J Street’s blog aims to reflect a range of voices. The opinions expressed in blog posts do not necessarily reflect the policies or view of J Street.
This Thursday, we mark Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the millions of victims of the Holocaust.
As the son of a Holocaust survivor, the memory of what happened to our people in Europe during the horrific era of the Nazis is very important and precious to me. I wrote a book, “Guarded by Angels,” about my father’s experiences which was published by Yah Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, museum and documentation center in Jerusalem.
With my father, I visited the site of the Belzec extermination camp in Poland where my grandparents perished. We found a neglected site and a crumbling and inappropriate memorial that did not even mention the fact that the victims of the mass murder there were overwhelmingly Jewish.
This experience led me to help start a campaign to erect a suitable and fitting memorial for the half million Jews who were murdered there. Thanks to these efforts, a new memorial was inaugurated in 2004. Visitors to the museum that was built there will see a large photograph of my grandfather near the entrance among the faces of people who met there end at that place.
I later wrote a novel, “The Nazi Hunter,” at least partly to draw attention to what happened at Belzec – which remains one of the lesser known Holocaust sites despite its huge historical significance.
With all my commitment to remembrance and memory, I am disturbed by the role that the Holocaust has taken in our modern consciousness. We must remember — but we should not allow the Holocaust to define us and dictate our actions today.
In the Pew Research Center poll of US Jews released in October 2013, respondents were asked what was essential to being Jewish. The top answer, cited by 73 percent, was remembering the Holocaust. That response outpolled leading an ethical and moral life (69 percent); working for justice and equality (56 percent); being intellectually curious (49 percent); caring about Israel (43 percent); having a good sense of humor (42 percent); being part of a Jewish community (28 percent); observing Jewish law (19 percent) and eating traditional Jewish foods (14 percent).
I’m also extremely wary of the way that politicians, both here and in Israel, constantly invoke the Holocaust to justify their positions and to scare their constituents. A good example was the battle over the Iran nuclear agreement last year – when Holocaust comparisons became a staple in the rhetoric of those who opposed the deal.
For example, Fox News host Sean Hannity called the Iran deal “the equivalent of giving Adolf Hitler weapons of mass destruction.” Ted Cruz said it would not deter Tehran because “they would view the murder of those Palestinians” as “perfectly acceptable collateral damage to annihilating millions of Jews.” And then-Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee accused President Obama of “marching Israelis to the doors of the oven.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu constantly uses Holocaust imagery and metaphors. He warned that, “The ayatollahs in Iran, they deny the Holocaust while planning another genocide against our people,” and denounced the international agreement to halt the Iranian nuclear program as “another Munich,” referring to the infamous 1938 deal in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain attempted to appease Hitler, sacrificing Czechoslovakia in the process.
We saw it again when Netanyahu last year suddenly, in a speech to the World Zionist Congress, came up with the bizarre notion that the idea to annihilate the Jews in World War Two was suggested to Hitler by the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini. His statement was universally ridiculed and condemned.
Netanyahu is following the trail blazed by the founder of his Likud Party. In 1982, during the Israeli siege of Beirut, then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced that Israeli troops had the “Nazis surrounded in their bunker”, in reference to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his forces that were trapped.
These comparisons cheapen us and cheapen Holocaust memory. Yes, we must remember what happened – but we must also not become captives of our horrible history, seeing every adversary as Nazi Germany, every agreement as Munich, every domestic political opponent as Neville Chamberlain.
Instead, building on memory, we must forge a new future, meeting today’s challenges with today’s tools.