Why the Holocaust and Iran are personal to Yair Lapid - analysis

The Holocaust is a trauma whose ripple effects have impacted all Jews around the globe, irrespective of whether they are survivors or children of survivors.

 Israel's Prime Minister Yair Lapid addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York City on September 22, 2022.  (photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images))
Israel's Prime Minister Yair Lapid addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York City on September 22, 2022.
(photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images))

Prime Minister Yair Lapid has a story to tell.

It is about a boy who lost his father. It is about a boy who lost his home. It is about a boy who by a series of miracles survived the Nazis’ extermination of six million Jews.

That boy, Tommy Lapid, a well-known former Israeli politician, is his father.

Iran’s threats, therefore, to annihilate the State of Israel are personal to Lapid in a way that differs from any of his predecessors.

That is because Lapid is the first Israeli prime minister who is the child of a Holocaust survivor

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid meets with US Jewish community leaders in New York on September 21, 2022 (credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO) Prime Minister Yair Lapid meets with US Jewish community leaders in New York on September 21, 2022 (credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)

The Holocaust's ripple effects

The Holocaust is a trauma whose ripple effects have impacted all Jews around the globe, irrespective of whether they are survivors or children of survivors.

But it has particular significance for Israel, a country created three years after World War II, with a mission to ensure the safety and survival of the Jewish people.

International leaders pay homage to that mission when they visit here by laying wreaths at Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.

All 14 of the country’s past prime ministers have felt the weight of the Holocaust and have spoken of it, including, in recent times, linking it to the Iranian threat.

Prior to Lapid, prime minister Menachem Begin had the most personal Holocaust story, having escaped Europe in 1942 and losing his parents and brother in the war. Yitzhak Shamir, who arrived in what was Mandatory Palestine in 1935, lost his parents and two sisters in the Holocaust.

For the other leaders, the Holocaust was foremost a matter of national responsibility, not a reflection of the trauma of experiencing the event firsthand or growing up with the emotional weight of a parent who had done so.

Every prime minister has a personal story that intersects with the country’s narrative and becomes one of the bedrocks on which their actions are based while in office.

Benjamin Netanyahu spoke repeatedly of the loss of his brother Yonatan, the head of an elite commando unit who was killed at age 30 during a daring hostage raid in Uganda.

As a leader who had suffered an intense personal loss in defense of the country, Netanyahu has branded himself Mr. Security. When the IDF heads to war, Netanyahu does not ask soldiers to put their life on the line lightly, not only because he himself served in the IDF, but because he comes from the circle of bereaved families. In placing security above all else, he does this because he wants to make sure that no family will feel the loss he felt.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett’s focus was on democracy, often stating that he led the most diverse coalition in Israeli history, so much so that it included both right-wing and Israeli-Arab parties. He would often reference his father, Jim, who had been a civil rights activist in the 1960s and who was arrested during a sit-in to protest a San Francisco hotel’s refusal to hire African-Americans.

For Lapid, it is as the son of a Holocaust survivor. Nowhere is that more evident than when he speaks about Iran.

When Lapid landed in Germany earlier this month, he walked out of the plane grasping the arm of a Holocaust survivor, one of five who flew with him. During his trip, he held a meeting with them and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at Wannsee villa, where in 1942 the Nazis decided to implement the “Final Solution.”

Lapid did this on a trip where he tried to sway Scholz that Germany must do more to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons and using them to annihilate the Jewish state. The presence of the Holocaust survivors emphasized the point that Germany, where the Nazis launched their plan to kill the Jews, had a moral responsibility to prevent a second such attempted annihilation.

Lapid is of course not the first Israeli prime minister to link the Holocaust with the global responsibility to halt Iran, but it resonates differently with him given his history.

It's a narrative that Lapid brought to New York last week when at a gala event for Friends of the IDF, he recalled the dramatic moment on March 1944, in which German soldiers arrived at the Serbian home of his grandfather Bela Lampel and took him away at gunpoint.

In bidding farewell to his son, Tommy, Lampel said, “My son. I’ll either see you again, or I won’t.” Lampel died in the Mauthausen concentration camp, less than a month before its liberation.

Lapid recalled how as a child he had asked why they did not run away. His father said, “Because we had nowhere to run to.”

“Well there is now,” he said.

Lapid spoke of his father and his grandfather again at the United Nations General Assembly where he also urged action against Iran.

“My father was a child in the ghetto, my grandfather was murdered in a concentration camp,” Lapid stated in his first-ever address to the plenum during the high-level portion of the opening of the 77th session, effectively marking his introduction to the global community, and so he told the world who he was and where he came from.

"My father was a child in the ghetto, my grandfather was murdered in a concentration camp."

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid

Lapid stood where one day earlier Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi had stood and railed against Israel.

Raisi understands full well the moral linkage Israel makes when asking for global support to halt his country's nuclear program. The Islamic Republic has persistently denied that the Holocaust occurred. Prior to his arrival in New York, CBS asked Raisi about the Holocaust. He responded that "there are some signs that it happened. If so, they should allow it to be investigated and researched."

It was an answer that caused an uproar. But from Iran’s perspective, it is logical to undermine Israel’s moral claim for global support days before an international event in which its nuclear program would be one of the topics under discussion.

Lapid immediately tweeted in response photographs from the Holocaust with the words, “some signs.” He of course does not need such signs.

Tommy’s story of growing up in a world where no one cared about saving Jews is burned into Lapid’s DNA and now he is burning it into the world’s consciousness.

At the UNGA, he looked out at the large plenum and pledged, “We will do whatever it takes: Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.

“We will not stand by while there are those who try to kill us. Not again. Never again.”