How is Our Holocaust Different From All Other Holocausts?
I deliberately echoed the Passover haggadah in the title to this post in order to ironize Yad Vashem’s recent preposterous firing of an Israeli docent who, in speaking to a settler school group at the museum, compared the Holocaust to the Palestinian Nakba:
Itamar Shapira, 29, of Jerusalem, was fired before Passover from his job as a docent at the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, after a teacher with a group of yeshiva students from Efrat made a complaint. Shapira had worked at Yad Vashem for three and a half years.
This is the first time that Yad Vashem has fired a guide over political differences, an institution official said Wednesday.
Shapira confirmed, in a telephone conversation with Haaretz, that he had spoken to visitors about the 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin.
He said he did so because the ruins of the Arab village, today a part of Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood, can be seen as one leaves Yad Vashem.
“Yad Vashem talks about the Holocaust survivors’ arrival in Israel and about creating a refuge here for the world’s Jews. I said there were people who lived on this land and mentioned that there are other traumas that provide other nations with motivation,” Shapira said.
“The Holocaust moved us to establish a Jewish state and the Palestinian nation’s trauma is moving it to seek self-determination, identity, land and dignity, just as Zionism sought these things,” he said.
Has V’halilah, Jewish suffering is sacred and must not be compared to any other people’s suffering (and ESPECIALLY Palestinian suffering) because behold our blood is redder than their’s.
Note this hypocrisy as well:
A Yad Vashem official said the institution objects to any political use of the Holocaust, especially by a docent working for it.
The institution’s position is that the Holocaust cannot be compared to any other event and that every visitor can draw his own political conclusions.
Yad Vashem spokeswoman Iris Rosenberg said that after holding a hearing for Shapira, at which he refused to accept his superiors’ instructions and change his teaching methods, it was decided to terminate his job as a guide in the institute’s school for Holocaust studies.
“Yad Vashem would have acted unprofessionally had Itamar Shapira continued his educational work for the institute,” Rosenberg said.
The idea that the Holocaust may not be used for political purposes is preposterous because the very existence of the State of Israel is inextricably intertwined with the Holocaust. There might not even BE a State were it not for the Holocaust. Considering that every major foreign leader who visits Israel MUST visit Yad Vashem puts the lie to this notion. If the museum truly refused to mingle its work with politics then it would tell political leaders NOT to visit it. The fact that it welcomes them indicates that it embraces the notion that the museum’s mission and the traumatic event are part and parcel of the nation’s political patrimony.
After reading this I’m convinced not only that Shapira’s firing was wrongful, but that HE should be the museum’s director:
Shapira said Yad Vashem chooses to examine only some of the events that took place in the War of Indpendence. “It is being hypocritical. I only tried to expose the visitors to the facts, not to political conclusions. If Yad Vashem chooses to ignore the facts, for example the massacre at Dir Yassin, or the Nakba…it means that it’s afraid of something and that its historic approach is flawed,” Shapira said.
Instead of firing him, Yad Vashem should dialogue with his perspective. It is critical that Israel understand the ways in which it uses the Holocaust in political discourse and it needs to understand legitimate comparisons between it and other national historical catastrophes (i.e. Nakba, Armenian genocide, Pol Pot’s genocide, etc.) To attempt to live in a tower and say that there can’t possibly be any human suffering like Jewish suffering runs counter to reason and reality.
It’s not surprising that the museum would fire Shapira, who is a member of Combatants for Peace and Shovrim Shtika, anti-Occupation groups whose members are former IDF soldiers.
22 thoughts on “How is Our Holocaust Different From All Other Holocausts? – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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FYI, Yad Vashem is not a University where free inquiry is a protected value. A docent there is not a professor. The POV of that institution is “flawed” and one sided by design. Why not start another museum if you want to promote different values? Why don’t you ask why there isn’t there a Palestinian counterpart to Yad Vashem across town? Perhaps you already know the answer to that.
How lame, Tzvee. There IS an Israeli Arab who has attempted to create a Holocaust museum in Nazareth. Even the N.Y. Times (which I assume you read) did a story about him if I recall. Did you not know this? If not, you should. And stop being so snarky when you’re really uninformed. Snark does not conceal ignorance. It only makes it look lame when uncovered.
Hi Richard et al.
You’re right about one thing Richard: as far as victimisation and persecution go, one is no more important than another, and it is extremely odious for people to claim unique importance on the one hand, and to demean other tragedies on the other. However, the distinction of significance is one of historical accuracy: as atrocious as the Naqba or other ethnic cleansings or genocides have been, there are two things that make the Holocaust historically unique: 1) the attempt to exterminate a people in their entirety, which has never been consciously engaged in before. Other genocides (e.g. Armenia or Rwanda) were not centred on universal annihilation. Whatever else may be said about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, it has never attempted to exterminate them. 2) the method of using what were in effect factory installations designed to systematically kill people.
