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Israeli Identity - Bible or Shoah?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 3/2010, P. 147-157
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The Bible is the most successful bestseller of the world - the Shoah the greatest catastrophe that has hit the Jews. The expert in Jewish studies TZVIA KOREN-LOEB examines the role played by the Holy Scriptures and the Holocaust in today's Israel regarding the identity formation of society, particularly of its children and adolescents.


The Bible is the major bestseller of the world. When you type in the word "Bible" in the Google search engine you will find around 17 million websites. In the Bible you can find everything: wars, love, faith, holiness, relationships, nature, poetry, literature. It refers specifically to the fundamental questions of human existence. That it tries to integrate the perspectives of different cultures and mentalities makes the Bible an indispensable book.


Text and Identity

The Bible is the oldest text with which the identity of the Jewish people is connected. Great philosophers of the 19th century such as Nachman Krochmal (1785-1840), Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and Martin Buber (1878-1965) kept in their thinking always the Bible as the first source in their mind and developed thus their topics. In today's Israel the interest in the Bible is nevertheless steadily declining. This was already in the 60s of the 20th century perceived by Jacob (Coos) Schoneveld and several years ago anew made a subject of discussion by the Israeli historian Anita Shapira.

By contrast, the Shoah and its implications for education and training of the Israeli youth have been a central topic for years. For example, the so-called "Israeli Roots Project" is part of the curriculum of the seventh grade in grammar schools. As a kind of search for traces, the students are to explore and document the history of their families. The best works will be awarded prizes. The highlight of this methodological and didactic measure is for Israeli students a journey to Poland. Since 1988 on Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) the "march of the living" takes place. It is a memorial march from Auschwitz to the Birkenau extermination camp, which is led by survivors of the Holocaust and is attended by young Jews from around the world. The trip to Poland and the participation in the memorial march is a collective identity sign of Israeli awareness resp. of the expression of Jewish life in Israel. What is the significance of the Bible and of the Shoah for Israel's national identity? What could their meaning be today?

Secular people in Israel today connect the Bible with religious fundamentalism. The language of the Bible is not identical with Modern Hebrew that is spoken by the majority of Israelis and is therefore incomprehensible without explanation.



Israeli youths do no longer feel any affinity to the stories of the Bible. The young people prefer studying high-tech, economics, English and law to studying the Bible. The history of Israel is no longer imparted with the help of the Bible. At school, it is used sometimes in the context of disciplinary measures: Students will be punished by telling them that they have to copy a chapter or a passage from the Bible several times.


Importance of the Bible in Modern Israel

Since the founding of the state, Israel does no longer exist only in the dreams of the Jewish people. It seems that one does no longer need the Bible as in former times in order to identify with the country. And the names of the children of modern Israelis are no longer necessarily taken from the Bible. Today the Israeli identity seems to be defined primarily by the Shoah and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and its neighbouring countries.

The Protestant theologian Jacob (Coos) Schoneveld, theological consultant to the Dutch Reformed Church in Christian-Jewish issues, who lived from 1967 to 1980 with his family in Jerusalem, warned already in the 70s against the danger that the neglect of the biblical tradition threatens to undermine the foundations of the Jewish state. He suggested that Judaism was to develop a theological system and regarded the Bible as the common source for both Jews and Christians, to which people should have access throughout the modern world.

Anita Shapira, who teaches as a professor of Jewish history at the University of Tel Aviv and deals especially with the history of Zionism and of Israel's population in the period before the founding of the state and during the war of independence, writes in her book "The Bible and Israeli Identity" (Jerusalem 2005) that the Bible, which before the founding of Israel had played an important role in Jewish culture and for its founders, has lost its worth since the 70s. She attributes this mainly to the changes in Israeli society after the Six Day War in June 1967. In contrast, in the diaspora the Bible was important for the Jewish identity; and it still serves also in Israel to ensure that people get to know the country, its nature and its history better.

Schoneveld and Shapira look at the role of the Bible in Israel from various perspectives: Schoneveld from the viewpoint of the Christian stranger, who lived a certain time in Israel. He is confident that the Bible can again gain in importance. The way there, he sees in the strengthening of relations between Jews and Christians in Israel. Shapira, in turn, represents the perspective of the secular Jewish Israeli. She doubts that the Bible in Israel can once again become as popular as in former times, but she leaves the question open.



New Accesses by Academies, Comics and Movies

Are there ways to return the Bible into the center of Hebrew culture? A first attempt at this was the creation of secular academies (yeshivot), technical and adult education centers where the Torah and Talmud study can be continued indefinitely. There, the Bible and other sources of Jewish tradition can be studied and discussed from an historical perspective, without necessarily identifying them with religion.

