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The Holocaust's shadow over Israel's choices

The Jewish state's fixation with preventing annihilation actually undermines its security.

By Bill Glucroft / August 17, 2009

Haifa, Israel

No people mourn better than the Jewish people. For seven days after death, the family sits shiva, a vigil at home for loved ones to comfort one another and reflect on the life lost. During the following year and then beyond, the stages of mourning develop to allow next of kin to continue their lives while still remembering who is gone from them.

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The process is successful for Jews, but it is failing the Jewish state. Six decades since the gravest of their tragedies, Jews have collectively yet to find a sustainable way of moving on without forgetting the Holocaust. The inability to do so poses dire consequences for Israel and the possibility for peace.

For Israel, the Holocaust didn't end in 1945, but reconstituted itself in the country's political and social cultures. It's no accident that Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, is physically connected to Har Hertzl, Israel's national cemetery. The symbolism hits you over the head: Israel was born out of the Holocaust, and the price to protect the Jewish people from another one is steep. There is truth in that, but also danger. Binding too tightly the slaughter of Jewish civilians by Nazis and the deaths of Israeli soldiers by Arabs turns every threat to Israel into another Holocaust.

"Whenever someone is killed in a terror activity," says Israeli writer and former Knesset member Avrum Burg, "It is one victim on top of seven wars on top of 6 million on top of 2,000 years of problems." There are no isolated incidents in Israel; the past builds up until a whole way of life is buried by it.

Invoking the Holocaust is the way Israeli policymakers evade the difficult decisionmaking needed to shift the status quo; nothing else matters, and anything is justified, when everything is about surviving annihilation – a rationale that serves especially well in delaying the creation of a Palestinian state.

The two-state solution undoubtedly comes with significant security risks to Israel, requiring a trust and confidence that remain to be seen. Should the West Bank become what Gaza became following the 2005 evacuation of Jewish settlements, all of Israel would be vulnerable to rocket attack and Iranian influence.

Less discussed, however, are the moral, social, and security implications of doing nothing, allowing the occupation to fester, settlements to expand, and tensions to grow.