My Word: Figuring out Independence Day beyond the Holocaust

The prime minister needs to pick his battles rather than create new fights.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN addresses the Holocaust Remembrance Day opening ceremony at Yad Vashem on Sunday (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN addresses the Holocaust Remembrance Day opening ceremony at Yad Vashem on Sunday
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The figures were not new; in fact, they are among the oldest population statistics ever recorded, but they were a timely reminder of an often overlooked aspect of Israel’s existence.
On Monday, as part of Reshet Bet’s radio broadcasts for Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yoav Krakovsky noted the number of Jews in the world today, 72 years after the end of World War II, is 14.411 million. Then he went back in time, way back, noting that Jacob and his sons were 70 people as they descended to Egypt in the year 1313 BCE, and Moses led some 600,000 men over the age of 20 in the Exodus, so we can assume the Israelite population was approximately 2.5 million. Around 960 BCE, King David’s census counted 1.3 million adult males, suggesting the population was some five million. (The full, fascinating data are available at
Israelis are in the unique period of the year that exists only in the Jewish state – between the end of Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the back-to-back Remembrance Day for IDF Fallen and Victims of Terror and Independence Day, which this year fall on May 1-2.
It’s a continuum, in which Holocaust Remembrance Day fits in better than the January 27 date marked around the world. As I often note, writer Haim Gouri once told me Israel was not founded because of the Holocaust, but in spite of it. The Holocaust is an indelible part of our history and collective memory, not the start of it.
That’s why I hang blue-and-white flags outside my apartment windows at the end of Holocaust Remembrance Day and leave them there until Jerusalem Day, a month later – for that, too, is part of the chain of events. And this year, marking 50 years since the reunification of Jerusalem, those flags, moving as Jerusalem’s breezes dictate, signal an extra “We’re still here” message.
Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics published data stating that of the 14.411 million Jews worldwide, 6.335 million live in Israel, 5.7 million in the US, 460,000 in France, 388,000 in Canada, 290,000 in the UK.
The world Jewish population is similar to what it was in 1922, but has not yet reached the numbers from before the Holocaust. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, there were 16.6 million Jews worldwide, and in 1948, the year Israel was established, there were 11.5 million Jews (some 650,000 in the nascent state).
According to the CBS figures published ahead of Israel’s 69th Independence Day, the population has reached 8.680 million, of whom 6.484 million (74.7% of the total population) are Jewish. (The Arab Israeli population is 1.808 million, or 20.8%.) The figures are dry, but my eyes tear up when I consider them. Not only what we lost – the six million killed in the Shoah and all their potential children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on – but also how people found the strength to go on living, adding new generations.
I detest the trend to universalize the Holocaust until everyone is a victim. Donald Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer was not the first, and at least he was apologetic. Former European Union envoy Baroness Catherine Ashton, for example, in 2014 issued a statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day omitting any mention of the victims being Jewish.
I also object to calling it the “Holocaust of European Jews.” Hitler did not want to exterminate European Jewry, but all Jews in the world, and all signs of our religion and culture. The Holocaust touched Jewish families then living in Iraq, Tunisia and Libya. Hitler would not have stopped.
As fewer and fewer survivors remain to tell of the horrors – firsthand, not Hollywood’s version – it becomes more important than ever to establish a means of passing on the history. Zachor (remember) is a commandment we need to take seriously, just as we are commanded to remember what Amalek did as we left Egypt in the Exodus. But we also need to learn to look further back, and to the future.
Yad Vashem should continue to be on the itinerary of visiting dignitaries, but the City of David, whose rocks and ruins tell the broader story of why we are here, is even more important.
The different ways of looking at things was on display this week at the official ceremony at Yad Vashem marking the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day. President Reuven Rivlin, a proud seventh- generation Jerusalemite, proclaimed: “The Shoah is permanently branded in our flesh. Each of us has a number on our arm. Nevertheless, the Shoah is not the lens through which we should examine our past and our future.”
Rivlin noted that he had been at odds with Menachem Begin on the eve of the IDF’s entry into Lebanon in June 1982, when Begin said: “The alternative to the IDF’s entry into Lebanon is Treblinka...”
“According to this approach,” said Rivlin, “... Every threat is a threat to survival, every Israel-hating leader is Hitler.... And the world is divided into two, the ‘Righteous among the Nations’ on the one hand, and antisemitic Nazis on the other.”
This approach is fundamentally wrong, said Rivlin. “The Jewish people was not born in Auschwitz. It was not fear that kept us going through 2,000 years of exile, it was our spiritual assets, our shared creativity.”
It became more obvious why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had sought alternatives to Rivlin as presidential candidate in 2014, even reportedly suggesting the late Elie Wiesel take the position, although he did not live in Israel and was in poor health.
Netanyahu, Rivlin’s opposite, proclaimed at the ceremony: “The simple truth is that in our world, the existence of the weak is in doubt. When facing murderous countries and organizations, their chances of survival are not great. The strong survive, the weak are erased.”
While neither dismisses the basic philosophy of the other, where Rivlin and Netanyahu choose to place the emphasis is significant.
When Netanyahu refused to meet German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel this week because Gabriel was meeting the far-left groups B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, Netanyahu issued an ultimatum: Meet them or me. Gabriel didn’t even blink.
Rivlin, in diplomatic damage control, greeted Gabriel at the President’s Residence, and, one assumes, privately tried to explain why Israel objects to NGOs that defame and delegitimize the country being granted recognition (and international funding).
Netanyahu not only missed a chance to get his message across to the foreign minister of one of Israel’s most important allies, he raised the profile of the two NGOs. B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, and NGOs promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are not an existential threat.
There is no need to put them on the same level as nuclearizing Iran.
The prime minister needs to pick his battles rather than create new fights.
Thousands of years of history can either weigh you down or offer support. The flags outside my window, roughly half-way between Yad Vashem and the City of David, flutter freely with pride.
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