The latest "Yeshiva", which was founded in 2006, is located in a slum in the south of Tel Aviv. It is a project of the "BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture" ("Binah" = understanding). Its goal is to train a new generation of secular scientists, who do not study in order to obtain an academic title but to get involved in various social organizations and movements. 150 students attended this Yeshiva in the year of its foundation. Young people before their military service resp. shortly after it study here, but also men and women of middle age with an academic education.

During three days of the week they study in the Yeshiva. During the two days free of studies the students work in schools and clubs throughout this residential district. The curriculum includes the subjects of Bible, Talmud and Kabbalah, the history of Zionism, economics and social sciences. The teaching staff consists of religious and secular teachers. Prominent figures of the Israeli society are among them, for example, the former politician and author Avraham Burg, Rabbi Joel Bin-Nun, the expert in Jewish studies Ari Elon, Yona Arazi, Muki Zur, the author Dov Elboim, Aryeh Budenheimer (Budeh).

One of the most interesting attempts to present the Bible in a modern form is its transformation into comic strips. For example Schaj Cherkas published humorous strip cartoons about the early history of Israel in the religiously oriented children's paper "Otijot". He has also published children's comics about the Mishnah (1987/88), the Maccabees, the history of Israel from the destruction of the first to the destruction of the second temple (1996), about the Haggadah and the history of the Jews in the then Egypt (1999) and about various fantastic animals mentioned in the Mishnah and in the Talmud (2001). Even movies with popular actors in the Israeli television are a good way to impart basic concepts of the Bible and Zionism to the younger generation.



The Bible - Identity Card of the Jewish People

Many of Israel's scientists, politicians and media representatives agree with Anita Shapira that the Bible has since the 70s lost the great importance that it had before the foundation and during the first years of the State of Israel for the Jewish culture, and they wonder whether and how it is possible to win back this significance for modern Israel.

According to Naomi Saroca, who teaches at the Faculty of Education, University of Haifa, the Bible corresponds to the collective history that is linked with the collective memory: The Bible is the identity card of the Jewish people. It legitimates the creation of the State of Israel and imparts continuity and tradition. It is the textual-linguistic experience of the Jewish people's origin. It asks questions and seeks answers. In the center of the Bible is admittedly the monotheistic faith, yet this book is relevant for every Israeli. We are living in an era of individualism, and the Bible can serve as a meaningful component of the identity of individual Israelis resp. of Israel's identity as nation.

Moshe Grylak, rabbi, writer and editor in chief of the Orthodox weekly, "Mischpachah" (family) argues that the Bible is not just a book about religion or faith but a work that, like a magnet, attracts the secular culture and poetry. Only religious people are able to teach the Bible - but on condition that they do this out of love for it, and not in order to convert others to Orthodox Judaism.

Also Uri Heitner, director of the community centers in the area of the Golan Heights and a member of the Kibbutz Ortal in the northern Golan Heights sees the love for the Bible as essential for its communication. One of the most important cultural and educational tasks of the Israeli society was to bring the love of the Bible home to Israeli children and young people. Already at the beginning of the 20th century the love of studying the Bible has got lost. He mentions the following reasons for it: the target of the Israeli Ministry of Education to teach the Bible in a mere academic way, namely to focus on its historical aspect and to put exegesis into the center; the students' intention to learn the Bible only in order to pass the examination; the reduction of teaching hours and of biblical texts, which consequently are to be treated in a way that basic questions can no longer be clarified and the teacher can no longer deal with difficult educational and cultural challenges; the deepening of the gap within Israeli society between those who are ideologically neutral and represent the secular culture, and those who are religious, as e.g. the Orthodox Jews, and identify with the Bible; the learning the Bible by heart, which is in opposition to the cultivation of thinking; teachers who do not wholeheartedly believe in the relevance of the Bible.



According to Uri Paz, editor, researcher on Judaism and legal affairs correspondent, the distance to the Bible corresponds to the distance to the state of Israel and to the ideals of Zionism. It could be reduced - for example by hiking in Israel under the guidance of the Bible or by taking up the Bible and its themes in art and literature. Examples for it are translations of the Bible into modern Hebrew, as e.g. the book by Israeli journalist and writer Meir Shalev, "Bible Today" (1985) or the series "Ha-Tanakh Be-Charusim" (The Bible in rhyme) by Ephraim Sidon, an Israeli satirist, writer of children's books, and dramaturg. He tells the Bible in rhymes and wants thus to facilitate children's access.

