This week, two-thousand years ago, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and for the second time since its establishment, the Jewish people lost sovereignty over the land of Israel.
This Sunday, pushed off a day so as not to disturb the Sabbath, many Jews throughout the world will fast to mourn this loss.
The results of the calamity of 70 CE go far beyond the actions of Titus and his cruel legions. In the wake of these events, Jews suffered thousands of years of suffering: exile, crusades, expulsion, inquisition, dhimmitude , blood libel, ghettoization, pale of settlement, pogroms, murder, rape, and genocide. For two-thousand years, the homeless Jewish people represented the “other” to nations from North Africa to France, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe. Hated, tortured, distrusted, and cast out, Jews searched for resting spots. In almost every country where the “wandering Jews” resided, no matter how much they gave to the “host culture” and nation, they were eventually attacked, scapegoated, and pushed out.
The United States served as a refuge for Jews and many other minorities fleeing European oppression of one sort or another. Yet, when the greatest modern monster raised its destructive head during the Holocaust, even the United States was not prepared to open her ports for Jewish entry.
To be sure, the history of the loss of Jewish sovereignty and independence and the course of Jewish life in the Diaspora is more complex than this quick sketch; however, the declaration of famed British historian L.B. Namier that “there is no modern Jewish history only a Jewish martyrology” to a degree rings true.
In late modernity, the tide changed.
Among modern Jewish visionaries, Theodor Herzl stands out. Not the only lover of Zion or Jewish thinker to grapple with the position of the Jew in the modern world, Herzl’s works and ideas, nonetheless, paved the road for the creation of the State of Israel. Perhaps overly utopian and Eurocentric, Herzl’s concept of a Jewish state has enabled a third attempt at a Jewish commonwealth. Presently over 8 million people live in Israel, up from around less than half a million during Herzl’s time. One only imagines what the world would have been like had the State of Israel been founded before the Germans set forth to destroy the Jewish population of Europe. If the Jews had had a refuge, how many would have survived?
What could have been?
This week, on Tisha B’Av itself, in 1938, on the eve of destruction, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, patriarch of Revisionist Zionist, stood in Warsaw and preached, prodded, and prophesied:
It is for three years that I have been calling on you, Jews of Poland, the glory of world Jewry, with an appeal. I have been ceaselessly warning you that the catastrophe is coming closer. My hair has turned white and I have aged in these years, because my heart is bleeding, for you, dear brothers and sisters, do not see the volcano which will soon begin to spurt out the fire of destruction. I see a terrifying sight. The time is short in which one can still be saved. I know: you do not see, because you are bothered and rushing about with everyday worries … Listen to my remarks at the twelfth hour. For God’s sake: may each one save his life while there is still time. And time is short.
I want to say one more thing to you on this day of the Ninth of Av: Those who will succeed to escape from the catastrophe will merit a moment of great Jewish joy — the rebirth and rise of a Jewish State. I do not know if I will earn that. My son, yes! I believe in this just as I am sure that tomorrow morning the sun will shine once again. I believe in this with total faith.”
What would have happened had the Jews heeded the call of the early Zionists? We can’t really know. But one imagines they could have built a society and refuge before the European destruction.
While hindsight is 20/20. We can imagine a different, darker past as well. What would have happened to World Jewry if the post-Holocaust creation of the Jewish state failed? Had the nascent Jewish state been defeated by both local Arab militias and the invading Arab League armies, where would the refugees have gone? Would the 850,000 Jews have been kicked out of Arab lands? If so, where would they all have gone? Is there any reason to believe that the world would have been more benevolent to them than they were when almost every nation turned their backs on the Jews murdered during the Holocaust?
This week as Jews collectively remember the many destructions, we can also guarantee that those events are not repeated.
Which brings me to two outrageous statements authored this past week. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement’s platform which decried the “genocide” of the Palestinians and the screed of historians, Hasia Diner and Majorie N. Feld in Haaretz shocked and saddened many friends in my news feed. The BLM’s abuse of the word “genocide” to describe the complex situation of Palestinians under Israeli military rule represents a nefarious and sinister attempt to link Israel to what they see as happening in America. But such dangerous terms go beyond simple intersectionality of oppression theory and fall into the realm of libel. In the end, what does one do to nations who commit genocide? The idea that the BLM movement would support not only BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) but even push for one sided international intervention, the natural conclusion of using such terms, to a complex regional conflict should be shocking. That the Palestinian population has grown from less than half a million at the turn of the 20th century to several million now is counter-indicative of any murderous plot. Even the far left magazine, +972, rejects such outrageous and dangerous hyperbole.
