Both of my parents were concentration camp survivors. Their lives were scarred by the traumas of loss and survival. They were a mixed marriage; my father was from Latvia and my mother from the small town Ger Hassidim, but they were united in their common language, Yiddish.
While the date of Yom HaShoah was not fixed in Jewish consciousness, the events were punctuated by traumatic memorial gatherings in the circle of surviving asthmatics gathered at Encanto Park, Beth Hebrew Congregation, and the Jewish Community Centers in Phoenix, Arizona. Our public commemorations were of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at Pesach and Kristallnacht. As a child, I learned that Yom HaShoah was Yontif without a sense of Yontif and Simchas — because the ghosts reminded us we were without family. The aching sense of loss came to the fore in my mother’s accented English with a phrase: “Someday you will grow up and see how Jews live!”
Most Diaspora survivor groups in my experience joined the Israeli parliament’s date of remembrance sometime after the Six-Day War. Attending the first “reunions” of survivors in the 1970s helped us form a larger collective for what Yom HaShoah meant. In my experience, the instrumentalization of the Holocaust was in its infancy.
Early in my career as a campus rabbi, I encountered Jewish young people four to eight years younger than myself for whom the Holocaust was an inchoate and unindexed reference to many things Holocaust-associated: fear of registering (for the draft); going like sheep to the slaughter; and being a newly proud Jew.
It was apparent that the cure for this jumbled ahistorical identity about the recent Jewish past — the destruction of a third of our people and the establishment of the State of Israel — required more than our lachrymose narrative of Jewish life.
My five-year experience living in Israel and reading histories and philosophy led to an encounter with Israel’s fifty-five-year settler enterprise as fundamentally undemocratic, racist, and violent. While many report the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin or the murderous Baruch Goldstein as their moment of realization, my lessons were garnered observing Jewish life on college campuses and the funding of the most radical settler and extremist religious politics and Israeli encroachment onto Palestinian land and its related Yeshiva enterprises embodied by the Kohelet Foundation and the Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moskowitz models. Those efforts not only fostered the building of settlements but sought to silence and intimidate American Jewish organizations that questioned the occupation. Few in the organized Jewish community wanted to confront the mega-funded programs that also supported Jewish studies programs in North America such as Taglit-Birthright or the Hartman Institute.
On this Yom HaShoah we are at an inflection point. What began as a political maneuver by criminal politicians to avoid judicial review of their actions has swelled into a confrontation with lessons about Jewish memory.
400 pogromists from a Jewish settlement marauded while Israeli soldiers and police prevented the victims from putting out the fires that were destroying their homes and threatening their children and elderly. No significant arrests of pogrom perpetrators or discipline of police or army commanders occurred. In fact, on a smaller scale, these incidents have been happening for years in the occupied territories. This one event ought not to come as a surprise. We cannot avert our eyes or parse another explanation.
Yom HaShoah is a new observance that requires that we respect the moral implications of our former status as helpless victims. Our new status in the era of Jewish emergence demands a frank acceptance of moral responsibility for what we experienced and what we are capable of fostering.
In a famous “Commentary” 1975 essay by my teacher, historian Jacob Katz asks “Was the Holocaust Predictable?” Katz sharpens the question: ”How could we have overlooked the signs that unmistakably foretold the impending tragedy.” Individuals as disparate as Arnold Zweig and Vladimir Jabotinsky claimed to have foreseen the destruction of European Jewry. Katz concludes that we could not have predicted the future but we have the task “to derive from a knowledge of the past a proper diagnosis of the present.” Our Yom HaShoah invites us to that diagnosis each year.
In the summer of 1967, as eager volunteers, we heard the proper diagnosis and in numerous subsequent encounters, Dr. Yeshayahu Leibowitz invited us to use our knowledge. He said then that the occupation would destroy Israeli society. Leibowitz’s words that summer have echoed throughout the decades. Yom HaShoah is the day we confront the lessons of the past for the sake of the future. Today’s observance is the moral reckoning we sought to avoid.
Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, a member of the J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet, is the Executive Director of Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland, supporting the renewal of the Progressive Judaism movement, Beit Polska, the umbrella organization of four synagogues and 6 Havurot in Poland. www.JewishRenewalinPoland.org.