Honoring the ‘Yom-Ha’s in an age of delegitimization

Citizens continue to confront "delegitimization" by observing the "three modern moments that have become sacred."

Bibi with soldiers at memorial 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Bibi with soldiers at memorial 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Passover’s end heralds the beginning of the “Yom- Has,” three modern moments that have become sacred. Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, honors the six million Jews the Nazis slaughtered.
Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, commemorates nearly 30,000 soldiers and civilians killed by Israel’s enemies.
Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, celebrates Israel’s establishment and the freedoms eight million citizens enjoy in this old-new Jewish-democratic state. As sirens still the country, Israelis’ impressive, intense rituals marking these special moments unite the community, publicly and privately, teaching all democracies how to foster communal unity and a common purpose through national ceremonies.
But this year, my heart is heavy. Too many today defy the Holocaust’s lessons, and implicitly encourage more Jewish deaths by regretting Israel’s establishment – rather than toasting it as a modern miracle. In the last few weeks alone, we saw York University students and an Irish teachers’ union endorse boycotting Israel, Gazans fire rockets into Israel, and Syrian fighters trash a 2,000-yearold Damascus synagogue. Nevertheless, in our inverted moral universe, many idealists, many leftists, many Europeans, and a small but increasingly vocal minority of Jews, including some Israelis, blame Israel and the Jewish people for the crimes committed against us.
The Zionist revolution wanted to end the Jew’s image as perpetual victim, but this is ridiculous. The Blame-Israel Firsters, claiming all the hatred directed against Israel stems from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, insult Jews and Arabs alike. They insult Jews because in a perverse updating of traditional anti-Semitism, they remain obsessed, imputing to the Jew disproportionate power – and evil. And, in an epidemic case of liberal condescension, the politically correct rob Arabs, particularly Palestinians, of what academics call “agency,” their own autonomy, which entails responsibility.
Yes, as Zionists have become conditioned to say, we take some responsibility for some mistakes and some tensions we intensified. But, no, the irrational, fanatic, intense opprobrium directed against Israel in international arenas is disproportionate and not our fault. Similarly, it is not our fault that, as Binyamin Netanyahu notes in his book A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place Among the Nations, Israel is the only country surrounded by enemies which are not just hostile but actually wish to destroy us.
In such a world, with such injustice, with such affronts to any moral sensibility, it is easy to become embittered.
The great Canadian parliamentarian Irwin Cotler recalls learning from his parents in the 1940s “that there are things in Jewish history – in human history – too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened.” In the Claude Lanzmann documentary, Shoah, one survivor says, “if you could lick my heart, you would be poisoned.”
I don’t want to forget but I don’t want to be toxic either – for our sake and for others’. As we navigate the Yom Has’ delicate emotional terrain, I become an affirmation junkie. While remembering the horrors I also tell my children the redemptive stories, the tales affirming humanity’s goodness and Zionism’s healing power.
So, this Yom Hashoah, while denouncing the evil Nazi crimes, I also remembered Victor Frankl, the psychiatrist who emerged from concentration camp hell to teach that people can find meaning and happiness anywhere, as long as they love others and preserve their own sense of mission. And I recalled my late professor Isadore Twersky, who taught that one of the great post-Holocaust success stories, overlooked by most historians because most are secular, was the resurgence of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox life despite being nearly eviscerated by the Nazis.
On Yom Hazikaron, we will salute Major Roi Klein, the son of Holocaust survivors and the father of two who jumped on a Hezbollah grenade while saying “Shema Yisrael,” shielding his soldiers with what quickly became his lifeless body in Lebanon in 2006.
We will mourn Benny Avraham and his two comrades, kidnapped by Hezbollah terrorists on the Lebanese border in 2000, whose parents Haim and Edna – whom my family and I befriended – worked so heroically but futilely to save them.
We will echo Yonatan Netanyahu, the scholar-soldier and hero of the 1976 Entebbe raid to free Jewish hostages in Uganda, who is quoted saying in the compelling movie Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story, “What’s the sense of being a scholar if the whole country disappears?” And we will think about Alex Singer, the American- Israeli killed fighting terrorists in Lebanon in 1987 on his 25th birthday, who attributed his aliya to Israel, to “wanting a greater chance to make my Judaism one of joy rather than one of burdens... wanting to be part of Israel’s development both as a state and as a beacon, and... feeling that it is the duty of the individual Jew to help the Jewish people.”
And then, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, honoring Frankl, we will delight in our love for particular Israelis and our commitment to the mission of building Israel, which Klein, Netanyahu and Singer helped defend and define.
We will note that both of Benny Avraham’s sisters have now become mothers, deepening that noble family’s multi-generational ties to the land. We will use the story of the ultra-Orthodox rise from Auschwitz’s ashes to be more forgiving and more humble before passing political or religious judgments. And we will toast all these martyrs, who ran the gamut from religious to non-religious, who were Sephardi and Ashkenazi, who were native sabras and new olim.
Without forgetting the ongoing pain of their losses, we will defeat their killers – and their delegitimizing enablers – the best way we can: by living and loving, by singing and dancing, by embracing and perfecting this Jewish homeland, the only state we have, a first-time-in-two millennia opportunity to fulfill Jewish values and lead fulfilling Jewish lives on our own, politically.The author is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was just published by Oxford University Press.
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