Recently, my synagogue joined others across the country in an active terror training session. To survive an assault or hostage event, like the one in Colleyville, Texas, our trainer told us we first need to puncture denial by facing the fact that we really are in danger. Your brains may be insisting you are hearing a car backfire, but you have to admit you really do hear gunshots and really are in danger.
Next, the trainer literally walked us through our options. Where are the exits? Where can we hide? How can we barricade ourselves? What can we use as weapons? How do we stay alive until the police come?
Not surprisingly, our trainer was Israeli. Israelis have perfected the art of living joyously without pretending that at any moment, the most ordinary day can be pierced by a siren signaling the need for immediate protection. They can’t afford denial.
Rahel Yanait ben-Tsvi, one of my heroes, was born in 1886 into a Hassidic family living in a shtetl in Ukraine. Later, she played an important role in establishing Zionist movements and the founding of Israel.
While still a teenager, she was shaken by a vicious pogrom in a nearby village. In her autobiography she writes, “I couldn’t understand why there was no defense, why no one did anything…Where were the youth? Where was the haganah (self defense force)?”
Rahel’s Yanait ben-Zvi’s decision to “make Aliyah” (immigrate to Israel), to play a role in founding Israel, sprang from her desire to create a nation based upon Jewish self defense and self determination.
Israelis suffer no illusions, no comforting denial, about others coming to their assistance.
President Zelensky’s courageous wartime leadership is similarly characterized by his refusal to indulge in denial. On the second day of the Russian invasion, he told his people, “The fate of Ukraine depends only on Ukrainians. No one but ourselves will control our lives…”
Many years ago, after a family Seder, my adult children echoed Rahel Yanait ben-Tsvi’s question. In a discussion of the Holocaust, they asked, “Why didn’t the Jews fight back?”
I answered them with the same unsatisfactory, stock answer with which my mother had once answered me. “How could they?” Jews had no weapons, no allies, nowhere to turn for help.
Your enemies were not only Germans, not only official members of the Nazi party but ordinary citizens of every country, any country, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East. Potentially anyone you asked for a piece of bread or a night’s shelter, could turn you in or murder you themselves.
In the standard Holocaust narrative, Jews were sheep, compliant collaborators in their own slaughter. Like so much of the mythology that seems to surround Jews, this one is also false. Only now, 80 years after the War, are we learning the true stories of Jewish resistance fighters in ghettoes, revolts in concentration camps, the organization of Jewish undergrounds and the partisans who fought in forests.
Yet, whatever resistance Jews could mobilize would, of course, be easily overcome without weapons or allies, and especially, without a homeland of our own.
Jim Acosta, CNN host: “Is there anything the world can do to make this stop?”
Like most people, I turn off the tv at night hoping that when I turn it on in the morning, miraculously, the devastation to Ukraine will somehow have been warded off, just a little bit, just a little longer. But despite the rare, almost total, unity between Europe and America, Putin continues to bombard Ukrainian cities into rubble and to reduce its civilian population-those who survive his murderous onslaught- to refugees.
Is there anyone whose heart isn’t breaking for the Ukrainian people? Is there anyone who doesn’t admire their great valor? And yet, each day, we confront the same question because we have no answer: how can we make this stop?
Ukraine is being held hostage and perhaps will also ultimately be sacrificed, as was Czechoslovakia, in a vain attempt to prevent a third world war by appeasing a megalomaniacal mad man. Putin’s position is clear: Let me take Ukraine or I will wage atomic war.
Russia’s assault has been proceeding for weeks. The world seems to be engaged in wishful thinking: Maybe imposing harsher sanctions, maybe taking the oligarchs’ yachts…We tell ourselves the Russian soldiers are so poorly trained, the Ukrainian people are so courageous…
But each day proves the folly of our hopes. Nothing has made Putin stop.
Europe, Second World War
Our compassion and empathy for Ukrainians would have been unimaginable to Jews trying to flee Hitler. No one was waiting for them with hot soup, children’s toys, the promise of future housing and papers allowing them to remain in a safe haven until normal life was restored in their “home” countries.
As is well known, the countries of the world, with few exceptions, closed their borders to fleeing Jews or, like the Nazis enslaved or murdered them. Even after the war ended, Jewish survivors returning “home,” were more often assaulted than welcomed by former neighbors and driven away. But away to where? Modern Israel did not yet exist. The nations of the world, including America, Canada, and Britain, who controlled Palestine, continued to reject surviving Jews.
If this suffering can befall the Ukrainians, toward whom the world is united in sympathy, how much greater the difficulty faced by Jews confronting a world united in its hatred of them! (You will recall the recent Syrian refugees, non-European brown people, were also not welcomed but at least they weren’t murdered.)
Witnessing the plight of Ukraine, I understand what my mother meant.
When the Iranian proxies on each of Israel’s borders-Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, along with Russia and ISIS- attack it and Israel defends itself, think of Ukraine. No, Israel is not the Russian Goliath seeking to “occupy” more territory, nor, thank God, is it David. You may be certain the world media will dust off its usual accusations and outright lies about Israeli “aggression.” Hatred of the Jew extends to hatred of the Jewish state.
Will the world, or more accurately, Israel’s ally, the United States- now ineffectually attempting to calibrate its assistance to Ukraine to avoid Russian retaliation- will it remember Iran’s repeated threats to wipe Israel off the map? Literally hundreds of thousands of missiles are already pointed at Israel. Yet, it took the American Congress over nine months to fulfill its commitment to restock Iron Dome so Israel can defend itself. During that time, Israel was naked.
The sympathetic solidarity of America and its NATO allies for Ukraine will never be turned toward Israel. The actions of the United Nations which has targeted Israel with more resolutions than Iran, Syria and North Korea combined, demonstrate the truth of this assertion.
Jews should know, as Israelis know and know well, “Never again” means when someone, like Iran, threatens to annihilate you and has weapons to do so, it is wiser to believe it and prepare accordingly. There is no refuge in denial.
Footnotes upon request