We are now entering the darkest days of the Jewish calendar, the Nine Days (this year, actually 10 days) that culminate in Tisha Be’av, the “Black Fast.” While this 25-hour day of solemnity – when food, drink, bathing and sexual relations are suspended – commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, the origins of the tragedy go much further back in history.
It was on this date that scouts, sent into the Land of Israel by Moses, came back with a negative report, asserting that conquest was impossible and settlement futile. God’s anger was such that He decreed that the whole generation would die out, and entrance into the Holy Land would be delayed until a new and more faithful population would emerge.
“You cried needlessly on this date,” railed God against the people, “but in the future you will have ample reason to weep.” And so the 9th of Av was a date designated for sacrifice and sorrow.
I suggest that Tisha Be’av is not reserved for exclusive attention to the Temples’ destruction and Jerusalem’s downfall. I see a link between that initial sin of the spies, the fall of the first and second Jewish commonwealths and the Shoah. For had we entered Israel immediately, say the sages, we would have established a dominion over Israel that could never be broken. As such, we would never have been exiled and so would never have been vulnerable to the forces of evil that swept through Europe many centuries later. Thus the tragedies of the hurban and the Holocaust are inextricably woven together.
IS THE Holocaust a unique, one of a kind catastrophe, or is it just one of many terrible events that have occurred in the history of mankind? In particular, is there a connection with the suffering of blacks in the US and elsewhere?
Earlier this summer, my wife, Susie, and I visited a number of fascinating places. We sailed to Bermuda, a self-governing British territory in the North Atlantic. An archipelago of seven small islands, it is a popular tourist destination with a colorful history. It housed large British and American bases and served as an important forming-up point during World War II, protecting Allied ships and hunting German submarines. It also served as a major clearinghouse for mail sent from Europe to America, and one can still read there the drastic letters sent from Jews in Nazi-occupied countries, futilely pleading for assistance and rescue.
Bermuda also served as a major gathering-point for the slave trade, moving thousands of African slaves to the New World. For decades in the 17th century, Bermuda was the leading debarkation point for African-born slaves sent to Virginia; a black child could be bought for six pounds, women for 10.
Later in our trip, we visited the Weizman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia – affectionately known as OY! – which I consider one of the finest Jewish museums anywhere in the world. It meticulously traces the migration of Jews to the US, from the first established community of Jews from Brazil in 1654 to the present day. Among its many exhibits is a discussion of the Jewish attitude toward slavery, particularly in the South, with rabbis and community leaders lining up on both sides. Segregationists and Abolitionists waged fierce debates regarding the treatment of blacks in their particular communities.
In Nashville, Tennessee, we spent time at the National Museum of African-American Music, which celebrates the countless black artists who pioneered music throughout the ages. Particular attention is paid to the discrimination against blacks that plagued this industry, as well as others. Black musicians were ostracized, marginalized and underpaid until relatively modern times.
The Black Holocaust Museum
Which brings us to the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This museum was founded by Dr. James Cameron, after visiting Yad Vashem some years ago. In his words, Cameron says he “admired how Jews value their history, teaching their children and other groups about it, which gives Jewish communities strength and hope.” He wanted blacks to similarly learn about their own trials and tribulations, from the 1600s until today. The museum’s galleries examine the roots of slavery, the civil rights movement and the infamous Jim Crow laws, and also features a memorial to the victims of lynching.
America, as we all know, is currently brimming with attention to the black cause. Black Lives Matter and other advocacy groups are widespread; movies and television give special consideration to black actors; many sports figures wear slogans of black pride, and even a new national holiday – Juneteenth, celebrating the final emancipation of American blacks – was recently added officially to the American calendar.
There is absolutely no question that blacks have suffered tremendously in America and other countries. Stolen from their homes, brutalized and stripped of all human rights for centuries, more than 12 million slaves were shipped under the most horrible conditions out of Africa, the vast majority to the Americas. Even when the law theoretically protected them – the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery in 1865 – discrimination, vilification and persecution continued unabated.
It would be difficult to minimize the tragedy the blacks have endured and, in some ways, are still enduring. In the “hierarchy of suffering,” there are surely some similarities between the history of the blacks and that of the Jews during the Shoah. Slave labor, denial of basic necessities, no protection under the law and pervasive prejudice are common to both. But to label the black experience a Holocaust?! That clearly crosses a line. Nothing in human history can be compared to what the Jewish people encountered in the Holocaust.
There have been genocides and massacres and widespread murders of various communities throughout history – the names and numbers, sadly, are simply too many to list. But never before did a regime like the Nazis engage in a worldwide effort to systematically wipe out an entire people wherever they might be found – from Oswiecim to Oslo – in the cruelest fashion imaginable. To use the name “Holocaust” to refer to anything other than the war against the Jews from 1933 to 1945 is to subvert history and insult the memory of the many millions who were murdered.
Thank God, there is a fourth event in our historic journey that brings us full circle. We have repudiated the counsel of the spies and once again entered the Land of Israel, this time never to depart. Let us hope that the term “Holocaust” will never again be used – by Jews or any other people – and that racism of all types will be eradicated.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]