More than half a century after his grandmother was killed at Auschwitz, Israeli Brigadier General Amir Eshel helped spark an international controversy last week by flying over the adjacent Birkenau death camp in an F-15 fighter jet.
Two other Israeli aircraft, also piloted by descendants of Holocaust survivors, took part in the fly-over, timed to coincide with a ceremony at Birkenau involving 200 Israeli soldiers. As they stood at attention, despite the heavy cloud cover, the soldiers on the ground could reportedly see the blue Star of David painted on the bottom of the planes.
Such a display of Jewish power struck some observers as the ideal way to consecrate a site where more than a million Jews were slaughtered during World War II. But the ceremony took place over the objections of the National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Polish institution located at the camps.
“It’s a cemetery, a place of silence and concentration,” said museum spokeswoman Jaroslaw Mensfelt in a telephone interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “Flying the [F-15s] is a demonstration of military might which is an entirely inappropriate way to commemorate the victims.”
The controversy is the latest chapter in a half-century-old, generally lopsided battle over how best to commemorate the Holocaust and memorialize its 6 million Jewish victims. In its most stark, emotionally raw form, the argument has pitted those mourning the disappearance of a centuries-old civilization against Zionists of certain stripes who disdainfully dismiss the European Diaspora as nothing but a road to mass extermination.
The more nuanced, diplomatic version of the debate comes down to the question of whether it is better to honor the dead through an affirmation of Israeli strength and Jewish continuity or simply by grappling with the unprecedented genocide on its own terms.
The parameters of the debate, as well as its outcome, were all but set in the 1950s, when Holocaust Remembrance Day was fixed by the Israeli government as an annual observance on the Hebrew date corresponding to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943. By doing so, the government turned the memorial day into an exaltation of the relatively infinitesimal number of Jews who engaged in armed resistance against the Nazis. The implication was that, in addition to mourning the death of everyone else, observers of the holiday should lament the victims’ passivity; by extension, the holiday as currently conceived and scheduled serves as a justification for Zionism’s creation of a new archetype: the Jew who fights back.
To many rabbis, Israeli officials and Jewish communal leaders, this modern-day embrace of Jewish power is the only logical response to the Holocaust. In the minority, however, are critics who complain that such an approach inappropriately turns the death of millions into a foil for Israel’s creation.
“It’s not uncommon for the Israelis to convert moments of commemoration and mourning into moments of moving forward, of saying this is why we are this way, this is why it is necessary to have Jewish jets,” said novelist Thane Rosenbaum, a child of Holocaust survivors who has written extensively on the issue. “It’s a kind of assertion of power that is designed to replace a world that has already vanished.”
Rosenbaum criticized the fly-over, noting that those who died in the camps were Jewish civilians, not soldiers.
“This isn’t supposed to be a showcase for the Israeli military,” the author said. “This isn’t supposed to be a time for making loud noise that overshadows the whispering of ghosts but a time to reflect about the things that were lost.”
Even while defending the ceremony, organizers attempted to downplay the symbolism of the fly-over, describing it as a last-minute addition — the planes, they said, just happened to be in Poland for an air show. Israeli officials said that the program had been approved by the Polish government.
The Israeli ambassador to Poland, Shevach Weiss, insisted that the pilots were simply attempting to “honor the ashes” of their parents and grandparents and denied that the program served as a “demonstration of Israeli military power.” Still, it was hard to deny the symbolism of a speech given by Eshel from his fighter jet — the ultimate symbol of Israeli military might dating back to the 1967 Six-Day War — in which he vowed to do everything he could to prevent another Holocaust.
The aircraft ceremony was clearly interpreted — and defended — as a military display by the Philadelphia-based David S. Wyman Institute of Holocaust Studies. The institute’s director, Rafael Medoff, issued a statement arguing that the fly-over served as “an important reminder that Allied planes flew over the notorious Nazi death camp in 1944, but knowingly failed to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria.”
The problem with such views in general, as well as the fly-over in particular, argued Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, is that they violate what he described as Judaism’s historic approach to power and mourning.
“Even when Jews have had to wage war, whether in biblical or more recent times, the truly Jewish-minded among them have eschewed glorifying warfare or its weapons,” Shafran wrote, in an e-mail to the Forward.
“Whatever the merit of the museum’s objections to the fly-over, there is a valid Jewish objection to attempting to honor the murdered with what was surely seen as a show of military might,” Shafran wrote. “Some people, even in our day, brandish knives and fire guns at funerals. Jews cry, introspect, recite Psalms and pray to the God of Israel. If there is any place on Earth where those things alone are appropriate, it is Auschwitz.”
Others, most notably theologian Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, have argued that the magnitude of the Holocaust left Jews — and all other peoples — with no other choice but to embrace symbols of power and take responsibility for their own security. While he acknowledged that a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau should often involve only shock, silence and reflection, Greenberg defended the fly-over.
“To this day, I still think that one of the most important responses to the Shoah [Holocaust] was the recognition of the need to take power,” said Greenberg, who has written and spoken extensively on the ethics of Jewish power in the wake of World War II and the creation of Israel in 1948. “What made the Shoah possible was the powerlessness and helplessness of the Jews. It’s not Zionist propaganda, just a basic fact.”
After the Holocaust, Greenberg said, most Jews “woke up to the fact that you just couldn’t wait anymore.”
Rosenbaum, the novelist, said he accepts the argument that Jews must be prepared to defend themselves. The problem, he added, is that in the process of justifying this idea, Israelis and many American Jews fail to wrestle with the Holocaust directly, or to mourn the dead appropriately.
“I don’t object to the narrative entirely,” Rosenbaum said. “I reject the idea that the Israelis insert it almost every time the Holocaust has a place in their lives.”
Greenberg acknowledged that in the first years after the Holocaust the Israeli approach was open to the sort of criticisms doled out by Rosenbaum. But in recent decades, Greenberg added, the situation has improved dramatically.
“There has been a massive shift; there is much greater compassion and understanding for those who couldn’t help themselves,” Greenberg said.
“I’d be the first to admit that some people have tried to use the Holocaust to justify abuses by the Israelis,” Greenberg added. “But the vast majority of the public has steadily grown to see the heroism in spiritual resistance, to recognize the pain without any propaganda.”
Ha’aretz contributed to this report.