Each year in our synagogue’s religious school, our middle school students are introduced to the period of history when Jews lost civil rights, places of worship and learning, homes, family and lives at the hands of the Nazis. The Shoah, the systematic attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, forever haunts our community while also offering us inspiration to act for justice. Never Again is not just a slogan, but a call to action for Jews to stop hatred of all kinds. Inevitably as students learn about this dark moment in history, the same question arises year after year, “Why didn’t the Jews just leave [their home countries]?” And while some with luck or privilege did leave, where could six million have gone?
In many ways, commemorating Yom Hashoah Ve-HaGevurah (Remembrance Day of The Holocaust and Heroism) is entwined deeply with the foundation of the modern State of Israel. The Jewish people needed a home when antisemitic hatred drove us out of our businesses, schools and countries. This narrative is symbolically solidified when exiting Yad Va’Shem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, museum and educational institution in Jerusalem. We learn that one ending of the Shoah is the beginning of our homeland as we take in beautiful views of Jerusalem, shining in gold, upholding its promise to the Jewish people to be a place of safety, security and welcoming.
But in this panoramic vision, who are the people left out of the promise? Is Israel truly upholding its lesson of Never Again when just to the east of that beautiful view, there are Palestinians without citizenship, residing in refugee camps with no home of their own? While Jews are always careful never to exploit or cheapen our experience of the Holocaust by comparing our plight with the challenges of others, we do need to be reminded of the lessons from our collective history.
In early March, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) passed a definition of antisemitism that includes drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. Palestinians deserve a state of their own and if they seek citizenship in a country of their own or refugee status in neighboring countries of their choosing, let them not face the same response Jews once did — ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ Never Again means learning from our past.
Just two weeks ago, Jews sat around tables (or on laptops) to read the Passover Haggadah together, each imagining ourselves personally as if we went out from Egypt. How can we not provide the same level of empathy to others seeking a home, for safety, for refuge? This Yom HaShoah, let us heed the lessons we learned years ago and include all in the struggle for a home of one’s own.
Rabbi Lisa Kingston is the Associate Rabbi and Educator of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, CA. She came to the Bay Area via New York, where she was ordained from HUC-JIR in 2013 and received her Master’s in Jewish Education in 2009.