The Hebrew of the Bible, the words, the verses, the emphasis on language - all these reflect the beauty of the Bible. That's why the Israeli literary critic, poet and publicist Ben Menahem argues in favour of reading the Bible, and reading aloud it - namely pointedly, fluently and in "good style", in order in this way to learn to love it. Sara Yefet, Israeli historian with a focus on "Biblical Studies" at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, suggests reading the Bible every day without fear and prejudice, and with great frankness. One should start where one currently wanted to start. The Bible will do the rest. In addition, one had now to take into account when studying the Bible that the Israeli society has changed, that we live in a technological time with computer and television, and that the Hebrew language has diverged from its origin and has got new nuances.

Since the Eichmann trial in 1961, the Holocaust plays a central role in the Israeli and Jewish identity. But Yaira Amit, director of the Faculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Tel Aviv with the Bible as a research focus, believes that the Bible is therefore not simply replaced by the Shoah. She thinks that she perceives a tendency in the Israeli society: people seek to be close to tradition and want to become acquainted with other cultural sources besides the Bible. In this way the canon, according to which the Israeli identity is formed, is supplemented by other sources - in addition to the Bible.

The Rabbi Neria Gutel, President of the Orot Israel College in Elkana, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, and one of the world's foremost experts on the topic "Israel and the nations," takes up Amit's research and develops them: The Bible alone does not make up the Israeli or Jewish identity. There are admittedly beautiful passages in the Bible, like "love thy neighbor," but there are also others such as e.g. that about David, who laid waste the countryside, "and left neither man nor woman alive; he carried off the sheep and cattle, the donkeys, camels and clothing, and then came back again" (1 Sam 27:9). To understand its meaning, one needed exegetical advice, so that one e.g. was able to differentiate between temporary commands for times of emergency and the law for generations, or between the law for individuals and the general law. Exegesis explains, localizes, demarcates, defines and illustrates the intent - not only in the past but also in relation to the present.



Not only the written tradition is important for it, but besides the oral tradition also the literal meaning of the biblical text ("Pschat"), in addition to its homiletic interpretation in the sense of an ethical Aggadah commentary ( "Drasch").


The Shoah in Israel's Collective Memory

1st - In 1950 the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law was passed by the Knesset. It says that s/he is guilty of the crime against the Jewish people and against humanity who during the Nazi regime has murdered Jews or was involved in it, tortured or starved Jews, damaged synagogues or committed other acts of violence against Jews and other peoples. For this the law provides the death penalty.

2nd - On 10 September 1952 the restitution agreement, the "Luxembourg Agreement" between Israel and Germany was signed by the Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett and the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Under this agreement, Germany transferred to Israel during the years 1953 to 1965 about three billion Deutschmarks in compensation for material losses and the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust era. In addition, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany bound itself to pay a pension to the Holocaust survivors - a fixed monthly amount, which was awarded to them as compensation for their suffering in concentration and extermination camps or for the loss of basic rights, such as the right to study.

A part of the compensation for confiscated or destroyed property of the Jewish communities in Germany (synagogues and public buildings) was handed back to the Jewish communities that stayed in the Federal Republic of Germany. With the Luxembourg Agreement the Federal Republic took responsibility for the consequences of the genocide of European Jews by Nazi Germany.



The treaty recognizes the State of Israel as representative of the Jewish people, especially of those murdered in the Shoah, and as the state that has borne the brunt of the integration of Jewish refugees and their rehabilitation. Also Holocaust survivors who had not lived in Israel or were no Israeli citizens received the personal compensation.

3rd - On 19 August 1953 in Jerusalem Yad Vashem was founded as a "memorial of the martyrs and heroes of the State of Israel during the Holocaust" by a decision of the Knesset. It is the most important memorial to extermination of Jews by the Nazi regime. Yad Vashem is to remind of the Holocaust and to preserve its teachings. The memorial was given the task to award the honorary title "Righteous Among the Nations" (Chassid Umot Ha-Olam) to non-Jewish individuals who had risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. Yad Vashem is annually visited by more than two million people.

4th - From 1953 to 1955 in the so-called "Kasztner Trial" Israel (Rudolf/Rezsö) Kasztner (1906-1957) is accused of collaboration with the Nazis. As a member of a Jewish rescue committee Kasztner, lawyer, journalist and Zionist community leader in Romania and Hungary had negotiated in Budapest with the Hungarian military secret service and espionage agents of the Imperial Army in order to rescue Jewish refugees from concentration camps. After the German occupation in 1944, Kastner was in contact with security officers of the German Empire, among them also Adolf Eichmann. During the Nuremberg war crimes trials, he had testified as a witness in favour of high-ranking Nazis. The court pronounced Kastner guilty of collaboration. According to the judge he had "sold his soul to the devil." A year later, the Supreme Court invalidated the verdict against Kastner. Shortly afterwards he was shot outside his home in Tel Aviv. On 15 March 1957 he died of his injuries. In 2007 his private archive was transferred to Yad Vashem.

