers into submission only goes so far.

  11. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Nitpicking: Haaretz’s columnist is named ARI Shavit, not Avi. I think it is not the first time you have made that mistake.

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    Yasher Koach on addressing the issue of how the Holocaust is treated in the secular Israeli intellectual and cultural milieu. I visited Yad Vashem as recently as last Channukah ( 12/07) and was struck by the impression that it was a secular Zionist theme park about the Holocaust with the contributions of the Torah world almost negated to nonexistence. It is refreshing to read of improvements in that area.

    My question to RJR and DR Zuroff-R E Buchwald pointed out years ago that Holocaust education cannot serve as a positive vehicle for Jewish continuity. A historical period that is marked by persecution, ghettos and death camps simply cannot serve as a reason why someone would want to be a Shomer Torah UMitzvos. Such a message overwhelms all of the positive and powerful reasons that underline why Torah and Mitzvos are the blueprint for all of Jewish continuity. It is indeed a tragedy that more Jews today know more about the events from 1933 to 1945 than about the events and facts set forth in the stanzas of Echad Mi Yodea.

  13. SM says:

    I wonder to what extent the behaviour is caused by an inability to cope with and process what these very young people are seeing and feeling.

    3 years ago I went to Auschwitz with my adult community. Present at the same time were the England football team – a credit to what is supposed to be a bunch of under-educated, over-paid thugs of whom 16 out of 22 had given up their free day to see an extermination camp.

    I spoke to Michael Owen (a star player for anyone from the US) and asked him how this made him feel – he had been asking a number of questions of out guide who was a survivor of Auschwitz itself. He was at that time about 21 – not so far off the teenagers being discussed. He replied that it made him want to play football and score goals (both of which he duly did).

    It was the equation of emotional upset with a physical reaction that struck me. It is possible that these kids simply need to have programmed into their trip an opportunity to let off steam in a physical way.

  14. Garnel Ironheart says:

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with pointing out Israeli misbehaviour during foreign trips. There are posters plastered throughout Ben Gurion 2000 reminding Israelis that they are ambassadors for their country abroad. There are small east Asian nations that have openly contemplated banning Israelis (specifically, not Jews) from entering the country because of the behaviour of post-army young adults. To call attention to that and suggest that there is a need to rectify this behaviour is laudable.

    However, in the previous article there was a sense that secular Israeli youth and their “debauchery” were being compared to the more benign behaviour of comparably-aged religious youth.

    I think this might be why some people rejected the previous article so vociferously. No one likes to be reproved, but especially not by someone from a social group they don’t particularly like in the first place. They might miss the point of the article and focus on the reproof, leading to their forgetting the whole point of it in the first place.