Last week while in New York, we visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage and its Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Battery Park. One cannot help but be struck by the horror of the Nazis, their collaborators, and those that facilitated and perpetrated the persecution, systematic murder, and decimation of Jews, Romas, and other ‘unwanted people’. Men, women, children, young, old, doctors, artists, lawyers, craftsmen, etc. It did not matter.
But there is more to the story than the rise of the Nazis, the concentrations camps, and ultimately the death camps. The holocaust or Shoah, was but the most recent chapter in thousands of years of persecution and anti-Semitism. Many love to celebrate the holy crusades, yes these same crusades murdered Jews. The glory of the Columbus voyage in 1492; financed by the Spanish crown while the same crown systematically rounded up Jews and Muslims and offered the choice of conversion to Christianity or death.
I have had the opportunity to visit Israel on many occasions and when touring Jerusalem I am always struck by the millennia of conquering and reconquering and the subjugation of the Jewish people by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Arabs, Turks, British, etc. Whether Ashkenazic or Sephardic, and without a homeland, Jews would always be subject to resurgent waves of anti-Semitism. Even when they identified themselves as German, or French, or Persian, or Polish; even as they tried to assimilate into the local culture, there threat was always there.
In the late 19th century, French captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully accused, convicted and sentenced to Devil’s Island for treason. It what became a clear cut case of anti-Semitism, the French military court not only dropped charges against the real culprit, they double downed on the charges against the Jewish Dreyfus. This became a lightning rod moment for European Jews leading Theodor Herzl to declare:
“Nothing prevents us from being and remaining the exponents of a united humanity, when we have a country of our own. To fulfill this mission we do not have to remain literally planted among the nations who hate and despise us.”
Zionism was born and through a combination of political and military (some might say terrorism) action, Herzl’s dream came to be on May 14, 1948, eight hours before the end of the British Mandate of Palestine. Jews finally had a homeland and would never again live under the cloud of deportation, would never suffer the humility of the Voyage of the Damned, would never be forced to live in fear of being rounded up, and never never again be the victims of anyone’s final solution.
And yet a two state solution in Palestine, the core of the end of the British Mandate, a Jewish State and an Arab State remains so contentious. Can Herzl’s dream coexist with a Palestinian State? Clearly Israel’s 1st Prime Minister Davis Ben-Gurion thought so. Do today’s Israeli leaders fear a threat that would come to be by creation of the neighboring state? Would the threat be any worse than what Israel has faced since 1948? Or is the fear more about the demographics of Israel where the country may become less Jewish due to mass immigration? What is a Jewish state? Is a state run by Jewish law any different that an Islamic state or a Christian nation?
It is these questions that are troubling. At what point does the self-preservation of the Jewish people, Jewish identity, and Jewish state become the thing it was created to prevent? I am always troubled by Jewish Americans, many of whom like my parents bought Israel Bonds to fund the nascent state and yet seem to have forgotten what is what like to be a displaced person. This is not what being Jewish is all about. It is also what is so confusing. Through blood, sweat, and tears the Jewish people fought and won a homeland. Why cannot we see that others have the same dreams and desires?
I do spend a fair amount of time thinking about this, and the recent visit to the museum only heightened the awareness. I leave you with this quote from Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who risked his life to save as many Hungarian Jews.
“I will never be able to go back to Sweden without knowing inside myself that I'd done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”
Wallenberg would disappear after the Soviets ‘liberated’ Hungary. But his legacy should be near and dear to every Jew. Shouldn’t we, especially all that have suffered, all find a way of preventing persecution and promoting freedom and autonomy? I understand the political realities and that bilateral actions require a reliable partner, but the sooner there are states at peace, side by side, the sooner Herzl’s dream will be realized.