Photo Credit: Yossi Ben David / Yad Vashem
Hall of Remembrance in Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center

The article penned by Maj. Gen (res.) Gershon Hacohen, published, 5 Jan 2021 under the title “Yad Vashem at a Crossroads,” discusses two fundamental questions and Yad Vashem’s position regarding them. However, the serious accusations made against Yad Vashem as being an institution that is actively denying the “Israeli Jewish spirit” – are not only unknown to me and my colleagues at Yad Vashem, many of whom I have worked with for dozens of years, they simply are untrue, and anyone who is familiar with Yad Vashem’s positions, activities and goals, cannot but reject them out of hand.

The first question raised by Hacohen goes to the very heart of the Shoah, in order to determine if the events, which were aimed against the Jewish people specifically, were indeed unique, or whether it was just another in an unfortunate historical line of genocides, which could be repeated again and target other segments of society.

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The late Prof. Israel Gutman, renowned Holocaust survivor, historian and one of Yad Vashem’s founders who served for years as the Head of its International Institute for Holocaust Research, was convinced that the Holocaust was unique in both cause and outcome, and in this spirit, he raised generations of Holocaust scholars. I recently published a comprehensive article along Gutman’s line, and Prof. Dan Michman, current Institute Head and John Najmann Chair for Holocaust Studies, supports this approach. The thousands of educators and guides who have undergone training at Yad Vashem have all been exposed to this fundamental viewpoint.

However, the uniqueness of the Holocaust does not preclude a broader universalistic approach. Indeed, understanding the Holocaust can shed light on other instances of mass murders and genocides committed against different groups and ethnicities. Furthermore, it is precisely from the comparisons to other genocides that the uniqueness to the Shoah becomes clear.

Yad Vashem’s Academic Advisor Prof. Yehuda Bauer is known throughout the world as a pillar of Holocaust research. Following years of studying the event, Bauer coined the terms “unprecedented” – perpetrators of other mass murders and genocides may adopt elements that were in use during the Holocaust, but the scope, ideology and purpose of their crimes remain markedly different from those perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its collaborators against the Jewish people.

The second question included in Hacohen’s comments is whether the horrific acts of emotional and physical abuse committed against Jewish men, women and children were unique to German society and stem from trait founds in German culture, or whether they reflect universal human characteristics that may recur in other populations and cultures. After all, since the beginning of recorded human history, murder has been part of our common heritage; it is up to historians and researchers to discover and explain how these traits gave way to the implementation of the unprecedented “Final Solution.”

The debate over whether, under certain pressure and circumstances, anyone could potentially be drawn into racist and murderous tendencies has been ongoing in the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy and theology since the rise of Nazism. Was the unique nature of the Holocaust rooted in the singularity of Nazi antisemitism, or could such a tragic rupture in morality potentially happen again?

One thing remains clear: Even if Yad Vashem’s mandate is to focus on the study and commemoration of the Holocaust as an event aimed exclusively at the Jewish people, we, as Jews, as researchers, and as human beings, cannot turn a blind eye and ignore the suffering of other groups or peoples.

The contribution of the small Jewish nation to world culture is immeasurable. The values imprinted in its laws and culture for millennia, ever since the divine revelation at Mount Sinai, are reflected in our basic human morality and our attitude to fellow humans, to the weak and helpless among us. We, the hundreds of employees at Yad Vashem – men and women with a wide range of thoughts and beliefs – choose both approaches: the particular Jewish aspects together with the universal characteristics. For one who believes in the core principles of basic morality ultimately stands with the whole world in unison.

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The author is the Chief Historian of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.