Thursday, April 12, 2007
Yom HaShoah - Remember the Past and Plan for the Future
Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day is approaching now. A day is of course too narrow a period to do anything important justice. Yet we set a single day aside for independence, for mothers, for fathers, for wars and presidents. In recent memory the only major event that could be said to have happened in a day was 9/11.
While the Holocaust was going on, news and discussion of it was mostly suppressed or outright ignored. Major Democratic party leaders, most prominently Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK and RFK, who delivered a speech warning Jews against any public statement or response. Joseph Kennedy had himself said, when the first reports came in of Nazi persecutions of Jews, "they brought it on themselves."
Even after the war discussion and commemoration was distinctly stifled. The USSR suppressed any discussion of the particular murder of Jews, treating everything as the murder of Soviet citizens. The United States under Eisenhower and Israel under Ben Gurion were pursuing improved relations with Germany. Nazi War Criminals were freed and a lot of matters were swept under the rug.
During the war Great Britain and the United States had mostly ignored what was going on and even aided it with the British preventing Jews from escaping to Israel, deporting German Jews back to Germany, as the US had done with the St. Louis. But Jews in the United States had little better of a record.
The generally liberal American Jewish leadership had fallen hook, link and sinker for the Cult of FDR and the New Deal. And FDR liked Jews about as much as Joseph Kennedy or Harry Truman did. The Jewish leadership sabotaged whatever measures it attempted to take and aside from some limited aid, did very little that was useful. Those who did labor to rescue Jews and bring the Holocaust to public attention were outsiders like Mike Tress or Ben Hecht, who were more often than not condemned for their work and are little remembered today. While Mike Tress worked to rescue Jews from Europe, Ben Hecht with the Bergson group organized protests, press releases and plays meant to force public attention to the genocide of Europe's Jews and embarrass the White House into taking action. The advertisement above is a sample of the organization's work.
Much of that history is forgotten now. The Holocaust as is remembered today has been simplified, as most history is, into a series of commemorations of the dead. To liberal Jews, who did little to nothing to save those who died, the Holocaust has becoming a teaching lesson, a way to lecture about the dangers of intolerance and nationalism. Having universalized the Holocaust, they also rendered it devoid of meaning. Nothing more than photos and a drawn out version of, "Why can't we all just get along."
To ultra-religious Jews the message of the Holocaust was to rebuild elsewhere and to keep everything going as it was before, in other parts of the world. That has arguably succeeded. Jewish life has been rebuilt in America and Israel. Unlike most secular Jews, religious Jews were well aware that the Holocaust was not a unique event, but part of a chain of persecutions that had been underway for thousands of years since Pharaoh.
What they refused to become aware of, is that the unique element of the Holocaust was the fusing of new technologies with ancient dreams of Jewish massacres. Transportation, organization and industrialization had made the Holocaust possible on a scale greater than anything that had come before, including the Roman massacres, the Crusades or the Chmelnitski pogroms. Simply waiting out and enduring the latest atrocity was no longer a realistic option. Within a decade of the Holocaust, two more attempted, one by Stalin in the USSR and one by the Arabs in Israel. Had they succeeded, few surviving Jews would have remained in the Eastern Hemisphere.
To the Zionists, there was the warning that Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Uri Zvi Greenberg had given years before the Holocaust, "We must liquidate the galut or the galut will liquidate us." The rebuilding of a state of Israel and the seeming end of the exile for the majority of the Jewish people seemed to provide some of the promised benefits. A strong army capable of protecting its people. A state capable of diplomatic negotiations on behalf of Jews being persecuted anywhere in the world.
But the Galut could not be so easily liquidated. Setting up a state meant setting up a barrier, but the real barrier was within. People who have grown used to being slaves, to being a persecuted minority for thousands of years, cannot suddenly become free men. G-d understood this when he took the redeemed Jewish slaves away from Philistine territories. It was not that they were incapable of fighting, but that in the face of war they reverted to their old instincts, slaves facing masters and willing to make any concession needed.
To look at Olmert and his gang, it is not difficult to hear Datan and Aviram shouting that we need to turn back and return to Egypt. One can read papers and hear prominent liberal Jewish figures stating loudly that the creation of Israel was a mistake. One can see ads for the return of Jews to Russia, under the auspices of that movement which stands to benefit from it.
Commemoration of the dead is only half the response to the Holocaust. The other half is planning for the future. We have succeeded in the former and failed utterly in the latter. It is never too late though. Not if we recognize it.
The headline of one of Ben Hecht's advertisements comes to mind. "For Sale To Humanity 70,000 Jews Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 A Piece" (New York Times, February 16, 1943, p. 1)