Israel's reckoning

Later this year, the country's Jewish population will hit six million—the same number of Jews killed by Nazi Germany

They look like typical senior citizens at any drop-in centre as they gather around small tables and drink tea, occasionally chuckling at a joke or observation. They are dressed formally, as people of their generation often are, the women in blouses and tasteful makeup and the men in suit jackets.

There is nothing obvious that gives away the fact that they are among the last living witnesses to perhaps the greatest crime in history, the Nazi genocide of European Jews. Survivors such as Freddie Knoller, 91, have dedicated a large part of their lives to testifying against what happened to them during the Holocaust when approximately six million Jews were murdered.

Yet the gas chambers, death camps and mass deportations offered another lesson for Austrian-born Knoller. “What kept me alive was optimism,” he said, sipping a cup of tea in a simply furnished room inside Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors Centre in London. “I was an eternal optimist. I knew I would get out.”

Knoller’s parents died in Auschwitz, he survived Nazi-occupied France, and he watched prisoners eat dead bodies to stay alive in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Physical scars also remain. He rolls up his left sleeve to show the faded blue numbers 157103 tattooed on his forearm.

“I will never take it off. It should never be forgotten what they have done.” The Nazi identification code is also printed on his business cards.

Yet something profound, and indeed life-affirming is happening in the lifetime of Holocaust survivors such as Knoller. Sometime this year, or early next, Israel’s Jewish population will reach six million. It is close: 5.975 million, according to the Israeli government’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

The figure has not been marked in any ceremony, it is simply a number in a routine publication released by the organization’s statisticians. In some respects six million is just a number—after all, no one knows precisely how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. And taking into account its 1.6 million Arab minority and some foreign workers, Israel’s overall population is already more than seven million. What’s more, if the diaspora is included, there are 13.5 million Jews worldwide. But like dates and anniversaries, the six-million figure has become as embedded in the popular culture of Jews in Israel and in the diaspora as the phrase “never again,” adding considerable significance to this looming demographic milestone. The Holocaust is slowly passing from living to historical memory, as only about 200,000 survivors are left in Israel. Last year, 12,000 died. Yet, as it slips into the past and becomes part of a particularly bloody century, the Holocaust is more remembered and commemorated than ever before.

What makes this perhaps more significant is that in the years after the war, the survivors were virtually ignored in the young state, said Robert Jan van Pelt, a Holocaust historian and professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Thanks to the survivors sharing their stories with friends and relatives in their new communities, their experiences were passed on and gradually became part of Israeli public consciousness, he said.

Population statistics are politically explosive. The Israeli government is anxious about the Jewish birth rate compared with the Palestinian rate, for fear that Muslim Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian areas will one day be a majority and put at risk Israel’s Jewish identity. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up 10 per cent of the population, have an extremely high birth rate—the women have, on average, six children each. By the middle of the century they will make up 23 per cent of the population.

This may give Israel’s Jewish population a boost but it worries those who cherish the country’s secular democracy. A familiar sight, with women in long skirts and men in black homburgs, the ultra-Orthodox are largely exempt from military service. Many are dependent on welfare and disapprove of secular culture.

Aaron David Miller, author and former adviser to the U.S. State Department on Israeli-Arab negotiations, summed up this anxiety in the New York Times recently. “The country’s demographics look bad—too many ultra-Orthodox Jews, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and not enough secular Jews.”

Even if the population replenishes itself, the horror and trauma of genocide is borne by future generations. Rwanda, for example, is still struggling to rebuild itself after about 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were massacred in the spring of 1994, perhaps 75 per cent of the Tutsi population.

In Israel the Holocaust looms larger than God, writes Avraham Burg, the prominent Israeli author and former politician, in his book The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes. “When I study the components of my identity and the cause of my identity crisis I recognize only one common thread that connects us all: the thick shadow, the unbearable heaviness of the Shoah and its horrors,” he writes. “It is the source of all and it absorbs all. So much so that sometimes I want to rewrite the Bible to begin: ‘In the beginning there was the Shoah and the land had become chaos.’ ”

The Shoah, as the Holocaust is called in Hebrew, has profoundly shaped Israel’s identity and continues to do so. Zionist leaders had been debating for decades the nature of a Jewish homeland, and in the 19th century the emphasis was on creating a state where Jews would never experience pogroms or live as second-class citizens, said van Pelt. The Holocaust helped change the Zionist vision of a Jewish state when Israel was established in May 1948—the offer of safety to any Jew suffering persecution was enshrined in law.

Today foreign dignitaries arriving in Israel always visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Holocaust is now mentioned routinely in Israeli newspapers, whether it is about compensation, restitution or Holocaust deniers, writes Burg. Children go on school trips to concentration camps.

Every April, sirens wail for two minutes to mark Holocaust memorial day. All of Israel comes to a standstill: cafés are closed, bus drivers pull over to the side of the road. In his book, Burg draws a comparison between the silence around the Holocaust during his postwar childhood in Jerusalem and his own children’s generation, who are reminded constantly of the tragedy. His daughter, shortly before a school trip to extermination camps in Poland, was told by her teacher that “we are all Shoah survivors.”

Still, the Holocaust plays an uneasy part in Israeli politics. In March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington to drum up support for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In a speech to AIPAC, an important Israel lobby group, he drew a comparison between the U.S.’s unwillingness to attack Iran today and the American government not bombing Auschwitz in 1944. He was sharply rebuked by Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli opposition leader. “The Jewish nation today has the brains and the ability to stop our enemies. We don’t need to create an atmosphere of Holocaust threats and annihilation to scare the citizens,” she told reporters.

Israel’s identity and security is linked to the Palestinians’ quest for a sovereign state of their own, although peace seems more elusive than ever.

Gershom Gorenberg, author of The Unmaking of Israel, said a two-state solution in which a democratic Palestinian state would live next to a Jewish state is in Israel’s self-interest. “If we do not reach a two-state solution, then the eventual pressure will be for a one-state, a one-person, one-vote arrangement, in which case Jews will quickly be a minority in a bi-national state,” he said, speaking from Jerusalem. “Clearly that’s not where political Zionism was going.” Israeli Jews recognize the danger in a one-state solution. A new poll published in Haaretz showed that 69 per cent of Jews don’t want Palestinians to have the right to vote if Israel formally annexes the West Bank. The ultra-Orthodox are even harsher in their attitudes: 95 per cent would favour discrimination against Arabs in the workplace.

Israeli politicians and the public are unwilling to take political risks to make a peace deal with the Palestinians because the outcome of the Arab uprisings is uncertain, said Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee. He said that sometimes the relationship between Israel and the Holocaust was exaggerated and even manipulated. “What I mean is that Israel—its defenders as well as its detractors—say that Israel is somehow a product of global guilt of the Shoah without recognizing that you already had a viable entity in place before the Shoah.”

Rosen was philosophical about the looming demographic milestone. “The Jews that were wiped out by Hitler are now reflected in the size of the state of Israel, six million. But of course not in the whole Jewish world. Today the Jewish world is twice that size even though had it not been for the Shoah it would have been four times the size. If we would have maintained our natural historical growth, then today we should have been one of largest nations in the world, we should be competing with the Chinese.”

Knoller, whose two daughters married Israeli citizens, has a similar view. For him, the demographic milestone is a cause for optimism but it is also bittersweet. “The six million will never replace the European Jews who died,” he said. “There should be many more Jews today.”

Perhaps no number of commemorations, nor any demographic milestone, will ever erase the loss. As the author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote: “We who survived the camps are not true witnesses. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.”

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