This is what makes the Aktion Reinhard camps unique even within the other programmes for murder that the Nazis put into effect: the killing of 200,000 gypsies, 8 million Russian civilans, the T4 ‘Euthanasia’ program, or the kidnapping of hundreds of thousands of children from countries such as Poland. These were not more or less immoral or wicked than the crimes of Stalin, for instance; or the Khmer rouge: but from the point of view of historicism, this is why the Holocaust holds a particular category of its own. There are a number of useful educational resources you may be interested in:
I agree that it is unsavoury for people to compete for higher victimisation stakes though. There’s a good article by Anne Karpf on the subject here:
People get upset about stories like this not because we wish to deny some unique status to the Holocaust, but because the Holocaust and particularly its superlative status is used to obscure and justify yet more inhumanity.
The Holocaust will be remembered not just as an atrocity in itself, but also how the fact of it was manipulated to justify further atrocities. Those who are abusing it in this way are not respecting, but dishonouring the memory of those who died.
If Yad Vashem isn’t highlighting that abuse it should be.
Hi Miles. I agree. There is a website devoted to discussing the complexities of ways in which Judaism itself is cited to justify various matters which work to undermine the true values of the faith. The home page is here:
It’s a group of Talmudic scholars who use the true teachings and values of Judaism to make a push for peace and understanding. It’s a genuine scholarly site as well – which is as rare as horse feathers on t’ net – but not so easy to navigate.
A good quote from Martin Buber:
“Only an internal revolution can have the power to heal our people of their murderous sickness of causeless hatred. It is bound to bring complete ruin upon us. Only then will the old and young in our land realize how great was our responsibility to those miserable Arab refugees in whose fields we now sow and harvest; the fruit of whose gardens, orchards and vineyards we gather; and in whose cities we robbed, we put up houses of education, charity and prayer while we babble and rave about being the ‘people of the book’ and the ‘light of the nations.'”
There are a number of individuals who cite the Holocaust to justify their beligerance, from Menachim Begin to Benjamin Netanyahu. The essay by Anne Karpf in one of my other posts discusses this.
Not true at all. Amalekites, Jebusites, Moabites. All annihilated in their entirety by the children of Israel. Not to mention the Albigensians, a heretic group exterminated by the Catholic Church & its allies during the Middle Ages. There is a danger in making such sweeping statements unless you are a historian of genocide, which you clearly are not.
Hi Richard. I’m aware of the history of the Amalekites, for one, and of how it was cited by Israel Hess in a manner relevant herein. Uriel Tal discusses it here:
you may also be interested in:
And You’re quite correct: I’m not a scholar of genocide, nor did I imply that I was one. This has nothing to do with accuracy of definition, however: the others were religious, not racial matters: killing people on the basis of supposed ideology does not preclude exemption. If heretics renounce heresy, then it follows they are spared. Nor does it have anything to do with point 2, incidentally. There’s a good definition of the Holocaust’s distinctness from other genocides in history:
“The “Final Solution” was designed to exterminate every single Jewish man, woman and child. The only Jews who would have conceivably survived had Hitler been victorious were those who somehow escaped discovery by the Nazis.
Jewish birth (actually mere evidence of “Jewish blood”) was sufficient to warrant the punishment of death. Fackenheim notes that this feature distinguished Jews from Poles and Russians who were killed because there were too many of them, and from “Aryans” who were not singled out unless they chose to single themselves out. With the possible exception of Gypsies, he adds, Jews were the only people killed for the “crime” of existing.
The extermination of the Jews had no political or economic justification. It was not a means to any end; it was an end in itself. The killing of Jews was not considered just a part of the war effort, but equal to it; thus, resources that could have been used in the war were diverted instead to the program of extermination.
The people who carried out the “Final Solution” were primarily average citizens. Fackenheim calls them “ordinary job holders with an extraordinary job.” They were not perverts or sadists. “The tone-setters,” he says, “were ordinary idealists, except that their ideals were torture and murder.” Someone else once wrote that Germany was the model of civilized society. What was perverse, then, was that the Germans could work all day in the concentration camps and then go home and read Schiller and Goethe while listening to Beethoven.
Other examples of mass murder exist in human history, such as the atrocities committed by Pol Pot in Cambodia and the Turkish annihilation of the Armenians. But none of those other catastrophes, Fackenheim argues, contain more than one of the characteristics described above”.
Nor were any of the pre-modern instances perpetrated by a technologically advanced modern state, for that matter, with all of the resources it brought to bear.
the author of the above finishes on the following note:
“Jews do not need to compete in a morbid contest as to who has suffered the most in history. It is important, however, to explain why the Holocaust is a unique part of human history”.
The Holocaust was unique as a program: but enough has been said. There’s no keeping a true scholar ignorant, and the truth is there for those who are interested.
And for what it’s worth, I’m increasingly inclined to agree with Anne Karpf’s surmises viz how unseemingly such distinctions are: but this cuts both ways, of course.
p.s. There’s no need to be so terse, Richard. Manners are inexpensive and pleasant.
