The death of memory

Posted: Oct 01, 2005 4:02 PM

There is not a single political leader in Israel who will not uphold the country's identity as the Jewish state. But what does that identity mean? Does the fact that Israel is the Jewish state mean that it has a unique mission in the world that distinguishes it from every other state?

The overwhelming majority of Israelis would say that the fact that Israel is the Jewish state means that Israel is a unique state and that it has a unique mission in the world. Religious Israelis believe that the establishment of the State of Israel was the beginning of the period of divine redemption and that the mission of the Jews in the redemptive age is to defend the State of Israel and to work to ensure that the People of Israel in the Land of Israel act as a light unto the nations of the world. Non-religious Israelis will generally say that the mission of Israel is to be a homeland for all the Jews. It is a physical refuge for those in need and – at a minimum – an anchor and guarantor of Jewish identity and continuity for Jews who live in free societies outside of Israel.

In both cases, national memory – from Abraham to the Exodus from Egypt, the establishment of the ancient Jewish commonwealths in the Land of Israel, the Roman exile, the expulsions from England and Spain, the religious persecutions in various exile communities in Europe and Asia, the messianic movement of Shabbtai Zvi in the 17th century, through the debated legacy of the Emancipation in Western and Central Europe, the Holocaust and the establishment of the modern State of Israel – plays a central role in both group's basic understanding of Israel's role in the world today.

THERE IS a third group of Israelis, that finds its home on the far left, that includes leaders like Uri Avineri and Yossi Beilin for whom the Emancipation which granted citizenhip to Jews in Europe but forced them to assimilate into the socieities in which they lived, left a wholly positive legacy. For these people, Israel has no unique role in the world. Rather, it is simply an outpost of Western civilization in the Middle East. As a Western encroachment on Arab civilization, these deracinated Jewish ideologues believe that Israel's role is to ask for forgiveness from the Arabs for our "crime" of moving in on "their" territory. Since Israel has no particular role to fulfill in the world as the Jewish state, for these men and their followers, the national memory of the Jewish people is the primary hindrance, rather than the anchor of national progress and endeavor.

Disturbingly, it would seem that this minority view has infected the political leadership of Israel. The public received a strong indication that this is the case last Friday when the relevant government leaders from President Moshe Katsav, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to Education Minister Limor Livnat did not bother to attend Simon Wiesenthal's funeral in Herzliya. To understand why their absence – like the absence of every other government minister – is so distressing, it is necessary to understand what Wiesenthal was, and more importantly, what he symbolized for the Jewish people in Israel and throughout the world.

SIMON WIESENTHAL, who passed away at 96 on Sept. 20 at his home in Vienna was a Jew of the Diaspora. The fact that he did not make his home in Israel, however, did not lessen his importance to the Jewish people. Wiesenthal, a survivor of the Holocaust, devoted his life to actualizing memory. In hunting down more than 1,000 Nazi war criminals who personally perpetrated the Holocaust, Wiesenthal personified the Jewish view that our history is not simply remembered, but lived on a daily basis. He understood that if history is viewed with passivity, then memory will be lost, and a Jewish people that lacks its memory is a Jewish people without a future.

Wiesenthal said, "For me, it is important to remember, but it is far more important to remember to act." This elegant statement is a simple elucidation of the basis for the continued existence of the Jewish people throughout history. We cannot survive without our memory, and our actions will be worthless if they are not grounded in our past.

It was because Wiesenthal personified and became a symbol of the importance of ensuring that our memories direct our actions as Jews that he was such a prominent figure in the Jewish world. Given that none of our national leaders bothered to attend his funeral, the question naturally arises, how is it that they have forgotten to remember? The answer to the question has its roots in the deprecation of Israeli society heralded by the embrace of the PLO as a peace partner by Israel 12 years ago.

To convince Israelis that the Arab world's rejection of Israel was the result of the absence of a Palestinian state in the Land of Israel, and that a terrorist organization whose sole reason for existing was the destruction of Israel could be a partner in achieving peace with Israel, the government, under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres had to tell us to forget our past.

Indeed, Peres has repeatedly berated his opponents over the past 12 years by arguing that "history is unimportant." Since Oslo, revisionist historians have rewritten school history textbooks. Among other things, they changed the history of the 1948 War of Independence to hide its central truth – that Israel fended off the joint invasion of five Arab armies whose governments' declared goal was the physical eradication of the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. Instead, the new textbooks now follow the narrative of Israel's enemies, and cast the war as one of Israel's dispossession of the Arab refugees that fled the state. In the universities, Israel's so-called occupation of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip has become the focal point of academic research in the social sciences and humanities.

On a national political level, our debate since 1993 has required the denial of truth almost as soon as it passes into history. To convince the public that peace can be achieved through Israeli concessions, politicians must deny the fact that aside from the Hashemites in Jordan, all Arab leaders have consistently insisted that there is no room in the Middle East for a Jewish state. To sustain the myth that Yasser Arafat and his circle of Fatah founders, like Mahmoud Abbas, are "partners for peace," Israeli leaders must steadfastly deny the terrorist past and present of Fatah and its PLO partners.

At root, we see that the decision to make "peace" the central aim of the Jewish state has negated the Jewish identity of the state. This is so not because peace is antithetical to Jewish identity but because the quest for this "peace" is rooted in lies and as such demands a rejection of national memory.

The absence of any of Israel's national political leaders at Wiesenthal's funeral is a symptom of our willful amnesia. Wiesenthal said, "There is no freedom without justice." To this it should be added that freedom grounded in justice is the only basis for real peace and that a people without a memory cannot pursue justice, maintain its freedom or attain peace. Staring at the moral crisis in which Israel's leadership is presently subsumed from this vantage point, it becomes apparent that the present predicament can only be remedied when the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora internalize again the message that Wiesenthal symbolized in his life.

We are a people with a mission in the world. Our mission as Jews and as the Jewish state is predicated on our preservation of our national memory and the actualization of that memory in our lives and in the lives of the generations that come after us.

Caroline B. Glick is the senior Middle East fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, DC and the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post where this article first appeared.