We say ‘Never Again’ but, as an American Jew, I’m scared

Never Again. It’s the catchphrase of the Holocaust. And sometimes when a phrase is repeated so often with confidence and passion, we start to accept it without questioning what it really means.

As of late, this phrase has begun to take on a message about the importance of tolerance. Accept those who are different from you because hate can have a very ugly ending. This is all true. But I have noticed lately that in our quest for human rights and liberty and justice for all, there is one population that Jews are shy to advocate for: themselves. In remembering the Holocaust, some Jews even become apologetic: it wasn’t really about Jews, they insist, it was about all people that were different. I beg to differ. Yes, 11 million people who were “undesirables” were murdered by the Nazis and every loss is a tragedy that needs to be remembered. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the Jew was the main target of the Holocaust. In 1944, when he was losing the war on two fronts, Hitler chose to occupy Hungary in his quest to wipe outs its 800,000 Jews. Make no mistake, the Holocaust was a war against the Jews.

Are there other important take-aways from the Holocaust, such as tolerance to all? Absolutely. But the fact that the Jew has always been persecuted and should never feel too comfortable, is in my mind, the most instructive lesson.

A few years ago, I attended a program, during which a rabbi shared a story about a friend who always had a passport ready lest he need to flee the country from an anti-Semitic threat. This rabbi laughed at his friend. “Isn’t that ridiculous?, he said, “This is America.”

I didn’t laugh and I don’t think his friend is ridiculous. And I wasn’t ashamed to tell him after the program that my grandfather escaped Germany in 1938 and my entire family always has an updated passport, ready to go if need be. (By the way, it was only one year later that people were threatening to leave the country if President Trump was elected; I hope they had updated passports).

I am not suggesting doom and gloom is coming to America. Jews have enjoyed religious freedoms in this country, which have enabled our practice of Judaism to thrive, as we have rarely experienced in Jewish history. And yet, to feel complacent, and to think that America is the happy ending to a tumultuous Jewish history in which we tasted persecution in every country we lived, is in my mind, a foolhardy attitude, akin to laughing in the face of history.

Germany, as many forget, was a democracy before World War II. It took one act of arson and the wrong party blamed in order to suspend all civil liberties for 12 years. If there’s anything to learn from that, it is that we can never know what’s down the line.

Yes, Jews are part and parcel of American society, with many seeing themselves as Americans first, Jews second. But we must remember that this was the same story for the Jews of Germany. Germany was their culture and and the very source of their pride and identity. Being Jewish was simply a matter of a religion, of which they practiced very little. Hitler treated them to a rude awakening.

But what’s different about America, you may argue, was that anti-Semitism was always present. The Nazis did not find much pushback in Germany against their anti-Semitism rhetoric and in the Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania and yes, even Poland (where it’s now illegal to say this), they found passionate and willing collaborators. This is not the case in America.

And I used to think that was true. I used to feel very comfortable as an American Jew. Over the past 10 years, I’ve started to feel differently.

In 1930s Germany, ads were replete with the money-hungry, hook-nosed Jew, daring to defile a pure German woman. These pictures preceded movies in theatres and were all over Julius Streicher’s Der Sturhmer. And when you repeat something often enough, it begins to sound like truth. It became all too easy to see helpless victims as sport for kill, with little or no discomfort.

Today, we see a new form of propaganda, albeit one that appears far more innocent. The United Nations, academics and the headlines of mainstream media project Israel as a nation that violates human rights; equating the position of terrorists with settlers, acts of offense with ones of defense, defining the guilty party as the one with the least dead. Perhaps they are trying to appear balanced. The problem is, there just aren’t always two sides to every story. And the problem is also that you can’t just read one chapter out of a book and assume you understand the full story. So many today don’t know the details of Israeli history (find me one news anchor, and certainly a college student, who does), making it difficult for them to truly understand the full picture.