Tzvee – “Perhaps you already know the answer to that.”
Because the occupying forces wouldn’t allow it it, you idiot.
If the Palestinians want to make a naqba museum in Gaza, no one is stopping them. The 1948 War is not the topic of Yad Vashem
You’re right. And there is such a museum.
As usual your impoverished view of Israeli realty prevents you fr. the least sensitivity to this subject. Yad Vashem is a Holocaust museum. As such, it has or should have some relationship with other historical catastrophic national events. If not, then it exists in a vacuum and humanity does not exist in a vacuum. Yad Vashem is attempting to do the impossible, to claim that there is no suffering like Jewish suffering. That we are unique is the annals of world history and as such deserve extra wide latitude for our own misdeeds (they’re not saying this directly in this particular case, but the inference is clear). This is clearly pernicious.
I actually disagree with your comments 180 degrees.
Its enough that Yad Vashem is what it is.
Yad Vashem was not stating that the individual shouldn’t hold the views that he did, only that in representing Yad Vashem as a tour guide, he should limit his comments to the subject of the museum itself.
I don’t believe that Yad Vashem is stating that there is no other suffering, or severe suffering, or genocide in the world.
It is what it is. It doesn’t need to be what you think it should be.
I think a blog that uses the term “tikkun olam” should be different than the limited scope of topics that you address, and in the limited way.
There is considerable controversy over the events to which you refer, RichardHutton. The view you present seems nuanced to provide a bias for use of power by Western nations.
Mutually assured destruction is a useful concept; not using it creates intolerable danger, in my opinion; it scares people to death.
“The view you present seems nuanced to provide a bias for use of power by Western nations. Mutually assured destruction is a useful concept; not using it creates intolerable danger, in my opinion; it scares people to death”.
I was trying – briefly – to outline why historians of the Third Reich hold the Final Solution to be unique within world history. There was – and is – no political bias within this: neither overt nor latent; beyond, of course, antipathy towards genocide itself. And my point was fairly clear: one program for murder is no more or less immoral than another – I was discussing accuracy of definition.
And for what it’s worth, there isn’t an awful lot of controversy over this. This is the bare bones to be found in most responsible discussions of the policy: Gitta Sereny’s book ‘Albert speer: his battle with truth’ is a good starting place. More specialised studies such as Gerald Reitlinger’s ‘The final solution’, Raul Hilberg’s ‘the destruction of the European Jews’ or Helen Fein’s ‘Accounting for Genocide’ are more specific.
RichardHutton: My impression from reading history is that the first distinction you make, regarding the conscious decision to “attempt to exterminate a people in their entirety,” was, like the second, a matter of time and place.IMO others, in the past, given the capability, would also have tried to wipe out the totality of whomever they defined as the enemy. The same habit of believing that one is better than one’s neighbor for reasons to do with race and religion remains a constant throughout history, and historically has been used by leaders to motivate populaces against groups in disfavor.
RichardHutton: The controversy to which I refer, and which seems pertinent to me, is over the use made of the Holocaust. Thank you for your response.
will to truth – Your site is v. interesting!
Mr. Hutton: Thanks for the link to the site on the Talmud. It looks useful as a resource.
Nay problem. Hope it’s helpful.
Our Holocaust is different I think because only Jews (some) campaign to help those trying to destroy them.
Thanks for the non sequitur. By the way, if you ever insert such drivel into a comment here again you’ll be banned.
Amos, do not people help people? Perhaps what you have said doesn’t express what you mean.
“The people who carried out the “Final Solution” were primarily average citizens.” There is nothing unique about this, in our current time. Tuchman’s histories are full of the same. Historically, it has always required individuals to kill others, e.g. to ravage the countrysides of Europe. It’s called war.
I would argue that Israel is using “the Jews” now, as the monarchies and the Roman Church used them previously. Israel is not a single actor; Israel is a place where many nations have money and property. When it acts, people in the US and other countries are beneficiaries.
Just as it takes common citizens to fight a war, it takes common citizens to invest in development. Many people in the US, invested in pension plans, derive income from the wealth Israel produces. Behind the scapegoat image of “the Jews” is, as always, a larger group which includes the individuals so described, individuals in this circumstance not remarkable except in being made obvious.
I know Itamar Shapira, I can’t begin to tell you how much Yad Vashem would have benefited from truly having a dialogue with him about this issue. And now tourists to Israel will miss out on an excellent guide. This is not so black and white… I have been on many tours at this museum and have never had an “objective” tour – there are always politics enmeshed with every docent. His ideas are unique, and laden with experience – from a wise person, not a naive one. He is a private tour guide as well, we would all be so lucky to have his wide and creative perspective educate us – one that actually might inspire peace in the region for a change.
Tell Itamar that if he sends me his e mail address or a website link I’ll promote his guide work here.