Lessons of the Shoah: Justice, or Just Us?
Yair Lapid, one of Israel’s most influential journalists, wrote an important opinion piece (link is to the English translation) last week on Ynet, the Web site of Yediot Ahronot, reexamining the meaning of the Holocaust in Israel today. He says it’s time to step back, if only slightly, from the usual response of anger and defensiveness that characterizes most Holocaust commemoration in Israel (and, we might add, in organized American Jewish circles as well) and begin reminding ourselves of its universal human lessons.
His argument won’t be unfamiliar to progressive Jews in America. What’s important is that Lapid is not a radical or dissenter. He’s decidedly centrist, born and raised in the bosom of Israel’s Ashkenazic elite, anchor of the influential Ulpan Shishi Friday night TV newsmagazine on Channel 2 and lead columnist in the Yediot Ahronot weekly magazine. He’s also the son of the late Tommy Lapid, justice minister, outspoken journalist, chairman of Yad Vashem and a leading spokesman for Israel’s Holocaust survivor community. There was some buzz last month that Yair, the son, might be starting a new centrist political party (as his father once did) and the polls immediately showed him coming in third in a theoretical election, trailing Likud and Kadima but trouncing everyone else on the map.
So when Yair Lapid starts publicly rethinking the Holocaust, it’s a sure sign that something serious is percolating in the mind of mainstream Israel.
Here are some key passages:
…The Holocaust dismantled everything human beings knew about themselves, and then taught us two unforgettable lessons:
The first one is that we must survive at any price. The second one is that we must be moral. The thing we still don’t know is what to do when these two lessons contradict each other. Holocaust survivors came to Israel in order to establish a new human society where nobody would be able to hurt them just because they’re Jewish. This is both a furious and vulnerable message. Not only are we allowed to do everything — and I mean everything — in order to ensure no second Shoah, this is also our supreme duty. …
…However, if this summed up the lessons of the Holocaust, it would not pose any dilemma for us. The problem is that the Shoah also taught us that a part of survival — and possibly the most meaningful part — hinges on the existence of human morality. Without human morality, there would be no Churchill, there would be no partisans, the US would not have entered the war, and a Red Army regiment under the command of a Jew called Anatoly Shapiro would not have liberated Auschwitz.
The Holocaust changed our perception of morality not only because we discovered that morality is the only thing that can stand up to the ultimate evil, but also because it shifted the focus from society to the individual. Until the Shoah, the human race saw morality as a social product. The 10 Commandments are a good example of this — we got instructions from the establishment and followed them because we knew it was wiser than us and sought our well-being.
However, during the Holocaust the only moral people were precisely the ones who refused to listen to the ruling establishment in their countries. Hannah Arendt wrote that had we accepted the moral perception that existed until the Shoah, we could not have brought Eichmann to justice. After all, he acted in line with the morality that was common during his time, certainly in his own country. …
…I believe that the first principle is valid: In respect to anything that threatens our existence, our duty is to do anything in order to continue existing as a people.
Yet I believe that the second principle forces us to constantly examine the first principle, so that in respect to anything that is even an inch short of an existential threat we would be able to make the moral choice, which recognizes the humanity of others and our duty to spare them the suffering.