JERUSALEM — IT is a stark reminder of Israel's painful history that the planned ceremonies for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp were overshadowed Jan. 22 by a bomb detonated by Islamic extremists.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, scheduled to deliver a speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, had to instead visit the gruesome scene of the blast in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, where 19 young Israelis were killed.
The Holocaust memorial - which recalls the extermination of about 6 million Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II - is one of the few Israeli institutions about which there is a national consensus.
But the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where some 1.5 million Jews perished, has been shrouded in controversy as Israel enters a new era and struggles to come to terms with its past.
In recognition of the central role that the Holocaust played in the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, a visit to Yad Vashem has been compulsory for all foreign visitors to help them understand the Jewish struggle for survival.
Israelis were shocked on Jan. 10, when Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin announced that it would no longer be compulsory for guests to visit Yad Vashem.
The decision brought an immediate barrage of criticism from Jews across the political spectrum. ``This is a government that has an ambivalent attitude toward the Jewish past...,'' says Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. ``Any person who wants to understand why the existence of the Jewish state is so important has to understand the Holocaust and its implications.''
Arabs decline visit
The government's immediate dilemma was clear. As Israel moves closer to peace with its Arab neighbors, some Arab leaders have indicated they prefer not to visit the memorial.
A crisis arose last year when Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa announced he had gone to the memorial only as the result of pressure from Israel, and that a visit for President Hosni Mubarak - who has so far refrained from visiting Israel - would be ``problematic.''
The controversy reflects a deeper rethinking in Israeli society about the changing role of the Holocaust as the number of survivors with a direct memory of the horror of the concentration camps grows smaller.
Some Israeli intellectuals have questioned whether the horrors of the death camps can forever serve as a justification for everything from Israel's nuclear arsenal to the demolition of Palestinian homes.
But the survivors fear that the memory of the unfathomable atrocities of the death camps could be distorted or even lost on future generations.
``The last survivors of the Holocaust, who have experienced and witnessed there the most unspeakable evil ever perpetrated by man against man, are now disappearing one by one,'' said Samuel Pisar, a survivor of Auschwitz and noted Paris-based international lawyer who was short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974. ``Soon history will speak, at best, with the impersonal voice of researchers, intellectuals, and novelists ... at worst, with the malevolent voice of revisionists and falsifiers.
``But as long as we are alive, we have ... a sacred obligation ... to warn the living that the unthinkable remains possible,'' Mr. Pisar said on Jan. 22 at Yad Vashem, where he unveiled a freight car used to transport Jews to extermination camps donated by the Polish government.
Pisar told the Monitor that he was ``saddened'' by the conflict surrounding visits to the Holocaust museum. ``It is off-limits to politicians ... it should be sacred,'' he said.