5. The Holocaust Remembrance Day "Yom haSchoah" or "Yom haSikaron laSchoah we-LaGwurah" is since 1959 Israel's national holiday - Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust resp. of the heroism and the ghetto uprisings during the Holocaust era. Until the Yom Kippur War (1973) in Israel on this day one emphasized the contrast between "here" in Jerusalem, and "there" in Europe resp. between Jews in Israel who had fought for their independence and had realized it by their heroism and those in the Diaspora who have been slaughtered as victims like small domestic animals. After the Yom Kippur War with more than 2500 dead on the Israeli side, one regarded Israelis no longer only as heroes but also as victims. Yom haSchoah is the day of giving profoundly account for oneself, especially of the Jewish people to the Christian people. On Yom HaSchoah in Israel the Shoah is commemorated in the media, but also in the families of Holocaust survivors.



6th - An important date is also the Eichmann trial in 1961. Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962), SS-Obersturmbannführer and head of the department of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) responsible for the expulsion and deportation of the Jews, was centrally responsible for the murder of about six million people in the largely occupied Europe. In 1960 he was taken by agents of the Israeli foreign intelligence service Mossad from Argentina to Israel, where he was put on trial. Two years later he was sentenced to death and executed.


The Shoah - Legitimacy for the State of Israel?

The aforementioned "March of the Living" unites Israel's society through solidarity. "We were there (in Poland) with them (the Holocaust victims)," so the experience of participants; it is different and stronger than the cultural reality that is imparted by the virtual room of the television or computer screen. The march of the living is a metaphor for the entire Jewish people, which - due to its will to live - has gained the victory despite its destroyers.

The journey to Poland tries to make aware of this proud Israeli experience. It continues the Jewish Diaspora and connect it at the same time with the Zionist existence in the Land of Israel. The most intense moment, in which the connection of the Shoah with the Israeli identity finds its most intense expression, is the singing of "HaTiqwah," the anthem of the State of Israel at the door to the incinerator and gas chamber. The fate of the weak and scattered people in the valley of death calls definitely for a commitment to an independent and strong state.

The journey to Poland is the culmination of the Shoah studies. The participants are directly confronted with the context of the tragic events and learn thus to understand it better and to grasp its dimensions. With this journey the obligation is connected to acquaint oneself with the Shoah, to remember and to retell it to the next generation. By seeing and hearing on the spot, the ghettos and extermination camps become more concrete and speak against a Holocaust denial.

However, there are well-known voices in Israel that call the importance of the march of the living for the Israeli identity into question. There was no guarantee that a short traumatic experience serves as a basis for a thinking oriented towards the future. This problem, which has been distancing the Sephardim in Israel from the Ashkenazi Jews of the Holocaust, has gone through different stages since the founding of the state Israel. Like the writers Sami Michael and Eli Amir, who are both born in Baghdad, and Amnon Shamosh from Syria, also Raul Teitelbaum, an Israeli journalist, Holocaust researcher and survivor of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen is of the opinion that during the first decades after the Shoah, Jews from Islamic countries have identified with the suffering of their brethren from Europe.



Later, during the 80s and 90s, there was a time of detachment from the Shoah-tradition and in the last decade in turn a new approach by the remembrance of the fact that also thousands of Jews from North Africa were sent to concentration camps. Thus, also the Sephardic Jews regarded themselves as part of the Shoah.

The historian Chaim Grossman, who at the University of Tel Aviv is researching into the Israeli Zionist culture, asks to bear in mind that during the march of the living the participants' bonds to the Jewish world, which is full of life, culture and tradition, are caused by a dead world. The return to the Jewish roots would not really happen because one actually returned to dead roots. On the trip to Poland one would meet some old gravestones and the bitter tragic end of the Jews, instead of seeing the Diaspora there and its splendour, resp. experiencing Judaism in its thriving culture. The lesson drawn from it would not strenghten the love of the State of Israel but the differences between "weak = Shoah" and "strong = safety".


