While two of the elements that made the Holocaust possible still exist – deep-seated hatred for Jews and world apathy in the face of horrible crimes – the third element, Jewish weakness, is no longer, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.
Netanyahu, speaking at Yad Vashem at the annual ceremony marking the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day, articulated what can fairly be called his overall strategic doctrine. “The simple truth is that in our world, the existence of the weak is in doubt. When facing murderous countries and organizations, their chances of survival are not great. The strong survive, the weak are erased,” he stated.
Netanyahu said that the Jewish people experienced this during the Holocaust, “and that lesson is in front of our eyes at all times. The lesson is that we must be able to defend ourselves, by ourselves, against all threats and all enemies. Those who plan to annihilate us are placing themselves in danger of annihilation.”
Netanyahu said this was neither a provocation nor an exaggeration, but rather “the only way to truly ensure our future.
And we have the ability to do this.”
Netanyahu, who has repeated this theme during Holocaust Remembrance Day addresses he has given over the many years that he has served as prime minister, said, “This lesson guides me every day – in the morning and at night. This is the supreme function, not the only one – but the supreme one – of every prime minister in Israel.”
The premier said that the generations who built and are continuing to build the Jewish state have brought about “the great change in the fate of the Jewish people. We replaced the weakness with strength; from a helpless people we turned into a strong nation; from a nation without defense we turned into a state with a defense force, one of the strongest in the world.”
While Netanyahu mentioned Iran seven times during his address in 2012, eight times in 2014 and 10 times at the height of his debate with former US president Barack Obama over the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015, he only mentioned the Islamic Republic once on Sunday night, and that was in the context of deep-rooted antisemitism that after 2,000 years still refuses to die.
Just as antisemitism will not disappear in the foreseeable future, Netanyahu said, so too has the apathy of the world to barbarity against others not fundamentally changed.
“True, since World War II there has not been a tragedy similar in scope to the Holocaust,” he said. “But there are many cases where the world stood aside and did not prevent genocide or mass murder: in Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan and also in Syria.”
Netanyahu said that there have been some bright spots in the darkness, and specifically mentioned the “determined response of President [Donald] Trump to the slaughter of Syrian children with chemical weapons.”
Amid some criticism that Israel should be doing more to help the Syrians, Netanyahu said that Israel is not apathetic to what is going on just beyond its border. “We have established a field hospital right at the border, with Israeli doctors – Jews, Druse, Arabs – Israel has treated in that hospital, and at others, thousands of Syrian injured, including many children who were harmed in that cruel war.”
Netanyahu mentioned during his speech the story of Moshe Porat, one of the Holocaust survivors who lit a memorial torch at the ceremony.
Porat, Netanyahu said, was a child from Hungary incarcerated in Mauthausen who had the number 10-80-80 burned onto his forearm.
The prime minister met with Porat last week, and the survivor told him that when he enlisted into the IDF at the age of 17, his army ID number was the same: 10-80-80 “That, in essence, is the entire story of the rebirth: The man is the same man, the number is the same number, but the fate is far from being the same,” Netanyahu said. “We have gone from helplessness to strength, from darkness to light, from death to life.”
The Warsaw Ghetto Plaza at Yad Vashem included Holocaust survivors and their families from Israel and abroad, members of youth groups, foreign dignitaries and, of course, the political, civic and religious leaders of the nation.
As always, there was a military honor guard from the Israel Defense Forces, to symbolize the fact that Israel can now defend itself and, if necessary, Diaspora Jews as well.
Even though Holocaust survivors are fading out of the nation, this night in the calendar is extremely important for them. It is proof that their suffering is recognized, and for those who have families, so is their triumph against those who sought to destroy the Jewish people.
As always, Holocaust survivors, aided by young members of their families, lit the beacons which serve as both candles of memory and lights of hope for the future.
The survivors were Hungarian- born Esther Miron, who was in Auschwitz and Birkenau; Greek-born Moshe Has-Elion, who was in Auschwitz; Polish- born Moshe Jakubowitz, who was in Majdanek; Algerian- born Jeanine Sebbane-Bouhanna, who was in hiding in France and whose brother was murdered in Sobibor; Hungarian- born Porat, who was on the death march to Mauthausen; Polish-born Max Privler, who was shot in a mass killing, but climbed out of the pit afterwards and found shelter with Ukrainian friends; and Bessarabian- born Elka Abramowitz, who was mercilessly forced to go on foot to Transnistria by the Romanian Army, which collaborated with the Nazis.
At the ceremony, President Reuven Rivlin spoke of the two distinct approaches to the Holocaust. One is the universal approach, which negates the Holocaust as a unique, unparalleled event in the history of the Jewish people and places it as yet another example of genocide and racism.
Rivlin characterized this as a dangerous approach that downplays the significance of the Holocaust, distorts history, denies the program of systematic extermination specifically targeting the Jewish people and denies that antisemitism is a centuries-old malignant disease.
The second approach reflects Israel’s world view, wherein prevention of another Holocaust is paramount.
On this point, Rivlin said, he had been at odds with his mentor, Menachem Begin, who told him on the eve of the IDF’s entry into Lebanon in June 1982, that the alternative was another Treblinka.
According to this approach, Rivlin said, Israel’s raison d’etre is the prevention of the next Holocaust. It transforms the essence of collective Jewish identity into a joint escape from being massacred.
While not denying the possibility of an existential threat to Israel, Rivlin said the second approach is dangerous as well, because it obscures the richness of Jewish life before the Holocaust.
“The Jewish people was not born in Auschwitz,” he said.
Rivlin suggested a third approach, in which the Jewish people survived the Holocaust and witnessed its own rebirth as a nation. “Neither one nor the other should be forgotten,” he said.
Mindful of the upsurge in antisemitism that is instilling fear in Jews around the world, Rivlin said: “We must remember our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora and our obligation to [ensure] their safety and welfare.”