Sunday, April 23, 2017

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions from Yom HaShoa

Today at sundown, and again tomorrow at 11:00 a.m., horns will blare all over Israel and traffic will come to a stop. Places of public entertainment will be closed by law and all news will focus on commemorating the Holocaust, Yom HaShoa.

In 2014 we spent Yom HaShoa on Kibbutz Ya'acov Ashdot on the Jordan river, just below the Sea of Galilee. We halted our gait out in the banana groves as the horns sounded. Afterwards kibbutz members put on a play in the community center. We didn't understand a word, but the evening was quietly respectful for those who were lost.

Out on the freeways it's less private. Out on the freeways, in the cities, at the airport, it's a celebration that gets in the face of Arab citizens (20 percent of the population) and tourists like us. There is tension and defiance in the lone truck rumbling down the less traveled portion of the road in the video above.

For Jews around the world it's a time to somberly reflect on the enormity of the loss suffered by European Jewry in World War Two, even as the Holocaust is slipping from living memory. Eighty percent of Jews world-wide were born after 1957; in Israel 89 percent of the Jewish population was born after 1953. A few have parents who remember. Everyone has grandparents, great uncles, and great aunts who were touched by the tragedy. There are known names.

At Yad Vashem they try to gather the names and stories of all six million who perished. It's a worthy project to commemorate this lost world, to try and understand what went wrong, to teach lessons about how we might prevent future inhumanity of such magnitude. It may be a futile task.

At the United Nations they observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 each year, marking the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. They designate specific themes, attempting to focus on collective experiences and to draw lessons about universal human rights.

In England, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (1991-2013), Lord Jonathan Sacks, draws all the wrong conclusions. He equates talk of universal human rights with anti-Semitism. In his view, we recall the Holocaust because anti-Semitism is eternal and to remind us that the Jews will always be the scapegoat of the world. Rabbi Sacks sees no universal lessons for humanity in the Holocaust other than "don't criticize Israel."

"When bad things happen to a group," says Sacks, "its members can ask one of two questions: 'What did we do wrong?' or 'Who did this to us?' The entire fate of the group will depend on which it chooses," he says.  If it asks, "What did we do wrong?" he correctly observes, "it has begun the process of healing the harm. If instead it asks, 'Who did this to us?' it has defined itself as a victim. It will then seek a scapegoat to blame for all its problems."

The irony, of course, is that Israel very much defines itself as a victim. It defined itself as victim in 1947-48, it defined itself as victim in 1967 and 1973, and it has done so throughout 50 years of occupation. The irony seems to be lost on Rabbi Sacks. Instead of asking the question and looking inward Rabbi Sacks looks for a scapegoat: talk of universal human rights is anti-Semitism he says.

The reason Israel is criticized, he asserts, is anti-Semitism is timeless.  For a thousand years Jews have been the most conspicuous non-Christian minority in Europe and so suffered from anti-Semitism, and today, because Israel is the most conspicuous non-Muslim country in the Middle East, it suffers from anti-Semitism. "The argument is always the same," says Sacks. "We are innocent; therefore they are guilty. Therefore if we are to be free, they – the Jews or the state of Israel – must be destroyed. That is how the great evils begin."

But Israel is rightly criticized for 50 years of occupation: for 50 years of keeping most of the Palestinian people under military jurisdiction, without civil or political rights, without access to civilian courts; for 50 years of demolishing homes without due process of law, destroying olive groves, appropriating water, and land; for 50 years of killing Palestinians at a rate of 6:1. 

We can be critical of Israel, says Rabbi Sacks, but we can't use talk of science, religion, or human rights to do it--because that's anti-Semitism. It's the wrong lesson to draw from Yom HaShoa. 


  1. This was terrible! You deliberately misinterpret the rabbi on every point. He does NOT say what you claim he's saying and the conclusions you draw from this are completely your own and thus irrelevant. The "occupation" was the only decent reaction to repeated invasions. The other option (and what any other nation would have done, in any other time) would have been annexation. Sack's video is maybe over-simplified - but YOU are plain stupid!

    1. Thank you for reading, Gunnar, and taking the time to respond. I appreciate it.

      Not sure what you think the misinterpretation is? It's true, I universalized Sack's point in the service of introspection more than Sacks does. Not sure why you have occupation in quotation marks? We can use a different word for the WB regime--what would you suggest? Yes, I think you are correct about what "any other nation" would have done: annexation. That is at the heart of the problem. If WB and Gaza are annexed Israel needs to grant citizenship to the people in the annexed territories. The problem is that Israel is exercising/asserting sovereignty over the WB without granting citizenship . . . Not very democratic; not very modern; not very just; not very conducive to peace.

      As to conclusions . . . that's the point: To think for our own and draw our own conclusions. Conclusions can be more or less justified, but there is nothing "irrelevant" about them--not about your conclusions, not about mine . . . . All the best.