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A visit to Israel’s holocaust museum

I've lived in Israel for 30 years but somehow evaded a visit to Yad VaShem, the Jewish Holocaust remembrance museum. My youngest son is now in his final year of high school - the year when Israeli schools place an emphasis on holocaust studies - and the teacher invited parents along for a day at Yad VaShem. Dorit and I took part.

The museum underwent a major alteration a few years ago, in an attempt to modernize and find a way of reaching people as the chronological distance from the Holocaust grows. As a result, the museum decided to adopt a more personal approach - placing testimony from the lives of individuals at the forefront, and adopting artistic elements and modern technology to make the presentation more vivid. Not having seen the earlier version of the museum, it's not possible for me to say to what degree these attempts resulted in an improvement but, nevertheless, the current museum is very impressive - both artistically and in the amount of detail it captures. The viewer is engaged at every turn, and the physical space achieves its purpose of weighing in upon his soul.

Our visit was in the framework of a school field trip, so the guide's purpose was to engage the attention of 17 year-olds, with which she was evidently highly experienced. She kept up a constant discourse, so that it was her narrative, rather than an unmediated viewing of the displays, that remained dominant throughout the visit. In addition, the museum was so full of similar groups that it was very difficult to move, and in many places only the fact that the exhibits were high up on the walls or suspended from the ceiling enabled us to see anything. If it weren't for earphones, we also would not have been able to hear anything.

Many of the groups visiting the museum were soldiers. If, for some reason, Israeli teenagers miss the opportunity to visit the museum during their high school years, they get a second obligatory chance during their army service. The Holocaust is, after all, one of the principal underpinnings of Israeli national culture, the central event around which Israelis unite - although there is a certain difficulty to be overcome in that about half of Israelis come from countries which were not directly affected by the Holocaust. At one point, the museum guide asked what united the experience of a Jewish child in Europe to that of a child growing up in Libya - where, too, a few hundred Jews were killed. The answer was the totality of the extermination attempt that took place in the area.

Indeed it is amazing that Germany, involved in what increasingly became a war of survival, found time to hunt down a few Jews on remote islands in Greece, or shtetls dispersed throughout Belorussia. I began to wonder what would have happened to the Allies if Germany had not been so insanely fixated upon this activity. But probably the effort required to wipe out harmless civilians was not that great.

At a certain point in the tour, Dorit whispered that the guide, so immersed in her discourse, was not aware of how much her narrative reflected current realities. It was at the point where she was saying that in many cases, during the time that the Nazis swept through Eastern Europe towards the Ukraine, decisions over the fate of the Jewish population were often left up to individual commanders. These, having been brainwashed in school about the evils of the Jews, now had a chance to see them in person, and behave towards them as they pleased. A poster showed a group of soldiers laughing, while one of them shears the long black beard of a frightened Jew.

It is both inevitable and taboo in Israel to compare these acts to those that are perpetrated on Palestinians daily during the occupation. Yesterday, it was widely reported in world news media that Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said that the Palestinians would bring upon themselves a Holocaust (Shoah). Later he clarified that he had used the term in the sense of "disaster" (which ironically is the translation for Nakba). On a day when 61 Palestinians were killed, half of them civilians, Hamas leaders responded they were seeing this Holocaust on the ground.

The way that Israel uses the Holocaust as a motivating factor for young soldiers, the way in which they sometimes unconsciously repeat behavior of Nazis towards Jews in their treatment of Palestinians, are very interesting from a sociological perspective. But still more interesting is the selectivity of our attention as human beings with regard to the suffering of other human beings.

The museum speaks a great deal about the silence and indifference of the world's secular and religious authorities towards the treatment of the Jews in Germany of the 1930s and during the Holocaust itself. That is truly frightening, though it should not surprise us, with our more recent memories of the Balkans and Rwanda. Statements like that of Australia, during the Evian Conference, that it could not accept Jewish refugees because it did not wish to import racial problems in a country which had none, send a cold shiver down the spine.

The question is how a museum which is attempting to sensitize people to human suffering as a result of heartless state policies, does not succeed in sensitizing people more universally. How is it that young Israeli soldiers, presumably, leave the museum and then do not hesitate to obey orders that result in the harassment and humiliation of Palestinians, the murder of children, and all the other atrocities coincident with occupation, subjugation and ghettoization of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. I think that the reason the museum fails is that it does not aim sufficiently to provide a universal message. In placing the emphasis extensively upon "what they did to us" it misses the point that "this is what human beings did to human beings, and are capable of doing it again." Only when we absorb that message, and react to it with abhorrence, will something change.

There should be a holocaust museum, as richly endowed as this one in Jerusalem, in every city of the globe. These should deal with the Jewish Holocaust and all the other recent holocausts that blight our history books and daily news. They should bring the message home with the latest technological wizardry and audiovisual tools. They should show what decent, civilized human beings are doing to other human beings who happen to be in a weaker position, and motivate us to prevent this from happening.