May 2, 2016
Yom HaShoah 5776
In many ways, Israel is a land of ironies and paradoxes. A recent survey, for example, ranked Israel second among the countries of the world in indices of happiness. Israel, despite all of her troubles and challenges, is a very happy place. Walk through the streets of any city, sit for coffee in a cafe, stroll through a shopping mall and you will see people relaxing, buying, conversing and laughing. With all of the terrible things of which Israel is accused, the reality of life in Israel is neither draconian nor militaristic; neither repressive nor bigoted. Israel, for the most part, is a very happy place.
The discrepancies between perceptions of Israel throughout the world and the reality that is Israel are due, in part, to deeply rooted prejudices against Israel and against Jews. Whether one looks on college campuses anywhere in the world, in the seats of governments, in the UN or in presidential campaigns, Jews and Israel, often referred to interchangeably, are described in terms we know best from Nazi Germany. Indeed, the history and the lessons of Nazi Germany and WWII seem to have been willfully forgotten as anti-Semitism, once again, becomes a worldwide phenomenon. And it is here, with respect to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, that we find another irony of Israeli society.
Later this week, on Wednesday evening and Thursday, we shall observe Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. In the US, in Israel and in countries throughout the world, Jews take the opportunity on that day to pause, to attend Holocaust memorial programs or simply to remember the events which resulted in the murder of six million of our brothers and sisters in Europe during WWII. Our Community Holocaust Memorial Program this year will be held at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood on Wednesday evening. For Jews throughout the world, the emotions evoke sadness and regret as the victims of the Shoah, Makdishei Hashe /martyrs, as they are referred to, are recalled. In Israel, however, there is another, palpable layer to the mood.
There is in Israel, of course, a somber and reflective mood. All movie theaters will close on Wednesday evening. All television shows will be pre-emptied by special programming relating to Yom HaShoah. What may be most impactful will occur on Thursday morning when a siren, heard in every corner of the land, will be sounded. As the siren wails, everything stops: people driving at that moment pull over to the side of the road. Shoppers step out of stores and into the street.
Pedestrians stand at attention.
The siren heard is the same one heard when fighting and wars erupts and civilians are warned to seek cover. This is the siren which, to Israelis, conjures the most painful memories of Jewish victimhood. The siren reminds all here not simply of those who were murdered. The siren is a reminder of the fact that, had Israel existed, had Israel possessed weapons and an organized army during those years, Jews could have been saved. Had the IDF existed, they could have protected Jews in Europe. Had European Jewry been able to fight back, if Israel had been able to defend those who were defenseless, many may have been killed but they would have died as resisters rather than victims.
On Yom HaShoah, the mood in Israel is one of sadness. But the sadness here is tinged with anger and defiance. Throughout the world, the message on that day is that we must prevent this from ever happening again; that anywhere evil, hatred, bigotry or prejudice rears its head, we must identify, condemn and denounce the perpetrators. Elsewhere, Yom HaShoah takes on this universal message. "Never again" means nowhere in the world can we allow another Holocaust. In Israel, however, the message is different.
Israel is a reminder, to both Jews and the world, that Jews are no longer victims. In today's world, Jews will neither remain silent nor call upon others for salvation. Israel has changed the equation which has been used throughout all of world history. Jews are no longer weak and helpless. We shall no longer accept the title of the world's most victimized people.
Anti-Semitism is a fact of history and a fact of contemporary Jewish Life. Those who thought that the lessons of the Holocaust would have persuaded those who hate us to oppose the evil from which anti-Semitism grows. Instead, in Israel the strategy for the future is dominated neither by hope nor by wishful thinking. Instead, as the mood on Yom HaShoah confirms, Israel observes Yom HaShoah with a posture of defiance. As we mourn our dead, we vow never again to be victims.
For those who refuse to hear the barbs and hateful language which characterizes anti-Semitism, we shall be the canary in the coal mine. For those who are willfully blind we shall be their eyes, pointing out every instance so that evil is identified. And, in a world which seems to have lost both long and short term memory, Israel's existence and strength is an antidote to the amnesia of the world.
Although Israel cannot demand that the world remember, Israel can stand, proud and strong, as a symbol of our survival, of our perseverance against the odds and of living proof of the irony that it is Israel, not our enemies, which prevail. So it has been in the past. So is it today. And so may it continue into the future.
Shalom from Israel,
Neil S. Cooper, Rabbi