Literature of the Holocaust
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Yad Vashem No Long on Israeli Official Itinerary for Visiting Dignitaries


The New York Times, January 14, 1996

JERUSALEM, Jan. 13 -- For years it has been an almost unvarying ritual for visiting foreign officials: soon after landing they are automatically taken to Yad Vashem, the memorial in Jerusalem to the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.

No longer.

From now on Israel will merely suggest that the several thousand foreigners making official visits each year walk through the haunting collection of photos and documents of Nazi barbarity and Jewish suffering. But presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers will still be taken to the Holocaust memorial as a matter of course.

Although seemingly not a great change, the new policy caused an uproar when the Foreign Ministry announced it this week. Ministry officials explained that they simply wanted to stop telling visitors what to do. But critics across the political spectrum accused the Government of having lost its sense of Jewish history and identity.

Yad Vashem is not the only site affected. Also off the must-see list is Masada, the mountaintop fortress where Jewish rebels committed mass suicide during a first-century revolt against Rome. And a once standard tour of the disputed Golan Heights will be made only if a visitor specifically asks for it.

Golan settlers call it political maneuvering by a Government that may be ready to give back the strategic area, which was captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-lsraeli war. Often, the settlers note, visitors leave the Golan convinced that Israel cannot relinquish the area without damaging its security -- which is not the Government position these days. Foreign Ministry denials of political motives ring hollow on the heights.

The real emotional chord, though, was struck with Yad Vashem, whose Hebrew name, taken from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, is commonly translated as Everlasting Memorial.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, architect of the new policy, says he has nothing against Yad Vashem -- or Masada or the Golan. But compelling people to visit a particular site, no matter how evocative, is "Bolshevik" behavior, he says, and Israelis must stop thinking that "we know better than you what you should do."

Forced visits to the memorial discomfort some Israelis for other reasons. They see the tours as perhaps overemphasizing Jews as victims in the national self-definition, and suggest alternative sites that show modern Israel's accomplishments, like desert farms or science centers.

But those people may be a small minority. On both the political left and the right, critics accused the Foreign Ministry of trifling with painful collective memories.

Yad Vashem is "an identity card and gateway to Israel," said Shevah Weiss, Speaker of Parliament and a Polish-born survivor of the Holocaust.

Efraim Zuroff, Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, notes that many countries have monuments that they demand foreign visitors see. "For anyone to understand what this country's all about, why it's important to have a Jewish state, it's obvious that they must learn about the Holocaust and its implications," he said.

Israelis are still smarting from an embarrassment last summer when the visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister, Amr Mahmoud Moussa, practically had to have his arm twisted to stop at Yad Vashem. Even then, he pointedly skipped the main Hall of Remembrance, where he would have had to put on a yarmulke, and went instead to a memorial dedicated to children killed by the Nazis.

Some critics suspect that a hidden agenda in the new policy is to make it easier for Israel to lure other Arab figures, including President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who has stayed away despite the peace treaty between the two countries.

The newspaper Maariv says Israelis need not apologize for the memorial. "The Jewish state, which rose from the ashes of destruction and killing, is allowed to make sure that official guests see and understand, through Yad Vashem, Israel's sensitivity to its citizens' security," it said in an editorial.

But another daily, Davar, sided with Mr. Beilin. "Israel in 1995," it wrote, "can be sure of itself and the justness of its case even without force-feeding its visitors."

For its part, Yad Vashem stood above the fray. "Visiting this institution," it said in a brief statement, "is a privilege and not an obligation."
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