The haredim and Yom Hashoah

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN in The Jerusalem Post

On Holocaust Remembrance Day ultra-Orthodox Jews were accused of “celebrating” by holding a barbecue in a public park. The original article by Danny Adino-Ababa appeared in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot titled “Haredim hold barbecue on Holocaust Remembrance Day.” It was picked up by various popular blogs, one of which changed the headline to “Haredim hold barbecue next to Yad Vashem on Holocaust Memorial Day.”

Ron Melamed of the Yetid organization wrote on his Facebook page that “the haredim are celebrating, it is shameful.” The topic became a minor tempest in Israel’s media as people rushed to bash the Orthodox Jews and condemn them.

By the next day there was some push-back by alternative voices. Israel National News noted that the story had been crafted as a “barbecue libel” and that it was based on incorrect information. Andrew Friedman wrote up the story on his blog, noting “Yediot peddles hatred, intolerance.”

But it is worth exploring this story to better understand exactly what was at work here. Every Holocaust Remembrance Day the public is confronted with stories about how the ultra-Orthodox supposedly “desecrate” the day and the day becomes once more an excuse for the media to excoriate haredim.

One of the responses is to point out that some of the haredim have always rejected the state-created day as incompatible with this season of the Jewish calendar, for which reason they object to observing it. But defending the haredim based on their choices removes the onus from the odd focus placed on them by the secular community.

The article about the haredi barbecue began with an inaccuracy. Originally, in Hebrew it said that “not far from Yad Vashem” the haredim had set out to BBQ.

The English version noted that “while [the] neighboring Yad Vashem museum held a somber memorial service, the yeshiva students and young haredi women gathered around smoking grills.”

Yad Vashem is actually four kilometers from Gan Sacher, where the grilling took place. Whether in English or Hebrew, four kilometers is not considered “not far from” or “neighboring.” Thus the juxtaposition of the two events was artificial. The news report claimed that the haredim held a “provocative barbecue.” The idea being conveyed here, of course, is that the intent was to provoke; that it was done on purpose.

The secular community in Israel reacts to these reports, year after year, with an attitude that implies the haredim deny the Holocaust.

Besides the news crews that seek out haredim every year who don’t observe Yom Hashoah, there are also reports about how haredim don’t stand at attention during the memorial siren. Sometimes these reports are accompanied by photos showing them sitting, or walking on the street, while others stand. As with the BBQ, the idea is to show how the haredim are disrespecting the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

However, when haredim are queried about their view of the Holocaust, they say they don’t deny the event or its significance, but rather choose not to commemorate it the way the State of Israel does. One told Ababa, “We remember the Holocaust more than you and any other secular person. We just honor their memory in our own way.”

WHAT LIES at the base of the decision to use Holocaust Remembrance Day as an excuse to bash the haredim, on Facebook, on the radio, television and on radio? Every Holocaust Remembrance Day it is common to see photos from the period showing religious Jews being murdered. One particularly shocking one that made the rounds this year shows a religious man wearing a tallit and tefillin while his comrades have been gunned down.

When people visit Holocaust museums they invariably see photos of religious Jews being murdered. Yet when they are confronted with modern day ultra- Orthodox Jews, they see them only as distant. Why the disconnect? A secular Jew can identify with a Jewish man in tefillin and tallit in 1942, but today he wants to imagine that the same man celebrates on Holocaust Remembrance Day, say, by having a barbecue? This is a fundamental feature of the way in which some in Israel have come to view Holocaust Remembrance Day. They don’t view it as a day to remember the victims, but as a day to become enraged about the behavior of other Jews. They spend the minute of silence, not in quiet contemplation, but looking around to see who is not standing correctly, or who is not observing.

Consider the secular media’s active seeking out of the haredim in the park and obvious manipulation of the story – is that truly in the spirit of Holocaust Remembrance Day? If you spend the day complaining to others about the actions of fellow Jews, are you observing Holocaust Remembrance Day, or are you disgracing it in the exact same manner you accuse others of? Let’s take that question even further. The day before Holocaust Remembrance Day Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat postponed a plan to name a street in honor of Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz. Leibovitz, an Israel Prize nominee, was a chemistry professor who often involved himself in the country’s politics. He coined the term “Judeo-Nazi” which he applied to Israeli soldiers who served in the West Bank. He already has a street named after him in one town in Israel, and is widely admired as one of Israel’s greatest intellectuals by those on the Left.

Is it worse to not observe Holocaust Remembrance Day than it is to refer to Jews as Nazis simply because they are conscripted into the army? Seriously, which is worse, which is more of a desecration of the Holocaust? Isn’t it worse to deny the truly unique horrors of the Holocaust by referring to all sorts of people as modern- day “Nazis”? Yet many people in Israel are enamored not only of Leibovitz, but of many other public intellectuals who abuse the word “Nazi.” Yigal Tamarkin, an Israel Prize recipient, according to author Edward Alexander once said, “when I see the black-coated haredim with the children they spawn I can understand the Holocaust.”

Which is worse, a state that gives its highest civilian prize to someone who says things like that, or several haredim who don’t observe Holocaust Remembrance Day? If it is considered acceptable and praiseworthy to say that one understands the Holocaust as long as it was done to the haredim, how can the same society that rewards such comments then bash the haredim for not observing Yom Hashoah? After all, the extremist part of society that “understands” the Holocaust – so long as it was done to those who are different – can’t also claim they truly memorialize the Holocaust.

Some Israelis want Holocaust Remembrance Day to be coercive, to be forced upon people, and those who do not observe it are subject to invective in mass media. But are memorial days supposed to be a conformity contest, or a true expression of grief? To be legitimate in one’s memorialization of the Holocaust one should focus inward, not point fingers.

The state should first stop naming streets after a man that coined the term “Judeo-Nazi,” and our politicians should stop handing out prizes to people who “understand” the murder of Jews.

Then, after the “Nazi” comments stop on television, radio and in the media, people might take the time to ask those ultra-Orthodox Jews who choose not to accept the state’s commemoration to respect those who do by behaving in a solemn manner in public. 

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