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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 January, 2005, 12:29 GMT
The Holocaust and Israeli identity
People imprisoned in a Nazi camp
The legacy of the Holocaust is central to Israeli identity and politics
Israeli historian and journalist Tom Segev talks to the BBC's Jerusalem correspondent Barbara Plett about the legacy of the Shoah, the Hebrew term for Holocaust, in contemporary Israel society. Mr Segev is author of the Seventh Million, a book about Israel and the Holocaust.

Q : What does the commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz mean to Israelis today?

The commemoration itself does not necessarily mean so much but the Holocaust obviously means a great deal. The Holocaust has in recent years become a very central element of Israeli identity. There is not a single day in the Israeli media, for example, without some reference to the Holocaust.

The Israelis carry the Holocaust in themselves very much and that is also true for Israelis who do not even come from European origins. So it is an all-Israeli experience, very deep.

Q: Is there any difference in attitude towards the Holocaust between survivors and those born since?

Most Holocaust survivors experienced the Holocaust as children and for that reason the Holocaust is today regarded very often as a crime against children. But there is a difference between those people who remember the Holocaust and those who just experience it as part of their identity obviously.

There was a time in fact when Israelis would not talk about the Holocaust at all. Parents would not tell their children what happened to them and children would not dare to ask. There was a big silence surrounding the Holocaust and that has changed over the years. I think it is a growing-up process that led Israelis to become able to identify with the victims. That was a very difficult thing for us to do.

Very early on in our history, when we had this heroic self-image and we actually felt ashamed of the Holocaust. We no longer do. The Holocaust is very much part of all of us.

Q: How has the legacy of the Holocaust shaped the politics of Israel the state, both historically and today?

It is somewhat difficult to distinguish between genuine Holocaust sentiments and manipulated Holocaust arguments - you have both in Israel. But if you look at the history of Israel, you can see that some of the most crucial decisions in our history were taken under the influence of the Holocaust.

For example, a small country like Israel really does not need an atomic bomb unless the people who make that decision act under the influence of the Holocaust. The Six Day War broke out in 1967 very much under the influence of the Holocaust.

But today, of course, the Holocaust is often used by everybody in Israel - the Israeli government is using the Holocaust, the opposition is using the Holocaust, the left and the right. Everybody uses the Holocaust as an argument. But make no mistake, we do manipulate the Holocaust but we also feel very, very deeply about it.

Q: Do you think that the legacy of the Holocaust has affected how Israel deals with its current conflicts, including with the Palestinians?

I feel that Israeli society has not learnt the full humanitarian lesson of the Holocaust as we should and I feel that if we had given more attention to the humanitarian legacy of the Holocaust, we may act differently on the occupied territories.

Still the policy on the occupied territories is influenced by a very deep-rooted fear which we all carry in us. Perhaps without the Holocaust we would be a more normal people, but we are not.

Memory is something that comes to you naturally. Obviously a traumatic event like the Holocaust you cannot forget. But there is also a lot of politics of memory involved here.

There is an on-going conflict in Israel about the legacy and the lessons of the Holocaust and that is basically a political argument. So if you look at the way Israelis commemorate the Holocaust you will detect a lot of politics in it.

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