Note: this post does not argue against the necessity for an institution like Yad Vashem, and I’ve tried to write it in a way that will not purposely invite controversy.
Isabel refers to Yad Vashem in her recent post as an “arbiter of diasporic memory,” and during my visit to that museum I certainly got the impression that this is what the institution tries to position itself as. She also writes that Yad Vashem “provides a space to cultivate and perform memory through symbolic but evocative means,” and I agree, although to place Yad Vashem and the bill recently passed in the Polish Senate on opposite ends of a scale that gauges correct memorialization perhaps avoids the problems inherent in the memory that Yad Vashem creates.
I visited Yad Vashem on Birthright, a program whose politics I was in the midst of reacting poorly to, so my experience within the Holocaust History Museum
might have been colored by my attitude to begin with, but I remember having had two criticisms of the experience immediately. First, that the devastation of the Holocaust on European Jewry was emphasized above its effects on its 5 million non-Jewish victims, and second, that the walk through the museum ends with heavy visual implications that Jews have been redeemed from the tragedy through the establishment of the State of Israel. It is perhaps unavoidable that an institution which is the official Holocaust memorial of Israel would prioritize the Jewish experience of the Holocaust above the experiences of Romani, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, leftists, people of color, and millions of other victims, but it is still an act of forgetting to elevate the suffering of one people over that of another. The institution’s own website defines the Holocaust firstly as “the murder by Nazi Germany of six million Jews.” One of the last displays in the Holocaust History Museum is a black-and-white film shows a group of children singing Hatikvah, a Zionist hymn, in one of the decades of the 20th century before the Holocaust, somewhere in Europe. It’s quite haunting, and the feeling continued on the balcony at the end of the museum where visitors look out onto Jerusalem. Watching, I took that view as an affirmation of life after looking at so much death, but I think most of my fellow trip participants understood the moment as an affirmation of Israel.
I worry about sounding cynical, but I think Yad Vashem suggests a narrative of Zionism and the State of Israel as the one balm to Jewish suffering that is actively forgetful of historical and present realities, as well as one that suggests that all Jews everywhere are
indebted to and in support of Zionism. The organizer David Langstaff, writing in an article on Yad Vashem, notes that “Alternative Jewish responses to antisemitism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included that of the Bund, a Jewish socialist organization which recognized the particularity of the Jewish struggle against racism and the need for some degree of Jewish autonomy and self-determination, but which simultaneously grounded this struggle in more universal aspirations for collective liberation.” Yad Vashem does not cover this, and even though it is Israel’s official memorial of the Holocaust, its official title is The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and in that way it does try to be what Isabel called an “arbiter of diasporic memory,” even if its narrative skirts or downplays truths of that memory.