Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Weisel was once asked whether the world had learned anything from the Holocaust. Wiesel responded, "Yes, that you can get away with it." If Wiesel is right -- and the international fury against the collective Jewish existence in Israel in recent years seems to confirm his words -- then for Jews the lesson must be the exact opposite: Never again will we allow a holocaust to happen. That means first and foremost that Israel must be strong, spiritually, morally and militarily.
A home and a power
Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazi regime, with help from millions of other Europeans, murdered almost every Jew on that continent. Had there been an Israel in the 1930s, an untold number of Jews could have been saved. Here's why: At first, Hitler wanted merely to expel the Jews; only later did he decide to slaughter them. When the nations of the world gathered in Evian, France in 1938, fully aware of the danger facing European Jewry, one country after another declared: We have no room for the Jews.
From the beginning of World War II, the world was divided into two types of countries: those that expelled or murdered Jews and those that rejected the Jews who had been expelled or who had fled from elsewhere. Had there been an Israel, there would have been a country willing to take in the Jewish refugees when America, Britain, and the other nations refused.
A second reason the magnitude of the Holocaust would have been diminished is that unlike the Allies, who could not find it in their power to spare a few airplanes to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz and other death camps, Israel would have.
In his book, A Durable Peace, Benjamin Netanyahu put it simply: "Until I stood there at Birkenau, I never realized how tiny and mundane the whole thing was. The factory of death could have been put out of operation by one pass of a bomber. Indeed the Allies had been bombing strategic targets a few miles away. Had the order been given, it would have taken but a slight shift of the bomber pilot's stick to interdict the slaughter. Yet the order was never given."
The lesson from Entebbe
On July 4, 1946, forty-two Jewish Holocaust survivors who had returned to their home village of Kielce, Poland were murdered in a brutal pogrom by their Polish Christian neighbors.
Thirty years later to the day, on July 4, 1976, more than 100 Jews who were about to be murdered in Entebbe, Uganda were saved by the Israeli Army in one of the most daring rescue missions in history. More than anything else, Entebbe demonstrated the importance of a competent Israeli Defense Force. When Jews had no military of their own, they were killed with impunity. With armed forces, for the first time in 2,000 years, Jews standing at the threshold of death did not need to rely on the goodwill of others.
When Pope Paul VI criticized Israel's "fierceness" during a private audience with Golda Meir, she replied: "Do you know what my earliest memory is? A pogrom in Kiev. When we were merciful and when we had no homeland and when we were weak, we were led to the gas chambers (1)."
While visiting Israel, a teacher of mine encountered an American minister who started badgering him with hostile questions and comments about Israel, and finally asked him, “What is it that you Jews really want?"
My teacher responded with the following story:
At Stolpce, Poland, on September 23, 1942, the ghetto was surrounded by German soldiers. Pits had been prepared outside a nearby village where the Jews would be led and then shot. The Germans entered the ghetto, searching for the Jews. A survivor by the name of Eliezer Melamed later recalled how he and his girlfriend found a room where they hid behind sacks of flour. A mother and her three children had followed them into the house. The mother hid in one corner of the room, the three children in another.
The Germans entered the room and discovered the children. One of children, a young boy, began to scream, "Mama! Mama!" as the Germans dragged the three of them away. But another of them, only 4 years old, shouted to his brother in Yiddish, "Zog nit 'Mameh.' Men vet ir oich zunemen." ("Don't say 'Mama.' They'll take her, too.")
The boy stopped screaming. The mother remained silent. Her children were dragged away. The mother was saved.
"I will always hear that," Melamed recalled, "especially at night. 'Zog nit Mameh — 'Don't say Mama.' And I will always remember the sight of the mother. Her children were dragged away by the Germans. She was hitting her head against the wall, as if to punish herself for remaining silent, for wanting to live (2)."
After concluding the story, my teacher told the minister, "What do we Jews really want? Well, I’ll tell you what I want. All I want is that our grandchildren should be able to call out 'Mama' without fear. All we want is that the world leave us alone." Jews detest wars. Perhaps no other people prays so often and so passionately for peace. But in an unredeemed world, we sometimes have to take up arms to defend life itself.
In his inaugural address on January 1961, President John F. Kennedy said: "We dare not tempt them [America's enemies] with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt, can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed."
