They say that an op-ed piece should be no longer than 1000 words. I try to keep them no longer than the recommended length of 800. But how, at this time of reflection following Yom Hashoah, can one sum up the gamut of thoughts pertaining to the greatest premeditated genocide of one people, my people, in so few words?
For me, when contemplating our moment in history today, as a Jew living in Israel, I turn to the sage Hillel who stated: “If I am not for myself, who will be? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” It is of note that Hillel lived and worked at the time of the second temple, circa 40 BCE to 10 CE. The first Jewish revolt which followed not long afterwards was to bring about a catastrophic series of event which changed Jewish history
Fanatics known as zealots, who espoused a form of ultra-religious nationalism, emboldened themselves by an aggrandized sense of power from biblical narrative and a belief that Jews of the east would rise up, head towards Judea and the Galilee and help fling off the yoke of Rome. It didn’t happen. The revolt failed. The temple was laid to ruin, Jerusalem was burned to the ground in 70 CE and the Jewish people were to become a nation without a homeland. A mobile community-based religion. Communities subject to the whims, favors, suspicions and discrimination of hosting nations. Yes there were good times: the Talmudic sages of Babylon, the Golden Age in Spain and even the early settlement of Poland were to produce knowledge, wealth and a rich religious and cultural fabric but hatred and brutality, persecution and the urge to excoriate the other by gentile Europe produced a history of suffering. The exile was to produce a boutique religion, complex, intellectually vast and unattainable to the masses, and a fragile diasporic people with ancient national roots. While a continued presence in what is now Israel existed, it remained diminutive. For the most part the national footprint in Zion was virtual: in texts, in prayer and in hope.
The Holocaust did not occur as an accident in history. It occurred derivative of history. A long and bitter history that produced murderous outrages on European soil – in Spain, Portugal, England, Poland, Russia and elsewhere. In a Europe of fiefdoms, principalities, estates and warlords it never occurred to the Jews to arm themselves and to physically fight off the perpetrators of pogroms. When it came to Hillel’s axiom, being for oneself meant gaining knowledge, wealth and building community. Military power was not only out of reach, it was “treif”. Physical self-preservation, possibly the most fundamental human need was somehow forgotten. And it is only by fulfilling that dictum at the forefront of Hillel’s aphorism that one can begin to grapple with the second tenet: what am I when I strive only for self-preservation at the expense of others? It’s a logical continuum.
And this is why I am both troubled and thus challenge the slogans that come from several of my progressive Jewish associates in the Diaspora who on Yom Hashoah boldly issue a statement such as: “We will never forget the millions who perished under the Nazi regime…..This is why we must stand up for the rights of all humanity. Only then can we proudly say Never Again”. It’s not that the statement is incorrect. It’s about what is missing and it’s about a faulty logical thread. Within the short span of a mere spec of history of 70 years the holocaust becomes a universal tragedy without a Jewish face. It purports exclusively, without a trace of Jewish identity only the second part of Hillel’s axiom. The problem is that as a prior victim of inhumanity one needs primarily to fortify the bastions in order to stay alive long enough to practice compassion. One needs to ward off terror, hatred, premeditated attempts at destruction in order to fulfill any dictum at all. And, sadly, on the way you will bloody your sword. You will err and stumble and in the surge that attempts to seize and destroy you, you will, despite your best intentions, trample on the rights of others. Survival and self-preservation can no longer be “treif”.
So let me say this: the Holocaust is firstly and foremostly a Jewish tragedy. And only when I internalize this as a Jew, do I have real insight – not a cerebral deductive reasoning, but a true understanding of the universality of this event. For Palestinians – and in no way do I compare the event – the Nakba is firstly a Palestinian tragedy, and Apartheid was a primarily South African tragedy. But as a Jew, only when I practice self-preservation and bloody my hands in defense of my people, send my children into danger in order to guard my people, do I truly understand the meaning, the complexity, the hard grey reality of an imperfect world where “Never Again” means both mastering the sword and purging the visceral impulses that come with holding it. It is not one or the other. It is is one and the other. Those who choose to ignore this rule either live (in denial) by the swords of their neighbors while chastising them, or conversely, close their doors and hearts to their fellow man.
In a post-Holocaust world, Jewish demographics have not recovered. With approximately 14 million Jews worldwide today, approximately 6 million live in the US, 6 million in Israel and an estimated 2 million spread over the remaining diaspora. American Jewry is decreasing rapidly due to assimilation. The fastest growing Jewish presence is today in Israel and within a few decades the dominant Jewish demographic base will be exclusively the State of Israel. Moreover, this growth is not only demographic but in every sphere of Jewish life and beyond. Israel is the center of a renaissance of historical proportions with a revived and vigorous language, with poetry, theater film, technology and every sphere of Jewish life and culture embroidered into a modern world.
Today we struggle with what kind of Israel we create and face challenges that must be met urgently. One is identifying the zealots of modern Israel who take us down a path of destruction by preaching an ultra-nationalist narrative. Another is reaching out to our fellow citizens who are minorities finding a way to sharing our future. But let us be clear. For those fellow Jews who preach a “state for all its peoples” from safe communities abroad, ironically empowered by a powerful Israel itself, my message to you is that one state from the Jordan to the sea is an Arab Palestinian state, most likely a fundamentalist Muslim one. And I would urge you to contemplate the sage and follow his rule.
While we embrace diaspora Jewry together with the knowledge that an epiphany of immigration to Israel will not occur, I believe I am not alone in stating: This is the time. This is the place. Our Jewish destiny is being determined here and now.
And if not now, when?