Sunday 18 April 2010

The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors

It is at this time each year that we notice how few survivors from the Shoah still remain. The survivors take centre stage across the country as the sirens wail to commemorate those who were murdered by the evil Nazi regime only because they were Jews. Those survivors who are still left to share this with us are already well advanced in their years. With the passing of 65 years since the end of the Shoah, even these survivors could have been no older than in their teenage years by the time the war ended. It could be said that the only survivors now left are child victims of the Shoah.

As an entire nation stands together and united for the 2 minute silence to commemorate the victims of the largest instance of ethnic cleansing in history, it is difficult to understand how the Shoah could have been such a divisive issue over the 62 years of the existence of the Jewish homeland. An example of a divisive point was published in the newspaper just recently. The newspaper article explained that there are moves currently being pursued to reduce electricity prices for survivors of the Shoah. On the face of it, this idea seems to be a good one. The problem is that there are many other underprivileged Israelis, and groups representing their interests that ask why the reduction in electricity prices should not be equally applied to other needy members of society. The Shoah survivors group asks why it has taken 62 years to extend this privilege to the community of survivors. It seems that whatever is offered in good faith is accused of being too little too late, or unfairly applied to one interest group over another.

This little story reflects more widespread decisions regarding survivors of the Shoah. When the survivors eventually managed to escape from the horrors of Europe and finally made it to the Jewish promised land, they found that things were not all that they thought they may be in the Land of Israel. The country was populated by other survivors like themselves who either were trying to bury their memories from the Shoah and not address them at all, or were trying to use the fact that they were survivors to extract as many favours as they could as a type of compensation for the horrors that they suffered. The country was also populated by Jews who came from Middle Eastern countries who did not suffer at the hands of the Germans, but who experienced their own suffering at the hands of anti-Semites in the Arab countries that they originated from. Holocaust survivors suffered the indignity for many years of being accused by Middle Eastern Jews of going like lambs to the slaughter. They were asked why there was not greater resistance to the German extermination machine. Very soon, it became easier for the Shoah survivors to try to suppress and forget where they came from, in an attempt to build a new start for themselves and their families in the Jewish homeland. The relationship with their Middle Eastern brethren, the link between Ashkenazi and Sephardi was, however, severely damaged in the process. It is only over the past 15 or 20 years that organisations like Yad Vashem and others have succeeded in proving that European Jews offered significant resistance under impossible circumstances, and that the accusation of them going like lambs to the slaughter is wholly unjustified.

Another issue that has dogged survivors of the Shoah over the years is the matter of property that was lost by them, and reparations made by the German government to Israel. Significant property was confiscated and stolen from European Jews. Some of this is still in the hands of some of the largest world banks and other organisations and individuals, and there seems no real progress in returning this property to its rightful owners, or now, their heirs. The State of Israel has played some role in trying to return Jewish property, although it would be fair to say a great deal more could have been done. Some of the reparations paid to Israel by Germany were, in turn, distributed to survivors in recognition of their suffering and property that was lost. These actions have caused Jews who suffered in countries outside of Europe to ask why their suffering could not also have been recognised by some sort of compensation. It reinforced the view held by some that the educated and aristocratic Ashkenazi Jews emanating from the ruins of Europe were exercising control over the less educated Sephardi Jews emanating from the Middle East. It is claimed that this has resulted in unfair rules being established by which the suffering of the European Jews has been given greater recognition and importance than that of their Middle Eastern compatriots.

It is fair to say that history has never seen cruelty or a program of ethnic cleansing to match the Shoah. The loss of 6 million innocent lives only because they were Jews is never to be forgotten, and hopefully never to be repeated. The truth is, however, that many Jews arrived during the early years of the State of Israel after having suffered terrible persecution and atrocities. Many arrived penniless after having lost all their belongings, and having also lost many members of their families. These people, whether they came from Europe or from North Africa all came to Israel for the same reason. To be able to live freely as a Jew in his/her homeland. It is wonderful to observe how many have achieved this for themselves and their offspring.

Some two generations have now passed since the end of the Shoah, and also since the persecution of Jews was suffered in countries like Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and others. Since then, the State of Israel has been built from almost nothing to a wonderful, economically-viable and secure homeland for all Jews. The country has been built by European Ashkenazi Jews, byMiddle Eastern Separdi Jews and by many others who have joined the effort over the years. Israel is there to protect Jews wherever they may be in the world. The story of the airlift of Jews from Ethiopia and the mass arrival of Jews from the former Soviet Union are just small examples of this reality. The time has come for us to move forward on a path that will allow us to combine into one nation, while constantly remembering where we came from. It is important for our children to learn about the Shoah and to understand the reason why we mark Yom Hashoah. It is also important for them to learn about the persecution of Jews in Middle Eastern and North African countries, and about the sacrifices made by Jews from these countries to make their way to Israel. Some of them trekked by foot over some of the world's most inhospitable terrain to make their way to the Jewish homeland. Their stories should also not be forgotten.

The Israeli government has an obligation to ensure that Shoah survivors have sufficient social benefits to allow them to live out their days in dignity. Too many of them are destitute and struggling to live on very limited means. By the same token, the government has the responsibility to ensure that those formerly from Middle Eastern countries, and all our senior citizens have their basic needs taken care of, especially where many of them are economically unable to care for themselves. I believe that enough time has now passed for us to be able to put the different designations aside, and to treat all the needy in the same measure.

This means that Shoah survivors may not receive preferential treatment by virtue of the fact that they are survivors. They will, however, receive preferential treatment if they are in need of it. For the future of Israel and all its citizens, we should ensure that those who are in the greater need are those who receive more.

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