Yet, I find the writings of left leaning Jewish academics more egregious. That the BLM movement is full of anti-Semites who will use any libel against the Jewish state neither shocks nor saddens me. We are used to it One can hope and pray for a world free of racism and yet at the same time not join or even support such groups. But Diner and Feld’s writing represents something more insidious. One can disagree with the Israeli government and even support left wing Israeli movements without descending into libel. Yet Diner and Feld felt they had go over the top. They blame the State of Israel for destroying Judaism.
“The death of vast numbers of Jewish communities as a result of Zionist activity has impoverished the Jewish people, robbing us of these many cultures that have fallen into the maw of Israeli homogenization. The ideal of a religiously neutral state worked amazingly well for the millions of Jews who came to America.”
Let us unpack this statement. According to these two professors, Israel is responsible for destroying Jewish communities while the true salvation for the Jewish people is America. Even ignoring the Americanocentric narcissism, the irony of course is that the America of Diner and Feld was built upon the corpses of millions of Native Americans and on the backs of millions of Negro slaves and still suffers from a great deal of racism. My family and I greatly benefited from the kindness of the United States and I will be forever grateful to that great nation; however, moral purity is elusive and you would think historians would be cognizant of that reality.
Furthermore, America during the Holocaust was not and today is not prepared to save the world Jewry. Creating a refuge was one of the goals of Zionism. Diner is also upset that for her, “the Law of Return can no longer look … as anything other than racism.” Had such a law and place of safety existed in the 1930s, how many millions of Jews would have survived? Yes, the Israeli law of return is biased towards Jews who have suffered so much for so long. Thank God, it exists and, oh, that it would have existed sooner!
As historians and self-proclaimed thought leaders, who, while, “certainly do not claim to speak for all American Jews,” but “as scholars we know we are a part of something much larger,” they should be aware of a basic reality. I grew up as a simple Jewish kid in the 1980s. My Conservative movement Judaism was developed and nurtured on a diet of three major ideas: the State of Israel, Soviet Jewry, and the Holocaust.
I remember hearing Natan Sharansky speak. He claimed that the great push Soviet Jews received to beg for freedom was seeing Israeli planes on Soviet TV in 1967. By accident, the Soviets, perhaps believing Egyptian propaganda, thought that Egypt had destroyed the Israeli Air Force. In showing live TV coverage of the IDF flying over Egypt, the Soviets created the idea in the minds of Jews trapped in the Iron curtain that they too could be free. Israel in general, and the war in 1967 in particular, created the struggle for Soviet Jewry.
Furthermore, the Israeli myths that Diner and Feld were reared on, one can argue, enhanced Jewish pride in the US Jewish camps, schools, and Judaism in general in America would be radically different if not for the success of the State of Israel. I don’t think it far-fetched to claim that Diner and Feld owe a debut of gratitude to the State of Israel for their profession and the present state of Jewish studies in the US. Not only do the American university departments enjoy the benefits of Israeli academia, but then entire enterprise was enhanced by Jewish pride stemming, one can imagine, from the existence of the State of Israel.
Even Holocaust studies have been impacted. Would there be a Holocaust Museum in Washington had there not been Yad VaShem? Would there be a Holocaust academic discipline had there not been a trial of Eichmann? Would Diner ever have written her book on the Holocaust had there not been a Jewish state? “What if” questions can never be answered but I have a good hunch. How impoverished would the American and other Diaspora Jewish communities be today if Israel had lost in 1948 or 1967?
What would Jewish life look like without the State of Israel, without the Soviet Jewry movement, and without a way to somewhat ameliorate the experience of the Holocaust? Would there still be vibrant Jewish life if Israel had never been born? It’s hard to imagine.
This Sunday, I and many others will fast and mourn the events of 2,000 years ago. We will discuss what it means to still mourn the loss of Jewish sovereignty and the Temple now that we again have, as imperfect as it is, a Jewish sovereign state. We will review thousands of years of suffering and destruction and ponder its meaning now that we have an independent country in our native homeland. This week, this Sunday, this Tisha B’Av, we need to remember that Jewish Lives Matter and the creation and ongoing existence of the State of Israel grant us that luxury.