Yair Lapid
Photo: Yoni Hamenachem

The Holocaust question

Yair Lapid looks at Israeli survival-versus-morality dilemma in wake of Shoah

Sixty five years have passed since the Holocaust, and still we only know what happened, without being able to grasp what we need to do with this information. You feel that the Shoah is supposed to change something in you – as a Jew, a human being, and an Israeli – but what?


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.


Jewish fate would not be able to sustain another blow that is even reminiscent of the Holocaust, and we are obligated not only to ourselves, but also to all our past generations.


Every Israeli with a hint of historical memory (and who doesn't have it?) knows that our existence is fragile. Our homes, malls, and the roads we paved – all the asphalt and steel monsters that are supposed to represent unshakeable continuity – are merely a thin camouflage net placed over constant anxiety in the face of the people who wish to kill us.


If we let go for a moment of the notion of survival, the new Nazis will rise – and it doesn't matter whether they don keffiyahs or Wermacht helments – and try to kill us. We also learned that we must not count on the world to protect us. It will be deeply shaken to the core of its delicate soul, of course, and may even set up an orphanage for our children on the outskirts of Brussels, but we better not expect much more than that.


This is the reason, by the way, why the average Israeli is overcome by justified fury when he encounters the New Left's intellectuals, who pretend that Israel is part of the enlightened Europe and that for the sake of the human rights discourse we must concede to the oppressed masses, whose only sin is their desire to kill us. "Auschwitz cannot be an excuse for everything," they keep telling us. However, Auschwitz is not the excuse, but rather, a tangible and still-relevant reason, backed up by millions of corpses.


I'm not particularly fond of Shoah jokes, yet there is one I cannot forget: Why was Auschwitz an optimistic place? Because all the pessimists were already in New York by then. Just like every good joke, this one too is premised on a basic truth: We must always prepare for the worst case scenario, because otherwise it will materialize.


Banality of silence

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 wellbeing.


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.


Yet if we nonetheless indicted Eichmann, it was an act of faith in the human race: We believed, and we still do, that every person has the ability to distinguish good from bad, even if the entire world says otherwise. And if we executed Eichmann nonetheless, it was a resounding message that nobody can shirk the responsibility to take a moral position in favor of life. Hannah Arendt was wrong about one thing: It is not the "banality of evil" that threatens us, but rather, the banality of silence. Nobody must be silent in the face of death.


The survivors taught us, painfully late, that this was not the truth only in respect to the Germans, but also in respect to the victims. In his great book, Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor who lost his entire family, wrote: "In the concentration camps, in that living laboratory, we saw some of our comrades behaving like pigs and others behaving like saints. Both alternatives are hidden in a person; and which will be realized depends on decisions and not on conditions."


Hence, we must not only be suspicious of others in the wake of the Holocaust; we must also be suspicious of ourselves. Isn't the prevalent morality that surrounds us all on directions paralyzing our ability to examine reality ourselves, draw our own conclusions, and choose between good and evil ourselves?


Moreover, does defining survival as our supreme value make it impossible for us to take moral decisions when the whole world appears to us as a sophisticated extermination machine that waits for its chance to strike? Did we not limit ourselves to existence that is all about conditions, so that we can evade the decisions?


I don't know. Nobody likely knows. Precisely because the Shoah is a cosmic event that cannot be comprehended by any of the terms we're familiar with; it forces each person to come up with wholly personal conclusions about it. Anything I say about the Shoah is not a conclusion, but rather, a belief.


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.


פרסום ראשון: 04.11.10, 18:14
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