Next week is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I spent the morning at a conference held by Moreshet (an organization with whom I work), in conjunction with the Polish Institute in Israel.
The subject of the seminar was a commemoration of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. No, that’s not a typo. I did not mean the Warsaw Ghetto uprising -– that 70th anniversary was marked last year. I am referring to the uprising of the Polish people in Warsaw against the Nazis in August 1944. That uprising led to the death of more than 250,000 Polish citizens, including many of the remaining Jews who had been hiding in Warsaw. In contrast to the Jews of the Ghetto — who, if they did not revolt would have been sent to Treblinka and their certain death — all the Poles had to do was keep their heads down and await their Soviet liberation that was sure to happen soon.
The Warsaw uprising has remained a major area of historic debate to this day. Was it necessary? Why did the Soviets, who were close by, not intervene? Did the other allies do enough? There are many questions and open historic wounds, but they are not the focus of what I want to write about today. Rather, I want to write briefly about the role of the memory of the Holocaust in Israel and world Jewry.
For better or worse, over the past two decades, the memory of the Holocaust has become central to Jewish identity. Just look at the recent Pew report on American Jews, in which 73 percent of American Jews saw remembering the Holocaust as “important to being Jewish”! Or look here at Israel, where we take all of our official visitors to Yad Vashem.
I certainly do not in any way question the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish history and the Jewish people. However, the issue I would like to address is how we look at the Holocaust. There are two approaches to the Holocaust, the first approach, (and what tends to be the prevalent view both in Israel and among much of world Jewry) is that the whole world hates us… Look what happens when we are powerless. No one will help us. Therefore, we must rely only on ourselves. The other view, calls on us to look at what man is capable of inflicting on others. As a result, we, humankind, must never let it happen again -– and Jews have a particular responsibility to make sure it never happens again. Neither view is mutually exclusive, though there is generally a question of emphasis.
The events discussed at the Moreshet seminar reminded me how while our pain and suffering during World War II may have been the most acute among the victims of that heinous war, we were not the only ones who suffered. If we look at post WWII history, despite our diehard cries of Never Again, we must admit that have succeeded in securing that reality for the Jewish people. Other peoples have not been so lucky. A mere 20 or so miles from our northern border a slaughter of the innocents has been going on continuously and mercilessly for the past two years.
We have a choice. We can take the lessons of the Holocaust and continue to portray ourselves as victims. Alternatively, we can accept the fact that Zionism has succeeded. Today, we have a strong Jewish state, with a strong economy. We can fulfill our role of maintaining the memory of the Holocaust not by repeating our victimhood, but instead as a world leader fighting to make sure that Holocaust and slaughter do not happen anywhere in the world. The lessons of the Holocaust and its memory have an important role in the 21st century. We should embrace those lessons, not the least of which is the importance doing of our part in educating the world to those lessons. Let’s make sure we teach the right lessons.