Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!

These words were spoken by Rabbi Herschel Schacter shortly after he rode through the gates of the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945, together with the liberating American forces. Rabbi Schacter died in the Bronx on March 21, after a long career as one of the most prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States. And, as further reported by the NY Times on March 26, he cried “Shalom Aleichem, Yidden, as he ran from barracks to barracks, repeating those words: Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free! He was joined by those Jews who could walk, until a stream of people swelled behind him.”

His words still resonate in my head, and apparently won’t leave me in peace until I write this post and get it out of my system. Because, fellow Jews, it took me awhile to understand that they hold true today – though probably from a somewhat different angle – as they did 68 years ago. Not because Jews are not free. They are, in Israel and America (and most everywhere else), allowed to follow their dreams and live their lives as they please. And yet, and this is what bothers me the most, in Israel – and surly in some segments of American Jewry as well – some people, or better still some leaders, behave as if we are not yet free.

This is an oxymoron of sorts, which demands a careful examination. Let me have a crack at it then, here and now. What I keep hearing from Israeli leaders, and from some American Jews as well, is in what a dangerous neighborhood Israel exists. True enough. They keep stressing, also, that today, 65 years to the establishment of the Jewish state, Israel is still in a state of siege; still fighting for its survival, and still facing an “existential” threat to its existence. Oh, how much Mr. Netanyahu likes to use that old metaphor of comparing Israel’s struggle for survival with what we had suffered in the Holocaust. It is high time to put a stop to the constant, denigrating use of the Holocaust to justify false, cowardly policies.

Israel, after all, is the only unquestionable, unchallengeable superpower in the Middle East today. Furthermore, militarily and economically – with the support of America and American Jews squarely pushing and covering our back – one of the strongest nations on earth, possessing an amazingly strong army, with a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. (Which now we learn, thanks to WikiLeaks, Israel had vehemently refused to admit existed even to the American president and other leaders in 1975, refusing all attempts of inspection – remind you of something?…) So stop pretending as if Israel is not free. Stop pretending as if it faces a constant existential threat. Stop being such a militaristic, confrontational oriented society and realize – leaders and people alike – that only by making peace with your neighbors, far and foremost among them the Palestinians, the gaining of total freedom will be completed.

If there is an existential, external threat to Israel’s existence, it stems not from its neighboring countries, but from its refusal to compromise and make peace. The other existential threat is internally, and threatens the fabric of its society; i.e. the “The wars of the Jews.” It seems as if the gap between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem keeps widening, as is the gap between the liberal, largely secular Israel and the more fervent religious segments of its society. A gap like that, if not kept in check, can grow into an abyss. Tackling these issues at the core, and head on – like, for instance, allowing women to pray as they wish at the Western Wall, and not be pushed to sit at the back of the bus – is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, the rise of Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party signal, at least on that front, a promising move forward.

It is therefore important – especially on this unique April 2013, in which Passover ended and Lag B’Omer begins, in which we honored the memory of all the victims of the Holocaust, and then stood silence in memory of our fallen soldiers, who fought and died for our freedom, to be followed by a celebration of their (and our) achievement of being a free, independent sate – to remember the words Rabbi Schacter cried upon the liberation of Buchenwald: “Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!” This is a reminder that we are indeed free. And that we better behave like free people – free to choose war or peace – if we don’t want to lose that precious freedom.

About the Author
Hillel Damron was born in Kibbutz Hephzibah to parents who survived the Holocaust; he was an officer of elite paratroop unit who was wounded in battle; studied film and became a director of TV documentaries, video shorts and a feature film. Damron is the author of three novels, short stories and a political blog; winner of Moment Magazine’s 2011 Memoir Contest and is the past executive director of the Hillel House, at University of Davis, California.