Let’s examine the facts. You can agree or disagree that Israel has the right to the land they won in a defensive war (from Jordan) in 1967. But even if one wants to condemn Israel for occupying another people, it’s hard to point to Israel as the sole cause for Palestinian terror when Jews in Israel faced Arab attacks long before 1967, and even before 1948, most famously with the 1929 Chevron riots. But putting cause and effect aside, here’s a simple question: when thousands are dying across the world, does Israel really deserve headlines when they kill a Palestinian terrorist in self-defense? Does Israel really deserve the level of condemnation they receive in the United Nations, when there are countries like Nigeria, Russia, Syria, China and Saudi Arabia who do far worse? And yet, the UN focuses on Israel with a single minded determination. Only one country is facing a BDS movement. One has to wonder why.

Let’s take a look at some of the heinous ways Israel deals with those they “occupy”. When a Palestinian youth stabbed and killed a young Israeli husband, Israel treated the wounded terrorist in their hospital. Which means that in that one case, a newly widowed wife left her hospital room to see her husband’s murderer being treated across the hall. If Dylann Roof had been injured while being captured, would the United States have treated him in the same hospital as one of his victims, and with equal care?

Let’s take it a step further: if Magen David Adom is called to the scene of a terrorist attack, they are under strict instructions to treat the person who is more mortally wounded first- even if that’s the terrorist. Can you imagine, G-d forbid, getting a call that your spouse was shot by terrorists and gravely injured and could have been saved but the Israeli paramedics had to save the man who tried to kill him, first? Can you imagine had a Saudi pilot somehow survived the 9/11 attacks, for the first responders to have saved him before the victims of the attack?

And even when Israel does attack- after being provoked relentlessly (which most don’t know because the mainstream media doesn’t cover it until Israel retaliates) with rockets being aimed at its kibbutzim and cities, Israel shows the utmost restraint. Soldiers are put at risk by doing house to house searches rather than aerial raids so they can limit Palestinian deaths. And when they do have to carry out aerial raids, Israel sends out warnings via leaflets and roof taps. What army in the world does this?

And so here is my question: why is Israel deserving of such vilification?

Could it perhaps be… anti-Semitism? Some will claim this is a stunning accusation but aside from ignorance, it’s hard to see any other rationale. And in the face of history, I’m not sure why this shouldn’t be ruled out. Anti-Semitism has always existed, it’s on the rise in Europe and perhaps with our American politeness, this is the way it manifests itself, in the guise of human rights. Students at universities across the United States and Canada carry out rallies that are ferocious with hatred and vehemence, with a chilling support for the BDS movement. And the singular picture of an evil Israel that has been depicted has been so effective that many Jews are quick to disassociate themselves from a state that stands against human rights, with their voices even louder than the non-Jews around them.

There is little outcry against the media for their bias, against academics for their obsession and focus on a chapter, ran than the greater picture. No challenge to the protesters about why this is their champion issue. The quiet is unsettling for me, and eerily reminiscent of a different time of history, not so long ago. It is a frightening time to be a Jew.

And so with this fear, here is my plea: To all who take a vehement position against Israel, I challenge you: how much do you really know about Israel’s history? Have you taken the time to read up about how Israel came into existence? About Israel’s defensive wars? About how Israel has given away land time and time again in the name of peace, thrice by right wing Prime Ministers (Begin, Netanyahu and Sharon), only to continue facing terrorism today?

Before you stand against Israel, think about whether your position is based on knowledge and rationale or if you are falling for good old anti-Semitism wrapped in a prettier and more compelling package. Or, at best, the media reporting half of a story.

I ask you to remember that “Never Again” doesn’t just mean to stand against atrocities that happen to others. It’s also about standing to protect ourselves. And the loud show of support for those that are out to destroy us, may be unintentionally contributing to our own demise.

And lastly, if we ever need to use that passport, and I pray we won’t, keep in mind the one country that will open up its arms to us in refuge.

About the Author
Ariela Davis, a native New Yorker, is the Rebbetzin of Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Orthodox synagogue, Brith Shalom Beth Israel, and the Director of Judaics of Addlestone Hebrew Academy, Charleston’s Jewish day school. She is the wife of Rabbi Moshe Davis and the mother of four children.
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