Israel on Yom HaShoah: Train Tracks, Memory, Anxiety, and Photography.

The following post was written in April on Yom HaShoah.

Eleven years ago today, I was 18 and standing on the train tracks in Poland leading from Auschwitz to Birkenau as part of the Holocaust remembrance event, March of the Living.

This year on Holocaust Memorial Day–Yom HaShoah–I find myself staring down a different train track that runs along Jerusalem’s light rail on Jaffa St.  Every year the state of Israel observes a two-minute moment of silence on this day to commemorate six million Jewish lives lost in that horrible tragedy.  For two minutes, a siren blasts, and all activity stops.  Not only trains, cars, and buses, but people on the street stopping in mid action and conversation.  Our program director instructed us to visit public spaces on this day and film the two minute silence, as a way to examine the ritual in Israel from an educational and philosophical perspective. My friend Liz thought the view from the light rail would provide an interesting vantage point.

The symmetry with my experience eleven years ago barely even occurred to me.

When I stood on the train tracks in Auschwitz eleven years ago, I was already wrestling with complex feelings about how to process my thoughts about the Holocaust and how I felt comfortable commemorating it publicly.  While having a Hebrew school teacher who was a survivor meant the Holocaust was always a compelling subject for me growing up, I was also taught to think of the Holocaust in the context of the suffering of other marginalized groups throughout history.  And yet that context was completely absent from the narrative on our Poland trip.  Of course, this was a Jewish heritage trip and in retrospect I can completely understand the need to have a more narrow focus.  Still, I was aware that I was very  out of step with everyone around me.  The swirl of history, nationalism, tribalism, and liberalism spinning in my head created a sense of emotional paralysis.  Unable to bring forth the tears and euphoria I saw so many others expressing, I remember clinging to my camera as a kind of defense mechanism.

And here I am, over a decade later standing on train tracks on Holocaust Remembrance Day, viewing other Jews having an emotional experience of the tragedy through a camera lens.  And while eleven years ago my camera gave me a shield of anonymity in the buzz of activity and fluttering Israeli flags on the March in Poland, here it has the opposite effect.  In a moment where everybody pauses where they are for two minutes, it gives them the chance to fully take in every detail of the environment.  When everything is still, the things that aren’t come into sharper focus (“You know the Arabs don’t stop,” the Israeli woman I live with right now sneered last night when I brought it up).  Our assignment had been to use a tripod, but we were struggling with ours by the time the siren was about to start and so I had to use my iPhone camera.  It is truly a striking scene, seeing an entire population fall still.  As I scan the crowd, I notice one other dude with an iPhone camera, who looks like a total asshole and I realize how much I must look like one as well to everyone on this train.

In our class afterwards, we examine and deconstruct Israel’s rituals to commemorate the Holocaust, and the way the country has placed this event in its national mythology.  I’ve really enjoyed this aspect of my program–it’s provided me with a space to wrestle with complex issues of identity and history I have struggled with since my March of the Living trip.  It’s been reassuring to learn that there are other people in the Jewish community who are disturbed by the way many seem to exploit the Holocaust in order to distract from serious issues in contemporary Israeli and Jewish society.   But some people in our class were really bothered by this line of discussion on this day: what’s wrong, they wondered, with simply having one sacred day to commemorate this tragic event?  Weren’t we being rather disrespectful?

And I basically agreed with them, feeling like an asshole again.  Then feeling even worse when one of the administrators of the Schocken Institute shared with us his personal family story connected to the Holocaust, emphasizing the importance of the repeated ritual to ensure our society will “Never Forget.”  As he tells his family’s story in agonizing detail, I get the wrenching churn in my stomach that I didn’t feel earlier on the train, and my instinct to deconstruct feels even more irrelevant.  My sense of numbness give way to an equally paralyzing emotion: despair.  Indeed, perhaps my ideals about dialogue creating a space for multiple narratives and coexistence are hopelessly naive.  No matter how assimilated I feel, someone will inevitably want to destroy the Jewish people and our only real security will come from maintaining a strong security presence in the land of Israel.

Yet until that next inevitable genocide came, I would still need to find a way to reconcile and compartmentalize all of those other pesky moral questions relating to religion, multiculturalism, tribalism and democracy that come with any discussion of the Holocaust and Israel today.  As luck would have it, a friend in the program had just finished our director’s copy of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, an Israeli historian’s blistering new account of the complicated history of his country.   Shavit is just as unsparing with his horrifying accounts of Holocaust suffering as he is with the brutal tactics employed by Israeli military forces in 1948 to clear local populations from Arab villages that lay in crucial sections of the newly-declared Jewish State.  While Shavit’s book is a dense volume, my hunger for the catharsis it offers are making me devour it like I’ve just gotten the new Harry Potter book.  Throughout, Shavit wrestles with his “existential fear” surrounding Israel’s survival  and “moral outrage” when viewing Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians.  Shavit observes, “Both occupation and intimidation make the Israeli condition unique…Any school of thought that does not relate seriously to these two fundamentals is bound to be flawed and futile.”

Reading about the horrifying traumas inflicted on Europe’s Jewsduring the Holocaust and the Palestinians unfortunate enough to be caught in the crossfires of the budding State of Israel, I feel myself caught up in a whiplash of rage.  While still not providing any concrete answers, that rage feels more productive–if scarier–than numbness or despair.

And somehow that feels like progress.


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