The same holds even truer for the tiny Jewish State. Israel is the only nation in the world whose very existence is threatened by enemies, supported by a majority of the United Nations. It is the only nation in the world that faces both constant threats to its existence and constant criticism for acting against such threats. It is the only nation in the world threatened by genocidal war, the purpose of which is not military victory alone, but extermination. Can anyone doubt that there would be widespread enthusiasm among the Arab and Islamic masses if, Heaven forbid, the Middle East would be Judenrein? Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist summed up the reality of our present situation best: “In the 1930s, our enemies said: Jews to Palestine. Now they say: Jews out of Palestine. They don't want us to be here. They don't want us to be there. They don't want us to be.”
The world must never forget that a single Israeli strategic error may mean not only a military defeat, but annihilation that the world would not be able, even if willing, to stop. Every Israeli decision must be judged against this horrific reality.
Too few of Israel's critics seem to understand the Jewish determination to avoid another holocaust, this time in their own Homeland. Too few understand why Israel cannot and should not entrust its survival to nations that stood casually by while millions of innocent Jews were obliterated. Too many nations seem willing to have Israel take potentially fatal risks for an uncertain regional peace that they themselves would never take. Of course, the political, military or economic arenas are not the only, or even the most important factors that will guarantee Jewish continuity. Our momentous faith in G-d and His Torah are what has sustained us for close to four millennia. Without which, we would be today, no more than a museum exhibit, along with the Canaanites, Moabites and the other people of the ancient Near East that disappeared. Yet to suggest that we don't need a strong military to secure a safe state is wrong. One of the basic tenets of Judaism is that we do not rely on miracles and that we must employ all of the natural means to protect and save human lives, occasionally even our own (3).
We are obligated by the memory of the people who died simply for being Jews to take the prospects of Jewish vulnerability seriously. We must all take part in the defense of Israel and the Jewish people, whether on the physical battlefield or on the battlefield of words and ideas. We honor the victims by remembering them and saying: What they died for we will live for – the right to be, the right for Jews to live as Jews and be a blessing to humanity. For Jewish children to live without fear and to cultivate the kind of community children deserve. A community in which every Jewish child and adult has the opportunity to be exposed to the grandeur and majesty of Jewish history, the enthralling insights and special sensitivities of Jewish thought, the sanctity and meaning of Jewish existence and the power and profundity of Torah and mitzvot.
Those who fail to remember, said Santayana, are destined to repeat. Without memory, human history becomes a scratched CD endlessly replaying itself. The Hebrew Bible is full of the command to remember. The Hebrew word zakhor, remember, occurs in its various forms in the Torah an astonishing 169 times (4). We hold memory as a sacred duty: Not because we live in the past, but precisely because we need to learn from it if we are to shape a future.
Let us never forget the Shoah by ensuring that Israel is forever strong. Who in future generations could forgive us if we, who have lived through the century of the Holocaust, did not rise up and prevent the beginnings of a second Holocaust? Let us invoke the great moral imperative of memory. And let “Never again” mean “Never again.”
1) Golda Meir's fascinating biography, My Life, GP Putnam NY 1975.
2) Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 465.
3) As the Talmud teaches, “He who comes to kill you, kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a).
There's actually an explicit ruling about this in the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, section 329.) The law describes the following scenario: A hostile neighbor threatens to attack you, and demands a piece of territory. The enemy says, "Give us this piece of land, and we'll leave you alone." Do we go to war to prevent the enemy's occupation of the territory, or do we relinquish the territory in return for a promise of future non aggression? The Torah rules not to yield the territory that makes you more vulnerable to attack, even if you must go to war on Shabbat to prevent that. A question could be posed. Since we are a small nation, we certainly need G-d's help in our battle. If so, why should we take up arms and desecrate the Shabbat? Should we not instead recite psalms for our deliverance, or engage in Torah study? Yet the unequivocal ruling in Jewish law in this case is that G-d desires that we go forth against our enemy well armed and, if necessary, to desecrate the Shabbat for this purpose. The course of action mandated by the Torah is also an act of serving G-d. Just as one must study Torah and fulfill the mitzvot, so must one perform one's duty with regard to the saving of lives.
See 1 Maccabees 2:32-38 that records how in the early stages of the revolt, a large group of Jews soldiers refused to fight the Syrians forces on the Shabbat and were all wiped out. On that day Matityahu declared “If we do as our brothers have done…then [the Syrians] will soon wipe us off the face of the earth.”
4) For instance: Remember what Amalek did to you (Deuteronomy 25:17) Remember that you were slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 8:11), states the Torah, so that you will always cherish freedom. Remember death so that you will protect and sanctify life.
Rabbi Dov Greenberg is the executive director of The Chabad House at Stanford University and lectures regularly throughout the Unite States. You can e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org