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Zikaron BaSalon and the future of Holocaust remembrance in Israel by Professor Becky Kook

I am a professor of politics and government at Ben Gurion University, and I have been teaching and writing about collective memory for many years. Since I started my academic career (many years ago!) I have been fascinated by the idea of collective memory – by the idea that societies, like individuals, tell themselves certain narratives or stories about their pasts – remembering and emphasizing some events and people while forgetting others. And indeed, the identity of societies, just like the identity of individuals, is linked very deeply to what we remember collectively about our shared past.

I strongly believe that we can learn so much about a society – its values, its culture, its politics – by examining what we choose to remember and also how we choose to remember... For societies to remember, however, they need agents, who construct the narratives about this shared past and devise practices through which individual members of societies can remember together: ceremonies, rituals, monuments, national memorial days. For many years it was the State that was the main agent of this shared collective memory. However, over the past few decades, within the context of changes in global patterns of political power, communication and migration, increasingly non-state agents have emerged, promoting, constructing and developing narratives and practices aimed at providing alternatives to traditional state-constructed memorials and narratives.

For Israel, the Holocaust has always constituted a very significant part of the story that we tell ourselves (and others) about our shared past. For many years the shared collective memory of the Holocaust was determined and constructed by state agents, defining by law an official Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day, conducting official state-run ceremonies, and designing monuments and memorials. The narrative of the shared memory of the Holocaust was premised on two national slogans: “Never Again” and “from Destruction to Redemption” – which posited the state of Israel as the historical outcome and resolution of the history of Jewish persecution. Thus, the shared memory of the Holocaust contributed towards defining Israel as the contemporary guardian of Jewish survival and has thus played a major role in securing Israel’s political legitimacy.

The practices with which the state agents of Holocaust memory constructed this narrative were what we call “paradigmatic” memorial practices: somber and sacred, taking place within a strictly defined memorial protocol with the audience removed from the memorial performance, and designated the role of passive recipients of a pre-scripted memorial narrative. In this narrative, the state was the hero and the savior. Over the years younger generations of Israelis have felt less and less involved with these memorial practices with few if any alternatives available to them.

Since early 2000, many non-state memorial agents have emerged, offering alternative ways of collectively remembering the Holocaust.

Zikaron BaSalon – literally translated as “Memory in the Living Room” - is a commemorative project which was founded in 2011 and is the most popular and significant amongst these new memorial events. In 2017, through a close friend, I conducted a series of interviews with the founding members of Zikaron BaSalon and immediately fell in love: with their energy, their dedication and commitment, their activist spirit and their deep sensitivity to the importance of Holocaust memory. These members were not your typical “memory agents”: for one, they were all young, most of them were not descendants of Holocaust survivors, they were almost all women, and they almost all came from the arena of social activism.

For them making the memory of the Holocaust relevant for younger generations was an important social value and was their way of contributing towards making Israel a better, more inclusive and more humanist society. These interviews prompted me to apply for a research grant to engage in a more serious study of this social phenomenon. In 2019 I received a generous grant from the Israeli Ministry of Science to study the potential of Zikaron BaSalon to become the main Israeli form of Holocaust commemoration in the future. Since then, I have been continuing with in-depth interviews with community leaders and with participants, attending (and also hosting!) numerous gatherings and participating in their workshops. The idea behind Zikaron BaSalon is quite simple: the act of shared commemoration is privatized. People are encouraged to host a gathering in the privacy of their own living room, to listen to a Holocaust testimony, to hear some music, and to have a discussion. There is no script, there is no single story, there are no commemorative protocols that one needs to adhere to. In each living room, a different testimony is heard, and a different kind of discussion takes place. Participants are encouraged to ask questions, raise relevant issues, and take an active role in the memorial event: you can laugh, you can cry, drink wine or sing. In the decade since the first gathering took place, Zikaron BaSalon has emerged as a form of travelling, or transnational memory with gatherings taking place in all major European cities, in north and south America, in Africa and Asia. In this past year – 2021 – it is said that close to one and a half million people took place in such gatherings – in over fifty different countries.

In addition – and this is such an interesting development – since its establishment, numerous different commemorative projects have emerged that have adopted the same format – of gathering in the privacy of one’s home – inviting friends and family – and listening to a memory narrative. Israel now remembers its fallen soldiers, its Ethiopian immigrants, its different holidays – in a different, more inclusive way. This, it would seem, is the future of memory; intimate, discursive, meaningful. Zikaron BaSalon has become a pioneer in the construction of memory practices for the future.

All in all, Zikaron BaSalon refuses to tell a specific narrative or story, insisting on a plurality of narratives about the Holocaust; it rejects the collectivist assumption that members of society remember their past in the same way; and it celebrates the individual identity – both of the testimony giver, and the participants in the commemorative event. Zikaron BaSalon is fascinating and reflects many of the most important changes that have been taking place within Israeli society. Zikaron BaSalon tells us a different story about how Israel remembers its own past and thus tells us a different story about contemporary Israeli identity.

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