Holocaust remembrance beyond the photo opportunity

For this week’s forum to have any lasting impact the leaders must internalize the message from their brief visits to the Jewish state and all the “Never again!” speeches.

A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds the hand of his granddaughter during the annual ‘March of the Living’ at Auschwitz in May 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)
A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds the hand of his granddaughter during the annual ‘March of the Living’ at Auschwitz in May 2019
The correct Hebrew verb for traveling to Jerusalem is “la’alot” – to ascend. It is physically and spiritually a journey that requires going up. Nonetheless, this week, the words “descended on Jerusalem” were more appropriate. Some 50 top dignitaries – including presidents, prime ministers, princes and politicians – made their way to the holy city for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp that came to symbolize all that is evil.
The gathering of so many distinguished guests – hosted by President Reuven Rivlin and Yad Vashem – is truly impressive. Less than a decade ago, former prime minister Ehud Barak warned that Israel faced a “diplomatic tsunami” that would bring the country down if it did not agree to major concessions with the Palestinians, who even as the forum took place launched clusters of balloons carrying explosive devices. This week, we were flooded with diplomats.
But still I worry. I can’t help it: It’s in my Jewish genes.
While it’s true that Israel is thriving and is not under existential threat (Iran’s nuclear plans notwithstanding), one of the most salient lessons of the Holocaust is that the future – for better or for worse – is unpredictable.
Could the survivors who struggled out of death camps have imagined the establishment of the State of Israel just three years later? No. But a few years before the war could Jewish families – the assimilated who rubbed shoulders with high society or the ultra-Orthodox and those eking out lives in shtetls – have imagined the torture and tragedy that was about to befall them?
For this week’s forum to have any lasting impact the leaders must internalize the message from their brief visits to the Jewish state and all the “Never again!” speeches. And Israelis, too, cannot be complacent. The arrival of so many heads of states – some 42 countries are represented – is an acknowledgment of a terrible historical wrong, but each leader has their own reason for coming. Making universal declarations against racism and hatred is a good thing – and it’s good for publicity and politics.
This has to be more than a glorified photo opportunity.
One very obvious absentee was Polish President Andrzej Duda. He reportedly took offense at not being invited to address the gathering. It seems equally likely that this is part of Poland’s fight with Russia over their roles in World War II and after: Poland sees itself as a victim of both the Nazis and the Soviets, and focuses on the fact that the Germans built and operated the notorious death camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka on Polish soil while the Soviet Union was at first Hitler’s willing partner in crime.
The Polish government seems upset that such an illustrious Holocaust remembrance event is being held in Israel just a few days before Poland will host its annual commemorative event at the site of Auschwitz itself. Increasingly, Poland is trying to take the lead as the main victim of the war, hence the law passed in 2018 with stiff penalties for those who refer to the concentrations camps as “Polish” – based on their location – rather than German or Nazi.
Poland’s figures of its dead do not distinguish between Jews (about three million) and non-Jews (some 1.9 m.). Nor do the Poles care to recognize that the Jews were singled out by the Nazis to be killed simply for being Jews; there was no equivalent systematic effort to eradicate any other race (with, the possible exception of the Roma.)
RESEARCHER AND journalist Shmuel Rosner pointed out this week the gathering in Jerusalem, attended by so many foreign dignitaries, indicates that increasingly Israel is being seen as the representative of the Jewish people.
International Holocaust Day is not as meaningful to me as the Hebrew date in the spring when Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day. That comes pertinently just after Passover – celebrating the Exodus from Egypt in biblical times – and a week before the back-to-back Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and Independence Day. It seems to be a natural progression.
As we proclaim at the Seder at the start of Passover, “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”
We are also commanded to remember what Amalek did to us as we left Egypt – he tried to destroy us.
I have frequently pointed out that Jewish history did not start with the Holocaust. Among the “what ifs” of history, is the question of how many of the six million Jews who perished in the Shoah could have been saved had Israel existed before WWII as a sovereign state able to offer a home and refuge.
The time has come for all schools, communities and synagogues to amend their Yizkor memorial prayers which for too many years have referred to the “Holocaust in Europe.” The Holocaust was not a European phenomenon: Jews in Iraq, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere were also victims. Hitler did not differentiate between religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. There is no question about what would have happened to the Jews wherever the Third Reich took control.
So many countries have so little to be proud of from that period and after. As Poland tries to change perceptions of its past, Duda would undoubtedly prefer to skip over the deadly pogroms that took place in places like Jedwabne during the war and Kielce and elsewhere after it had ended, when Jewish survivors struggled back to what had been their homes. Amalek, indeed.
Britain, under pressure from the Arab world, infamously not only denied Jews entrance to the Land of Israel during the war, but even afterwards – when the scale of the Holocaust was known – it kept out the Jewish refugees who literally had nowhere else to go.
It has been said that two contrasting lessons were learned from the Holocaust: While in the world at large there was a backlash against the idea of nation states, the Jewish people – represented by Israel – realized that they could rely on no one but themselves, in their own country, protected by their own army.
The forum is being held under the title “Remembering the Holocaust, fighting antisemitism.” For the fight to be anything other than a losing battle, that means recognizing what the Holocaust was, how it was carried out and what forms antisemitism takes. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, drawn up in 2016, serves as a good guideline.
It should be unthinkable that 75 years after the Holocaust, Jews are being attacked on the streets and in synagogues in Europe and the US. The assailants range from far-Right nationalists to Islamists supported, incredibly, by the far-Left. Today’s antisemitism also manifests itself in attacks on Israel.
The leaders who made their way to Jerusalem need to set the tone by supporting Israel in international bodies like the United Nations where hypocrisy abounds and the Jewish state is singled out for condemnation as a matter of course.
The late historian Robert S. Wistrich warned against institutionalizing the Holocaust as a kind of “civil religion.” Focusing on the Shoah, “stands in opposition to classical Zionism which aimed at normalizing the status of the Jews, not ‘as a nation that dwells alone,’” Wistrich wrote.
This week, it was Holocaust remembrance that brought the nations together in Israel. For the gathering to have any real meaning, it must not stop at remembrance but should take steps against modern antisemitism, be it through education, enforcement of anti-hatred laws, and prevention of incitement in the press and social media. Those leaders who ascended to and descended on Jerusalem need to spread the word from Zion: Not for the sake of the world’s 14 million Jews, but for the sake of all humanity.
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