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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish demonstrators look at a boy (low L) wearing a cloth cap and a yellow Star of David inscribed with “Jude,” Jew, in German, sewn on his jacket as he raises his hands during a protest in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighbourhood December 31, 2011. The demonstrators caused outrage on Sunday by dressing children as Holocaust victims to protest against what they see as persecution of devout Jews seeking gender separation in Israel.
Protests have broken out across Israel by members of the ultra-Orthodox community in response to government efforts to uphold civil law. Sparked by issues of women’s dress and behavior on public streets in largely ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, the protests are driven by neighborhood residents who demand that their understanding of Jewish religious law replace civil law when it comes to these issues.
Over the weekend protesters began to express their anger in a particularly grotesque, but tragically not new way: portraying themselves as Holocaust victims.
The image of Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews putting on yellow stars and stripped pajamas reminiscent of those worn in Nazi concentration camps is upsetting, to say the least. But perhaps even more upsetting is the fact that this practice is neither new nor limited to one particular segment of the Jewish community. In many ways, it’s old hat.
Over the years, both in Israel and in America, everyone from settlers upset about the disengagement from Gaza to activist rabbis, to leading community spokespeople, not to mention Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have portrayed the circumstances of the Jewish people and the State of Israel as being “just like” Europe on the eve of the Holocaust, and have suggested that various global leaders are “no different” from Hitler. While sickening, what these ultra-Orthodox protesters are doing is nothing more or less than what others have done.
The sickness is not simply that the Holocaust is used to score political points, though that is bad enough, especially when done by those for whom the uniqueness of the Holocaust is a sacred principle. Nor is the sickness that the comparisons are so wrong, they are not even wrong.
Ultra-Orthodox men, wearing uniforms like those worn by Jews during the holocaust, take part in a protest against what they called oppression of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighbourhood December 31, 2011.
The ugliness lies in the utter blindness and rank hypocrisy of those who decry using the Holocaust until they want to use it for their own ends. Talk about the abuse of history and memory! And the deeper tragedy is that if it keeps up, the only sane response will be to forget the Holocaust altogether because its memory will have been so abused, that invoking it at all will simply be toxic.
While all human suffering, including the Holocaust, can be analogized to other human suffering, this is completely out of control. Amazingly, so are some of the responses from those who are appropriately outraged.
People have taken to the streets and threatened the protestors with physical violence, and the Jewish blogosphere is awash in comments like this one which I received today: “Maybe the police should fulfill these fantasies. Ship ‘em to some camps, dress them in stripes. The only thing disconcerting for them would be the hard labor, since they haven’t worked a day in their lives.” And that is only one of many such comments I have received – comments which point to a parallel problem on the side of those who oppose pretending that it’s the Holocaust all over again.
This entire divide is proof that we as a Jewish community have plenty of recovering to do on both sides.
What’s going on in Israel should be a wake-up call not only for Israelis and Jews, but for all of us. We are a society often divided between those who, in order to feel legitimate, insist that they are victims, and often that they are the most victimized people in the world. On the other side, are those who in order feel moral about the use of power, celebrate its use and cavalierly dismiss the suffering which can be created by even the legitimate use of power.
There will always be victims and there will always be perpetrators, at least as long the world remains an imperfect place, but the rush to wear the garb of one of them has got to end now.