Israel-Diaspora relations: Ignorance of past devalues present - opinion

Could the lack of knowledge as to what happened in the past contribute to those who do not appreciate Israel’s significance to the Jewish people in the present?

 PROTESTING OUTSIDE the National Executive of Britain’s Labour Party, which was set to discuss the party’s definition of antisemitism, 2018. (photo credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)
PROTESTING OUTSIDE the National Executive of Britain’s Labour Party, which was set to discuss the party’s definition of antisemitism, 2018.
(photo credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)

It is no accident that we commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Independence Day within the space of eight days, for it is the past that has enabled the present. 

May is the Gregorian month when we Jews have reason to mourn and reason to celebrate. 

Eighty-three years ago, on May 13, 1939, 937 German Jews boarded, in Hamburg, the ill-fated luxury liner MS St. Louis hoping to escape Hitler. The ship set sail for Havana, Cuba. All on board had purchased Cuban visas at the Cuban Embassy in Berlin, the cost being $200 to $300 per person (equal today to $5,000 to $6,000.) 

However, upon docking in Havana, the ship was turned away without a single passenger being allowed to disembark. The captain then set sail for Florida in the confident hope that his refugee passengers would be able to disembark in the United States. Tragically, this was not the case, and the ship was forced to return to Europe. Bound for Germany, one passenger slit his wrists and threw himself overboard. Eventually, the MS St. Louis was permitted to land in Belgium, where some managed to reach Britain, France and the Netherlands, but too many were murdered as Hitler occupied one European country after another. 

May 14, 1948, saw David Ben-Gurion announce the rebirth of the State of Israel and become the country’s first prime minister. Ben-Gurion decided that the new Israeli would be far removed from the Diaspora Jew, which, in the early days of the state, often necessitated the offloading of indigenous traditions on arrival in Israel. At the same time, Israel received the largest number of Holocaust survivors of any country. It was Abba Kovner, a partisan in Vilnius, who coined the phrase in 1941 when the Germans invaded Lithuania, “Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter,” a concept that might well have contributed to Ben-Gurion’s sense that the “new Israeli” be far removed from that of the defenseless Jew. 

 David Ben-Gurion takes former Canadian premier Lester B. Pearson for a walk around Sde Boker on December 5, 1968. (credit: YOSSI GREENBERG / GPO) David Ben-Gurion takes former Canadian premier Lester B. Pearson for a walk around Sde Boker on December 5, 1968. (credit: YOSSI GREENBERG / GPO)

 It was not until 1982 that Holocaust education was introduced into the school curriculum with the March of the Living program initiated in 1988. Today it is the norm for most schools to be involved with visits to Poland, although there are still too many children whose parents simply cannot afford the cost of their child’s participation.

April saw the resumption of the March of the Living after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. Of positive note was the participation of 103 Israeli-Arab youngsters, who marched with survivors under the Israeli flag. 

Could the lack of knowledge as to what happened in the past contribute to those who do not appreciate Israel’s significance to the Jewish people in the present?

AN EXAMPLE of ignorance of the Holocaust is the 2020 Claims Conference’s survey that took place in the US, Austria, Canada and France, seeking the level of Holocaust knowledge in these countries. The result found that 63% of millennials did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Eleven percent believed that the Jews were responsible for the Holocaust. Surprisingly, a high proportion of New York millennials appeared to lack basic knowledge of the Holocaust. 

Taking a realistic look today at the relationship between Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora, there can be no doubt that Diaspora Jewry’s link with Israel has become far more tenuous in recent years. Ignorance might be a legitimate reason but not sufficient for having allowed the situation to consistently deteriorate. In many ways, how we feel about Israel is age related. For those, like myself, for whom the Holocaust is not history and who remember a world without Israel, the reality of a Jewish state embraces feelings of security coupled with joy.

As we witness an unprecedented rise in antisemitism worldwide, it is significant that – for the first time in Israel’s history – Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has appointed a “special envoy for combating antisemitism and the delegitimization of Israel.” Pro-Israel advocate and entertainer Noa Tishby has been given this position. Media savvy with a strong presence on social media (of specific relevance to the younger generation), she is considered a good choice for the challenging times in which we find ourselves.

To seek a reaction to this appointment, the Magazine contacted the UK’s Union of Jewish Students. UJS’s president, Nina Freedman, responded as follows:

“It is vital that antisemitism is taken seriously and we hope that Israel’s appointment of a special envoy to combat antisemitism will help ensure its eradication from university campuses.

“The challenges facing UK Jewish students today are similar to those of all students – namely the impact of COVID, finances and, of course, their studies. However facing antisemitism may well impact their university experience in numerous ways. 

“Every Jewish society (J-Soc) celebrates Jewish life differently, but all aim to connect and build Jewish student communities. What is needed now is education, which is the key to combating antisemitism; it is important for universities to fully comprehend antisemitism’s manifestation in modern society and on campus in order to take proactive steps to tackle this phenomenon. Currently, we in UJS have staff members and volunteers successfully delivering antisemitism awareness training while simultaneously furthering an understanding of antisemitism within the wider student society.

“UJS’s ultimate aim is to have the capability for bigger, bolder campaigns drawing attention to the scale of the problem while giving support to the students specifically experiencing challenging times.” 

We can but fear how Harvard University’s newspaper The Harvard Crimson – which has come out strongly in support of the BDS campaign against Israel – will impact Jewish students on campuses throughout the world. 

The Israeli government, in addition to appointing an envoy against antisemitism, has committed to allocating NIS 360 million specifically to strengthen the bridges between Diaspora and Israeli youth. These funds will be spent on programs strengthening Jewish identity and affinity to Israel. Lapid and the government are to be congratulated for recognizing that Israel must be involved in both countering antisemitism and ensuring Diaspora Jews, especially the younger generation, fully appreciate the significance of the one Jewish state.

Readers of my column will have observed that, in past articles, I have stressed the need to bring together Israeli and Diaspora youngsters. In spite of the many excellent schemes such as Birthright and numerous MASA projects, one of the most challenging aspects is the lack of dialogue between young people here and young people in the Diaspora. Yes, there is a difference as to what is expected of an 18-year-old in Israel who enters the IDF and his contemporary in the Diaspora whose prime concern is his/her potential studies and future career. For all the positivity of bringing young people to Israel, surely if we wish to build meaningful connections between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora we have to ensure they have a chance to meet. 

Today, Israel is home to the largest number of Jews in the world. We are a country proud of what we have achieved in a mere 74 years. The fact that we are strong gives us the responsibility to ensure that our link with our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora remains vibrant and positive. The words of the late Holocaust survivor and poet Abba Kovner ring loud and clear: “Remember the past, live the present and trust the future.” It is incumbent upon us to ensure the younger generation, whether here or there, is aware of our past to prize the present, for then and only then can the future be ensured. ■

The writer is chairperson of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association. She is also public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes immigrant integration into Israeli society.