Friday, May 19, 2000

How Israel Touts Shoah Revisionism

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

On the day that a British judge ruled that Deborah Lipstadt had not libeled David Irving when she called him a Holocaust denier, I read an article by Yoram Hazony in The New Republic pointing out how Israeli school textbooks are downplaying the horrors of the Holocaust, including substituting graphic photos of living skeletons for photographs like one captioned “A concentration camp” showing three or four apparently healthy men walking around.

Hazony is the president of the Shalem Center, a neo-conservative Israeli think tank that has earned respect for the quality of its research and fairness of presentation. His article is a powerful, yet balanced, piece of writing that presents a distressing picture, with Israeli Holocaust revisionism the most unsettling feature. As Hazony puts it, similar pictures in German textbooks “would have the Jewish world up in arms.”

Historical revisionism, impelled by ultra-secular writers, is the order of the day in Israeli academic and educational circles. Some of this writing is blatantly anti-Israel, resembling the pseudo-histories published in the U.S. that blamed this country for the Cold War. While the collapse of the USSR and the revelations that flowed from Soviet archives have put the fabricators to rout, the story in Israel is quite different as the revisionists have, at least for the moment, gained the upper hand.

As Hazony documents, the rewriting of Israel’s history — including the elision of Zionism from textbooks — is not countercultural. It is encouraged by government officials and powerful secular elites. But while the rewriting of Israel’s history is a matter that can be left for Israelis to work out, Holocaust revisionism is the business of Jews everywhere. Israel must be called to task for the sin of attempting to minimize the unspeakable tragedy that befell the Jewish people.

The onslaught against historical truth in Israel has gained momentum during the past year, ever since Prime Minister Barak gave control of the Education Ministry to Yossi Sarid, an ultra-secularist with a determined left-wing agenda. There have been socialist and left-leaning governments in Western democracies since World War II and none has empowered an ideologue of Sarid’s stripe to do what he has been permitted to do in the educational domain.

His most grotesque act so far has mandated that high school students be taught poems written by a Palestinian extremist, including one that describes Israeli Jews as “flying insects.” Can any of us imagine a like situation in any other country?

Sarid’s rabid secularism encompasses an antipathy to religion that was well advertised prior to his appointment. He now has the clout to translate this outlook into policy and he has not been modest about using it, as in his harsh actions against Shas and other religious schools. Still, I wish that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ leader, would not have verbally attacked Sarid, if only because I believe that, as in some form of Gresham’s Law, the spiritual message is demeaned when it is combined with a political message.

In truth, Rabbi Yosef’s words were misinterpreted and they also must be understood in the context of his heroic effort to reverse decades of discrimination in Israel against Sephardic Jews and to restore the grandeur that for many generations was their legacy.

There is no gainsaying that Sephardim have been treated as second-class citizens. Their housing has been inferior, as are the schools that educate their children, many of whom have been on a fast track to educational failure and its inevitable follow-up, social pathologies.

Through Shas and its network of social services, youth organizations and schools, Rabbi Yosef has given many Sephardim a new sense of self-respect and also hope. Students in Shas schools perform significantly better than those from similar backgrounds who attend state schools. They remain in school longer and are far less prone to succumb to drugs or other social ailments that have eroded the fabric of Sephardic life.

The improvement has been noted by parents who want more Shas schools and services and by ultra-secularists whose determination to reject Judaism’s religious past exceeds their determination to revise Israel’s historic record. They now have a champion in Yossi Sarid. It obviously is better to tolerate educational failure and social failure than to have Jewish kids exposed in a meaningful way to Judaism.

While our media have jumped all over Rabbi Yosef, Sarid’s anti-religious bias has evoked little critical comment. The explanation, I believe, is that American Jews overwhelmingly share this bias, even as they promote themselves as tolerant and free of bigotry.

So we get a constant drumbeat proclaiming that the Orthodox are coercive. Since only the Orthodox say that this isn’t so, the charge must be truthful. Of course, it isn’t coercive to use governmental leverage to wean children away from religion. And it isn’t coercive to require Israeli textbooks to include material that is hostile to Israel. From the look of things, it is also OK to incorporate Holocaust revisionism into these texts, to alter student understanding of Auschwitz. Crematoria? There were smiling Jews in those pictures.