My friend is a classic Israeli. Sabra; patriotic; a Jewish mother par excellence. Fluctuating between agnostic and atheist and proudly secular; religion is irrelevant to her daily life. Close to her extended family. Raised in the Scouts youth movement, did her mandatory military duty with enthusiasm. Until recently a chain smoker. Widely traveled, happy to get away from the craziness that is part of daily life in Israel, but always happier to come back to the only place that feels truly like home. Worked for a government agency and now gracefully retired with a cushy pension. A good person. Loves to volunteer and will be the first to help anyone in need.
She invited me to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhettaot.
This is a big deal. The kibbutz was founded by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Located in the Western Galilee between Akko and Nahariya, it houses two museums dedicated to the Holocaust, one of which is expressly for children. The kibbutz conducts educational programs about the Holocaust to schoolchildren, youth groups, young soldiers in the Israeli army and tourists throughout the year. It also houses archives – – the kibbutz was the first in the entire world to start an archival collection of Holocaust information shortly after the War.
Every year Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhettaot hosts a huge ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is held in a massive amphitheatre whose backdrop is along an ancient Roman aqueduct, lit dramatically against the night. Many thousands of people from all over Israel attend the annual ceremony, and it was no different last night. The overwhelming number of attendees were very much like my friend: completely secular and deeply connected to the State of Israel.
First Israeli President Reuvi Rivlin addressed the crowd. While it was beautifully stated, the speech was pretty much what you’d expect: Never Forget. Always Remember. Bear Witness. Share your stories. Pass them on from generation to generation. Educate the world, so we can actualize Never Again.
Next was former German President Joachim Gauck. He appeared sincerely touched and affected to have been invited to the ceremony. Can you imagine?, he said. A boy (himself) who had Nazi parents, or at the very least parents who were complicit Nazi sympathizers, who is the same age of the Jewish boy (Rivlin) whose parents fled Germany. Is it not ironic, the President of Germany wondered aloud, that the current President of Israel, who once undoubtedly hated all Germans for what they did to his family, invited the object of his disdain to participate in the commemoration of victims of German hatred, cruelty and oppression?
Then came the most moving segment of the evening. They chose six Holocaust survivors to light memorial beacons representing the six million Jews murdered. First they gave a short bio about each survivor, and then the survivor was shown in a taped interview, telling their stories of survival and loss. And the best part: they were called up to light the beacon, accompanies by those whom they aptly called their Living Revenge: each survivor was supported (literally; they are so old and frail that many can no longer walk on their own) by a child or grandchild who stood alongside them to light the beacon with them, representing the past, the present, and the future.
Thirty-five Holocaust survivors die of old age every day. Soon there will be no one left. It is up to the survivors to transmit those stories while they still can, because they are too important to be lost forever. It is up to us, the children and grandchildren, to tell their stories. How many of these survivors will be at the ceremony next year, or the year after?
And then the head of the Jewish National Fund got up to speak. Like Rivlin, he spoke the words that we hear again and again: Always remember. Never forget. Never again. He spoke of the miracle of the State of Israel. How that in Israel, a land re-birthed and built from the ashes only 69 years ago, we are at the forefront of medical, scientific, educational and agricultural innovation and revolution. We have built village, towns and cities that thrive. Israelis not only produce for themselves, they share the products of their toil with other nations. They are at the forefront of helping other countries during national disasters, and training Third World countries to improve the lives of their citizens. Israel’s youth groups train future leaders, as does its army. Its army is one of the best in the world. Israel’s military strength will ensure that what happened to helpless Jews in WWII will Never. Happen. Again.
Today, Israel is at its greatest height.
I love and respect the Israeli army. Those boy and girl soldiers are like my sons and daughters. They are risking everything every day to ensure that I am protected. Many have fallen so that I could live here. We are incredibly grateful for Israel’s military finesse, and recognize that a strong military is both critical and essential.
Nations come and go. They ascend, and they fall; they cease to exist. Who would have believed in the decay of the superpowers of ancient Greece? Rome? Mid-20th-century Germany? Who cannot deny that currently America is in a state of decline? Do we really believe that we Israelis are invincible and invulnerable?
Why is the Jewish religion so completely irrelevant to Israeli culture that it was not mentioned the entire evening in a ceremony dedicated to Holocaust remembrance?
One of the things I love about Israel is the diversity in its people. And although I am a person of faith, the truth is that none of us can be sure that our faith would remain intact after going through the horrible things that our families went through in Europe. But if we excise what makes us unique – – the Jewish, religious part that has also defined us and our history – – then we are like any other nation. If we are like every other nation, then we must accept that like the others, we will rise – – and eventually, G-d forbid, fall.
Our revenge is a Living Revenge: that despite our broken-ness and destitution, the survivors (and indeed Jewish people throughout history) have always moved forward. We are builders. We are lovers of life. We have faith – yes, Jewish faith that there is something supernatural happening that we continue to beat the odds, even if we don’t understand it. We have children who beget more children and give us grandchildren. And we teach these children who they are, why they are here, what is their legacy, and what their purpose is in a life we regard with holiness. And we teach them what it means to be Jewish, their importance and responsibility and the myriad challenges in being the continual link in the chain; how to live Jewish-ly, and how this will positively affect and impact their life and the lives of those around them.
If we ignore the Jewish part of the equation, then we become like every other nation. Our Israeli army is strong, but it is not invincible. We need to know who we are, not just as Israelis, but also as Jews.