Prof. Yair Auron’s thesis is clear: Israel prefers to avoid, repress and minimize the suffering of other peoples in the Holocaust and other circumstances, to perpetuate victimization and isolationism. Ofer Aderet in Haaretz
The cover of the new book by historian and genocide scholar Prof. Yair Auron features a drawing of five different-coloured patches: red for political prisoners; black for asocial and work-shy prisoners; pink for homosexuals; brown for Gypsies; and purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Only one colour is missing – the yellow patch for Jews. The book’s title, “The Non-Jewish Victims of the Nazi Regime,” explains why.
Auron, 70, professor emeritus at the Open University, specializes in genocide studies and has devoted the past few decades to a politically charged and sensitive issue: the attempt to introduce into the Israeli education system a recognition of the suffering of other peoples who were decimated, both in the Holocaust and other historical circumstances.
His thesis is clear: Israel prefers to avoid, repress and minimize the suffering of other peoples in the Holocaust and other circumstances, to perpetuate victimization and isolationism.
“It must be asked if, in Israel in 2016, instead of also shaping Holocaust commemoration through humanist and democratic values, it is unknowingly – and, perhaps for many, knowingly – fostering racism and xenophobia,” Auron told Haaretz in an interview marking the book’s publication. “Ignoring the non-Jewish victims is perhaps the most concrete manifestation of this trend,” he added.
Prof. Dina Porat, one of the world’s leading Holocaust scholars and chief historian at Yad Vashem, vehemently rejects Auron’s accusation. “For 40 years, from the 1970s to 2000, I taught thousands of students at Tel Aviv University. I raised generations of history teachers and no student ever heard from me – or from other lecturers dealing with the Holocaust – anything in the direction of xenophobia or isolationism,” Porat said.
Auron, however, cites his own experience in Israeli lecture halls to support his claim. “When a student tells me the Holocaust is unique, I ask him why and he says, ‘Because.’ When I ask whether he knows any other examples that might perhaps be compared to it, he doesn’t. We’ve checked – most students don’t know about the genocides in Rwanda or Armenia,” he said.
“The Holocaust has unique elements, like the totality and the gas chambers. That is clear to me,” he continued. “But there are also unique elements to other genocides. In Israel, most scholars relate to the Holocaust as being in a category of its own. The Holocaust on one side, far away, and genocide on another. I, however, believe that the Holocaust should be studied within the category of genocide. It is a case of genocide with unique elements,” Auron said.
A series of 12 books published under the title “Genocide,” initiated by Auron, was published over the past few years by the Open University. They discuss examples of genocide from a historical perspective. The series, which accompanies a course of the same name, examines the murder of Native Americans, the “cultural genocide” in Tibet (as Auron puts it), the murder of the Armenians by the Turks, and of the Gypsies by the Nazis.
“You won’t find any of these in the Israeli education system, which is a political system that doesn’t want to expose its students to the genocides of other peoples,” Auron said. “Officially, the system won’t acknowledge it – but the subject is taboo,” he added.
Auron’s claim is problematic, since ministers from across the political spectrum have headed the Education Ministry over the years: from Yossi Sarid and Shulamit Aloni (both Meretz) and Zevulon Hammer (National Religious Party) to Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett. However, the fact remains that, for whatever reason, Auron is apparently the only professor in Israel today who presents a course devoted only to the genocides of other peoples.
His new book is also apparently the first in the Hebrew language to focus on the other victims of the Holocaust. There have been other books on specific subjects, like the book by the late Gilad Margalit, “Genocide, Nazi Germany and the Gypsies,” published in 2006.
The memorial built in Tel Aviv’s Gan Meir park in 2013, marking the Nazi persecution of the gay community, is also part of local commemoration of “other victims of the Nazis.”
Auron directs his criticism not only at the Education Ministry and politicians, but also Yad Vashem, the national body charged with Holocaust commemoration in Israel. Auron believes it should do more to commemorate the persecution of other peoples.
“I think that in Israel, victims of genocide anywhere should be commemorated – Rwanda, Cambodia, the Armenians… memorials should perhaps be established at Yad Vashem for them. That does not reduce the Holocaust; it magnifies it,” he said.
“Yad Vashem’s mandate is to deal with the genocide of the Jewish people – the Holocaust,” replied Dr. Iael Nidam-Orvieto, director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, in a written response to Haaretz. However, Nidam-Orvieto added that “when dealing with the Holocaust and historical processes that happened in those years, of course the matter of all the victims of Nazi persecution comes up. The issue is not only relevant when seeking the full historical picture of the Holocaust, it also sharpens various other aspects of the fate of Jews during the Holocaust,” she noted.
The Education Ministry also rejected Auron’s criticism. “The history curriculum in the state-secular school system includes reference to persecutions and murders of other populations, and not only the attempt to destroy the Jewish people,” the ministry said in a written statement to Haaretz.
The ministry showed Haaretz its Holocaust curriculum, which includes chapters on the persecution of opponents of the Nazi regime, “mercy killings” of the sick and handicapped, and the destruction of the Gypsies.