A long history of Jewish persecution is largely responsible for Jews casting themselves as victims or defenders of their faith. The ancient stories that make up many of the Jewish religious holidays reflect this communal experience by expressing either mourning over tragedies or the celebration of victory over their persecutors. In addition, they have retained their resonance because in every generation Jews somewhere have suffered persecution but as a people, they have always found a way to survive.
Jewish communal losses are mainly recognized by a fast day on the 9th of Av of the Hebrew calendar called Tisha B’Av. Traditionally, this day of mourning commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE but it is also deemed appropriate on this day to recall many other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people such as the expulsion from Spain in 1492. We can only imagine the poignancy of the Tisha B’Av commemoration during the throes of the Nazi era which gave rise to another national tragedy, the Holocaust, when six million Jews were murdered. This communal disaster evolved into a separate Remembrance Day called Yom Hashoah, which we will be commemorating this week, although some orthodox sects choose to commemorate Yom Hashoah on Tisha B’Av as well.
On the brighter side, examples of the celebration of victory over ancient persecutors are Passover, Purim, and Chanukah. In the Passover story, God helped the Israelites liberate themselves from slavery in Egypt. In the Purim story the Jews encouraged by Queen Esther were able to vanquish the Persian followers of the Jew-hater Haman and the story of Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees who were able to overwhelm the Hellenizers and rededicate the Second Temple in 165 BCE. These holidays have been imbued with meaning-making them relevant for every generation with Passover representing freedom, Chanukah faith and rebellion against injustice and Purim, the survival of the Jewish people.
It would take too long to list all the cruel acts committed against Jews resulting in the loss of countless lives and the destruction of whole communities. The most infamous and egregious crimes against the Jews since ancient times have been committed under the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian and Polish Pogroms but most of all the Holocaust instigated by the Nazi regime. Lest we forget, besides these persecutions, Jews suffered expulsions from multiple countries: England in 1290, Spain and Sicily in 1492, various times from France during the 12th to 14th centuries and from Austria in 1420. In the modern era, Jews have been expelled or displaced from Germany, many East European countries during and after Second World War as well as from Muslim countries in the Middle East after the establishment of the State of Israel.
I realize, on focusing on this topic that discrimination and persecution are closely related because I don’t think the persecution of a particular group is possible without the precursor of discrimination and degradation. The Jews have been subject to enormous amounts of discrimination and degradation whether being forced to wear distinctive clothing or a yellow badge or having to live in ghettos separated from the general population. The reasons for this persecution is a futile task because it will never justify the suffering of the Jewish people, any more than trying to justify slavery or genocide in general. The motive of oppressors is far less important than emphasizing their immorality. To the victim, the pain of persecution is the same regardless of the reason behind it.
You can devise from this sad litany of historical events why persecution plays a big part of a Jews’ psyche and is a rallying point for defending Jews around the world. Modern examples where Jews have jumped to the defense of other Jews perceived as being persecuted are the Soviet Jewry Movement which helped to allow oppressed Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel and, most significantly, acts of savior undertaken by the State of Israel which is viewed by Jews worldwide as a bulwark against another Jewish genocide. Notable missions of deliverance by the Israeli Defense Force (“IDF”) include “Operation Magic Carpet” (1949-50) where persecuted Yemenite Jews were secretly flown out to Israel, the “Entebbe Raid” (1976) which rescued 103 mostly Jewish hostages in Uganda that had been on an Air France plane hijacked by Palestinians and “Operation Moses” (1984-5) that air lifted oppressed Ethiopian Jews from Sudan.
The observance of Yom Hashoah is therefore not only a remembrance of past suffering of the Jewish people but also an affirmation of its survival and the yearning for a future that cements the defiant words “Never Again!