I just returned from my first Tisha b’Av observance as an Israeli citizen, having been privileged to lead the chanting of Yirmiyahu’s mournful words while overlooking the ancient port of Caesarea. Why Caesarea? Because that’s the port from which thousands upon thousands of Jewish captives were shipped to Rome to live as slaves or die in the Colosseum for sport. This is also the first year in which I experienced Yom Hashoah as a national holiday. New Oleh that I am, nobody prepared me for the 11 am siren and I couldn’t understand why everyone was suddenly stopping his or her car in the middle of Route 2 and standing in the roadway with a bowed head.
I’m writing this column out of a sense of confusion and consternation. Confusion over why Yom Hashoah is a day of national mourning, while Tisha b’Av is a day that is increasingly relegated to the “religious” people. Consternation over whether we are in the process of creating a national narrative around the Shoah that plays into the hands of Israel’s enemies. Consternation also about whether the religious focus on the destruction of our two holy Temples has masked the larger dimensions of Tisha b’Av for the average Israeli.
Please don’t imagine for a moment that I seek to minimize the horror of the Shoah or to diminish its role in our national conscience. As Menachem Begin z”l said to President Jimmy Carter, the Shoah represented the “tertiation” of the Jewish people. Carter looked askance at the unfamiliar word and Begin explained that when a Roman province was insubordinate, the emperor would order one in ten killed to make a point, hence the term “decimation.” Begin patiently explained to Carter that in the 20th century, the Jewish people was tertiated — we suffered the murder of one in three.
By venerating the lesson of Yom Hashoah and diminishing the lesson of Tisha b’Av, we strengthen a national myth that Israel was born of the ashes of the Shoah, rather than born of 2700 years of successive tertiation of the Jewish people. We locate the impetus for a Jewish State in the ovens of Birkenau, rather than 50 years earlier as Herzl watched France’s paroxysm of anti-Semitism surrounding the Dreyfus trial. By elevating this calamity of the Jewish people above all other calamities in our history, we contextualize the Shoah as a unique moment in Jewish history, rather than one more paroxysm of Jew-hatred and murder. By replacing Zionism with “Shoah-ism,” we play into the narrative that the State of Israel was established at the expense of the Palestinian people in order to assuage the guilt of Europe. We also make it easy for today’s new anti-Semites to blame the Shoah on “those bad Nazis,” who are, of course, nowhere in evidence today.
Tisha b’Av challenges the narrative and innocence of the new anti-Semites. On Tisha b’Av, we recall the eradication of 10 of our 12 tribes by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. If you think Assad is a threat today, he’s nothing compared to his ancestors. On Tisha b’Av, we recall the burning of Jerusalem and the tertiation of our people at the hands of the Babylonians, who occupy Baghdad to this day. On Tisha b’Av, we recall both the sacking of Jerusalem and subsequently the massacre at Betar at the hands of the Romans, whose descendants wag their fingers at us for our determination to remain a Jewish state. On Tisha b’Av, we recall the declaration of the First Crusade by Pope Urban in 1095, and the immediate murder of 10,000 Jews, even as his successor recognizes a Palestinian state committed to the destruction of Israel. On Tisha b’Av, we recall the wholesale murder of English Jewry and the expulsion of its few survivors by Edward I in 1290, even as Edward’s descendants have the chutzpah to threaten our leaders with arrest for war crimes, should they enter England. On Tisha b’Av, we commemorate the writ of expulsion from Spain and subsequently Portugal, even as the authors of the Inquisition seek to lecture us on human rights.
Whether all of those calamities occurred on Tisha b’Av because God has a perverse sense of humor or because our enemies have read our history and figured out when to attack us is for those with more religious insight than I have to worry about.
Perhaps those of us who commemorate Tisha b’Av are partly to blame for its role as a religious holiday, rather than a day of national observance. By focusing on the destruction of our two Temples, rather than on the senseless and repeated murder of millions of Jews by enemies who are as real today as they were in past centuries, we have made Tisha b’Av into a day that does not resonate with the average Israeli. I noticed that Yirmiyahu did not focus on holy Temples, even though he was reportedly a holy man. He focused on the murder of innocents and the destruction of our nation.
There is a legendary story, documented as far back as 1891, of Napoleon’s passing a synagogue on Tisha b’Av and hearing wailing from within. Upon investigating, he learned that the basis for the tears is the destruction of Bet Hamikdash, 1700 years earlier. Reportedly, he said that a people who can cry over a lost Temple after 1700 years is destined to rebuild it.
The message of the Shoah is that we must be strong enough to withstand our enemies and that, ultimately, we can only rely on ourselves for our survival as a people. The message of Tisha b’Av is that while the Nazis and their accomplices might have been more technologically creative than some of their predecessors in their machinery of murder, there is nothing original in their determination to annihilate us as a people. Tisha b’Av reminds us that the main difference between the Nazis, for whom many Germans are sincerely repentant, and the “new” anti-Semites of Europe and the Middle East is that the latter simply haven’t murdered the Jews of their countries in the last few centuries (although the French may be trying to get back in the game).
As Europe rediscovers the anti-Semitism it briefly put aside in the 20th century and as the descendants of Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar seek to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction, it becomes increasingly important for every Israeli to recognize that the message of Tisha b’Av applies to every Jew, regardless of ancestry or religious orientation.