The collapse of the recent peace talks between Israel and Palestinians have unleashed a barrage of commentary much of it accusing the Israeli political leadership of having a Holocaust mentality. The criticism, by the way, often comes from both inside and outside of Israel.
But my sense is that it is not the Holocaust at all that defines our thinking, our concern for security above all and a general fear of trusting others with our safety. The Holocaust is just the most recent event in our history (and easily the most destructive to our people as well) where a massacre of Jews occurred simply because we are Jews and without the world raising a finger to stop it.
When God placed the 10 commandments in the hands of those assembled at Mt. Sinai and began with the words, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” this was done for a reason. For the faithful who believe that the world was fashioned by God, this same God chose to begin the Decalogue with a reference to something that was fresh in the minds of those who had just escaped eternal slavery, rather than remind them that he was the Creator of the world. The message was both a reference that was meaningful and an admonition to remember.
Later in Deuteronomy we are further admonished to “Remember what Amalek did to you along the way as you came out of Egypt.” Again we are told to remember and, even today, it is incumbent upon those of us who are practicing Jews to hear this particular passage each year in advance of the Purim holiday.
And then, of course, we can look at the history that followed (in an abbreviated manner as the full list is way too long for this blog) to see why the warning was important:
- 412 BCE the 1st temple is destroyed and 100,000 Jews are killed
- 70 CE the 2nd temple is destroyed, 2.5 million Jews are killed, a million are exiled and 100,000 are sold as slaves by the Romans.
- 1009 the Jews of Orleans are massacred.
- 1012 the Jews of Rouen, Limoges and Rome are massacred.
- 1095 the Crusades begin and in the first month alone 10,000 Jews are killed.
- 1239 the Jews of London are massacred.
- 1354 in Castille 12,000 Jews are killed.
- 1648 fully one third of the Jews in Poland are killed.
- 1768 in Kiev, 3,000 Jews are killed.
- 1902 the Polish pogroms begin
- 1919 the Prague pogroms begin
- 1926 the Uzbekistan pogroms begin
- 1929 the Jews of Hebron are massacred
So the Holocaust is simply the latest example of our decimation albeit the one of greatest magnitude.
Two things seeped into our collective psyche as a result of this history. The first is that we need to be ever-vigilant regarding our own security, as we know from sad experience that when the chips are down our future is in our hands and not those of even our best friends.
Secondly, and this is most likely why the world often looks on us with disdain, we are enjoined to be the world’s conscience and raise concern when massacres occur even while the world does nothing. Just look at some examples of what has happened in the 69 years since the end of World War II (a very partial list):
- 1975-79 the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia slaughtered 1.4 million people
- 1994 in Rwanda 800,000 people were massacred
- 1995 in Bosnia, ethnic cleaning resulted in the deaths of 40,000 people
- 2012-14 in Syria over 150,000 people have been killed by the regime there
So given our own history coupled with the history of others who have suffered at the hands of tyrants, dictators, despots and others drunk with their own power, is it any wonder that we look at every move through the particular prism of potential destruction? The world’s questions of us who live in Israel should not be why we still think this way. Rather they should turn the question inward and ask why the history does not make them equally concerned?
George Santayana was right when he said “All living souls welcome whatever they are ready to cope with; all else they ignore, or pronounce to be monstrous and wrong, or deny to be possible.” Those who stand in judgement of us for remembering the past would do well to be reminded of his words.