APRIL 29, 2011
What is it about us as Jews? In the fall, we squeeze in not one, not two, but four holidays in a three week period. OK, we don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. After all, it is in the Torah. This is not something we chose or can change, for it is written, “don’t mess with Torah.”
Then, what do we do to ourselves in the Spring? The matzah is barely through our digestive systems and lo and behold, we add two more Jewish Holidays to our calendar. I say, “we,” because these are not in Torah, but are based in modern history. I am referring to two events, which are perhaps as critical to who we are as Jews as the story of Chanukah, the destruction of the Temple and other significant moments. But do we really need two more Jewish holidays? One to mark the Shoah and the other Israel’s Independence? Of course, my answer is…. “yes.”
Not surprisingly, my recent trip to Israel reminded me of the importance of Israel, but also provided a different perspective on the Shoah. This Sunday morning at 11:00 as a congregation and at 7:00 in the evening at the Uptown JCC, we will mark Yom Hashoah. I invite you all to be present. You might ask, after all these years, what new insights might be possible?
Any visit to Israel requires a stop at Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Memorial. The term “requires” implies a sense of obligation. In truth every Head of State, every dignitary and all foreign military officers visit Yad Vashem. Protocol requires it. But more than that, I would argue it is a moral imperative for all visitors.
Yad Vashem provides a frame of reference to understand the necessity of Jews having their own nation. Had there been an Israel in the middle of the 20th century, 6 million Jews would not have been exterminated. Perhaps it is as simple as that. That was certainly the subliminal, if not primary message of Yad Vashem in the past. However, the museum was significantly remodeled in 2005. Over time it needed updating in the styles of presentation, like all museums. They had to keep up with Washington’s Holocaust Museum and many others.
We learned however, that the renovations involved much more than new flat screens and modes of display. Rachel Corzine, a Holocaust Educator, spoke to our group. She pointed out to us that coming out of the 1950s, Israelis looked at the Shoah, those who died and those who survived, with embarrassment. And so the museum depicted the Jews of Europe, primarily as hapless victims. From a post-independence, Israeli mindset, it was incomprehensible that Jews did not go down fighting. The old museum honored the memory, but its message was that, “had there been an Israel, this would not have happened.”
Indicative of this societal ambivalence, there was great debate as to when to commemorate the Shoah in Israel. Most said, “Tisha B’Av,” which has historically been the religious day that marks horrible destructions in our past. Israeli politicians refused. “Too religious!” was their response. Keep in mind there has always been a divide in Israeli society between the religious and the secular. Early on, the religious had political power, but not nearly as strong as they are today. Instead, the Knesset chose the current date on the calendar, coming a week or so before Independence Day, which also coincided with the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. From a 1950s Israeli perspective, that was a bright moment to remember, instead of all the death. Hence, the date and the name of this holy day is, “Yom Hashoah U’gevurah- Day of the Shoah and Bravery.”
Fast forward to the 21st century. Time provides some perspective. Since the 1950s, much has been learned about the Shoah, with multiple stories of heroism, resistance that came in all forms, physical and spiritual, the insidious methods used by the Nazi’s to delude and deceive the Jews of Europe, the abdication of morality by the allies, art and literature created by Jews, even in the midst of it all, faith that was able to triumph over barbarity. A new generation of Israelis has grown up, including the children of survivors. Along with the devastation and destruction of European Jewish life, these are the stories that are now told in the new museum, which not only records the history, but honors the memory as never before. Our responsibility is to continue to do the same, out of respect and as a source of inspiration
The end of the story is still Israel- literally. Both the old and new museums have visitors physically emerge from the abyss by taking in a massive, beautiful panorama of 21st century Jerusalem. Since 1948 Israel has become the home to millions of Jews needing rescue. Without it, who knows what would have become of them
Just as attitudes about the Shoah have evolved, the Israel we celebrate next week on Yom Ha’atsmaut is a different Israel than the one that began 63 years ago. How could it be otherwise? Disturbing studies on the attitudes by Diaspora Jewry towards Israel indicate that over half of Jews under the age of 35 stated they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy. This reflects that young Jews do not feel a deep personal connection to the land, intellectual, spiritual, historical perhaps, but not personal. Jewish historian, Jonathan Sarna, observes, “Young Jews today often view Israel through the lens of contemporary media. They fixate on its unloveliest warts.”