Jewish Search for Traces in Past and Present

Grossman calls for abandoning the state-sponsored journey to Poland in favour of other important geographical places. In Morocco, for example, Jewish life with a splendid distinct culture for more than 2500 years has been proven, but it would no longer exist because the majority of Jews had immigrated to Israel in 1948. A search for traces of Israeli students would lead them there to places where for a very long time, Jewish unity, tradition, religion, rich Jewish material culture, socio-economic development of the last generations and good neighborly relations with the Islamic world existed. Such a journey could be a bridge into a future world of joint participation: a search for traces in the past, but also in the present, for example, to Jerusalem or Galilee or to Israel's developing towns in the Negev, where they can experience modern pioneering actions.

Raul Teitelbaum is of the opinion that the journey of the Jewish youth had to go to Germany. It was important to remind the Germans of and to teach the Jewish youth the reasons of that terrible phenomenon, especially against the background of today's conditions of German society. Other Israelis are of the opinion that one should - with respect to the victims of today - draw the youth's attention also to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Zvi Gil, Holocaust survivor and co-founder of Israeli television, who is working for the documentation and the culture of remembrance of the Shoah, has sometimes the impression that the ambience of the march of the living is like an event or happening.



The Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, one of the most important Holocaust researcher and director of the International Center for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem from 1996 to 2000, says that one should not march in a cemetery" but tiptoe. Likewise, in a cemetery one should not sing, hoist up flags, or deliver political speeches, as senior politicians from Israel did in the past.

The young people who take part in the march of the living do not want to busy themselves always with Jewish death and memory during the days in Poland. They spend their time there also with tourism and leisure facilities. Chaim Grossman thinks this is wrong, since one should not necessarily make the Poles rich, because the Poles for their part had neither then nor have they now good intentions for the Jews.

Or Kashti, correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, reported on the abnormal behaviour of some Israeli students during the trip to Poland: They get drunk, visit casinos, and some are involved in acts of violence. There have been several cases in the past, where Israeli students made a bad impression. That's why the Israeli ministry of education obliges every student who wants to participate in the delegation to Poland to a personal interview with an educational consultant, the director of the delegation or the accompanying teacher. In addition, a code of conduct is to be defined and signed. Lately, the participation is also linked to the handing in of a theoretical work on Holocaust remembrance or other issues associated with the contents of the trip. This work must still have been assessed before the trip. In addition, after the journey every student is to carry out voluntarily a practical work for the community in the town where s/he lives. If possible, s/he should get in touch with needy Holocaust survivors who are living at his place of residence.

An absurd point is the need of some participants to show during the march of the living that the Jews are still alive. Instead, the Jews should show that they are closely linked with the tasks of the present. This would mean to show others how one can understand each other better and live and work well together. It is important to apprehend the terrible events during the Second World War, to remember them, and to keep them in mind both collectively and personally; but the "industry" that emerged around the march of the living does not bestow honour to those who in those days were in concentration camps and ghettos, and also not to those who pass on the legacy of these victims.

According to Or Kashti in recent years annually about 25,000 Israeli students went with the delegations to Poland. The grants of the Israeli Ministry of Education for the delegations to Poland are very high - around one thousand euros per student. The travel costs of groups that independently travel to Poland are even higher.



Not all students can afford these costs, and as a result many of them are at a disadvantage.

In the Internet magazine "YNET" in 2006 Uzi Dayan, Israeli politician, a general in the Israeli Army, and nephew of Moshe Dayan as well as the student Asaf Raguan were of the opinion that a commitment in Israel was preferable to the 'march of the living'. In 2006 there were 260,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel. One third of them still suffer from disgraceful economic, psychological and social distress. 73 percent of them are 76 years of age and older, 20 percent even older than 86 years. Many suffer from diseases picked up during the Second World War, and from their after-effects. More than 10,000 are under constant medical treatment. Dayan and Raguan think that it is better to invest the money in support staff, emergency call systems, financing of dental care, hearing aids, eyeglasses and orthopedic accessories rather than in the march of the living. They accuse the Knesset members of having never devoted themselves with the same energy for the welfare of Holocaust survivors as e.g. for broadcasting the World Cup on television.


Coexistence of all Strands of Tradition

The question of national identity of Israel results in a wide range of views. The tendency does here not run against tradition as such. In Israel one does not so fast forget that the Bible is a part of the tradition and history of the Jews. A people without tradition and history has no future. A decision between Bible or Shoah would therefore be premature and would not correspond to the reality of Israel's modern pluralistic society. Israel is the only country in the world where Jews constitute the majority population. But more than half of the Jews in Israel are secular Jews. Israeli identity has various sources and strands of tradition, and it is linked to the Bible, the Shoah, and also to the dispute about the own independent state. For the finding of identity of the entire Israeli people in this State the struggle for the coexistence of different traditions will be of central importance.


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