At the recent CCAR convention of Reform rabbis, held here in New Orleans, the concluding presentation was a lively debate between Peter Beinart and Rabbi Ammi Hirsch. Beinart, a young Jewish journalist, is the author of a major article and subsequent presentations, which have engendered criticism and controversy. He stresses his love for Israel, but warns that Israel’s actions, especially on the West Bank and settlements cannot be accepted uncritically. He also points to the growing strength of the political and religious right wing in Israel and actions that they have taken, inclusive of laws that discriminate against Moslems, calls for loyalty oaths, and legislation that would delegitimize non-orthodox Judaism and even liberal expressions of orthodoxy. For him it is not surprising that while 79% of young Orthodox Jews feel close to Israel, only 18% of young liberal Jews feel similarly. He argues that one cannot expect young Jews, who generally champion causes of freedom, oppose discrimination and were raised in liberal Jewish homes, to embrace and identify with an Israel that is dissonant from their basic values.
Beinart’s message is that the American Jewish establishment must embrace these young Jews, who feel disconnected from Israel. More importantly, we need to champion the issues that we see as dysfunctional for the Jewish State. We need to hold Israel accountable for its own proclaimed values. If it is to be the only real democracy in the Middle East, then let it fully act as one. Parenthetically, on my recent Israel trip, we heard a similar message from a former editor of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, a message that was not well received by some of our participants.
Ammi Hirsch, Israeli born, former Director of ARZA, and now the rabbi of the historic Steven S. Wise Free Synagogue of New York, responded. He perceives the alienation by the young as symptomatic not of attitudes toward Israel alone, but as part of larger issues of disconnection from organized Judaism. He then returns to the ongoing, necessary theme and concern of security. It is of course difficult to act based upon democratic values when the other side is not playing by the same rules.
He also argues that whether Jewish critics of Israel like it or not, their positions play into the hands of those who would delegitimize Israel and there are many throughout the world, successfully doing just that in the court of public opinion. The new Jewish Zionist organization, called “J Street,” has come under particular scrutiny and criticism for its public positions, which do not support every action taken by the State.
I felt like I was at an ideological ping pong match, agreeing with point one from one side, but then a point from the other. Both were scoring with me, but at the end of the discussion and with the influence of my most recent Israel experiences, I found myself leaning more towards the Beinart position. While in Israel, we heard multiple times how the relationship with diaspora Jewry is critical and honest feelings are appreciated. I cannot check my liberal political and religious values at the gates of Jerusalem. I cannot live with myself if I do, nor do I believe that it is in the best interests of an Israel that I love. It is precisely because I have a personal connection with Israel, that even more so, I am required to follow a path of support that I deem appropriate. And I hope that my position opens the door for my community to find its way to be both supportive of and advocate fully for Israel with intellectual integrity.
And that is why we need Yom Ha’atsmaut, to show our support and concern regardless of how we evaluate Israel’s current positions. Our community service on Monday, May 9 at 7:30 at Temple Sinai is an appropriate venue and forum to demonstrate ongoing commitment and personal connection.
Do we really need two more holidays? Obviously, my answer is, “Yes.” One recalls the past, honors memory, allowing us to marvel at the ability of human survival in the face of utmost depravity. The other is a day to remind us of the miracle of the Jewish State, to appreciate all that Israel has accomplished in 63 years, but also a day to recognize that the work of redemption is not yet complete and that we are all partners in the efforts to foster that reality.
Ken yehi ratson- May it be God’s will and our resolve.