The Holocaust, Israel and Us

Sermon given April 23, 1999, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Magazine covers, like those of Time and Newsweek, are frequently controversial. Reform Judaism magazine, on the other hand, has not generally caused a stir. This quarterly publication arrives automatically at the homes of all members of Reform congregations throughout North America. Many of its recipients probably don’t even notice it, or at least they didn’t, until a few months ago. Then, the magazine’s cover featured a Reform rabbi, wearing a yarmulke, wrapped in a tallit, fringes flying. With that scandal, people started paying attention to Reform Judaism magazine.

That magazine’s current issue features a cover story entitled, “Victors, Not Victims: Confronting the Holocaust-Israel Creation Myth,” by Dr. David Arnow. Though not as widely discussed as the Reform rabbi in the tallit, Arnow’s argument has engendered a serious debate about the relationship between the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. Arnow insists that the State of Israel would have been created, even without the Holocaust. He bemoans the image of Jews as victims, granted a state of our own only because of the devastating losses suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Indeed, many of us have long believed in a deep connection between the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel. The Holocaust proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Jewish people must have a land of our own. Israel is absolutely necessary as a safe refuge for any Jew, anywhere in the world, threatened by anti-Semitism. During the Holocaust, even the United States and Canada did not open their doors to large numbers of Jewish immigrants. The British, who controlled Palestine at the time, severely limited Jewish immigration to our holy land. Millions of our people, denied entry to free countries, perished in the hitlerian nightmare.

Moreover, the State of Israel was established only three years following the end of World War II. Even after the war, and the revelation of the Holocaust’s horrors, free countries of the western world were not prepared to open their doors wide for unlimited Jewish immigration. The British continued to restrict access to Palestine, and even created concentration camps of their own in Cyprus, to house Jews who sought illegally to immigrate to their promised land. Clearly, most Holocaust survivors were unwilling to return to their pre-war homes. After all, their neighbors had turned them over to the Nazis, taken their possessions and occupied their homes.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews had no place to go. Many were still living in former Nazi concentration camps, now with improved conditions and renamed, “Displaced Persons Camps.” Finally, the world acted. In November of 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, creating a Jewish state and an Arab state. In May of 1948, Israel declared its independence, and its Arab neighbors declared war. With victory in the War of Independence, the birth of Israel was secured.

As a result, the story of Israel’s beginning is often understood as an act of redemption, following the degradation of the Holocaust. Just as the ancient Israelites had been redeemed from Egyptian bondage, and led to the Promised Land, so were twentieth century Jews led from Hitler’s Europe to Israel once again.

Visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, and you will see: after the long winter in Europe, the Jewish people is reborn in springtime in the Land of Israel.

Consider our community-wide service for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day: We conclude with the singing of Hatkivah, Israel’s national anthem, implying that our people’s answer to the Holocaust is regeneration in the Jewish State.

Listen to the stories of our teenagers who have participated in “March of the Living,” a program which takes Jewish youths to Poland, where they visit Auschwitz on Yom HaShoah, and then to Israel for the following week’s celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day. Israel is our answer to the Holocaust.

This connection of Israel to the Holocaust has sustained and invigorated Jews for half a century. We have repeated that pledge, “Never again:” “never again” will our people face destruction like that of the Holocaust; “never again” will our people be defenseless, without a state of our own. This Holocaust-Israel bond buttressed loyalty to Judaism, even through the 1960s and ‘70s, when religion was in decline. It has also filled the coffers of past Jewish Federation campaigns. Imagine the horror, then, when the cover story of Reform Judaism magazine suggested that the link of the Holocaust to the creation of Israel is a myth. Imagine the scandal, when the official publication of our movement featured an article which argues that the Holocaust-Israel connection is destructive to Jewish life.

Before we get too scandalized, though, perhaps we should examine the facts Dr. Arnow presents in his controversial article. Modern Zionism was founded over 100 years ago, before the turn of the century, almost forty years before Hitler’s rise to power. As early as 1917, the British government, in its Balfour Declaration, indicated clear support for the establishment of both Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. The League of Nations and the United States expressed similar commitments. By 1939, 445,000 Jews were living in Palestine, building new cities, creating agricultural settlements, making the desert bloom.

To be sure, the British, who controlled Palestine, neglected their commitments to the Jewish people before and during World War II. The State of Israel was not born before the Holocaust. And yet, Israel did not begin from nothing in 1948. The institutions, infrastructure, and even the politics of modern Israel were well in place before the Second World War. The Hagganah, which ultimately became the Israeli army, already boasted some 25,000 fighters in 1939. The State of Israel would not, could not, have been established after the Holocaust, were it not for the work of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Jews who struggled for a land of our own before the world ever heard of Adolph Hitler.

Would Israel have been born without the Holocaust? Maybe not. We shall never know. Would Israel have been born without the gestation period of Jewish settlement and development in the land before the War, without the political efforts of Zionist leaders from the 1890s through the 1930s? Absolutely not. Yes, Israel rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, but Israel also rose from the labors and the efforts and the commitments of Jews who built a Jewish presence in Palestine for the honor and the glory of the Jewish people. We have a Jewish state in Palestine, not just because we were victims, but also as victors, who prevailed after a long and successful struggle for a land of our own.

Perhaps a debate over the connection of the Holocaust and Israel could be viewed as arcane and theoretical. And yet, as a teacher of young Jews, I must tell you that the Israel-Holocaust tie has a profound and negative effect on our young people.

Each year, as part of my Confirmation class curriculum about Jewish views of God, we discuss whether God caused the Holocaust or allowed it to happen. For our confirmands, the Holocaust is ancient history, almost as removed from modern life as Egyptian slavery. Most of their parents were born after World War II. Some of them wonder why we should not view the Holocaust as an act of God. They will occasionally argue that God may have planned the Holocaust as a way of bringing the Jewish people to redemption in the State of Israel. Thus, evil is redefined as good; the Holocaust is ultimately understood as a positive, purposeful event, for its long-term impact on the Jewish people was beneficial.

Dr. Arnow suggests even broader and more terrible consequences of the Holocaust-Israel connection. He reminds us that the Palestinian Arabs of Israel and the occupied territories had no role in causing the Holocaust. If Israel was created to redress the wickedness of the Holocaust, and to the extent that Arabs have been displaced by the State of Israel, the sins of Christian Europe are being visited on Palestinians unjustly. Instead, we should view Israel’s birth as the natural growth and work of the Jewish people, to reestablish our ties to our ancient land. Then, Jews and Arabs can work together to bring a just solution to the problems we share in the Land of Israel today.

One of the most important ideas of modern Zionism concerns the image of the Jew, in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Before Jewish settlement of Palestine, Jews were viewed as weaklings. We did not work the land. We relied upon others to defend us. Now, in Israel, Jews work our own land. We defend our own country. We are responsible for our own survival, strength, and welfare. If we view the establishment of Israel as recompense for our victimization, then we perpetuate the image of Jew as weakling. If we understand that our people built Israel as an act of strength and will, then we shall project an image of spiritual fortitude and moral confidence, not only to the world, but, more importantly, to ourselves, and most significantly, to our children.

We Jews have a critical moral responsibility to remember the Holocaust. We must honor our dead. We must teach our children. We have a duty to inform the world of the inhumanity of which humans are capable. We must articulate our message, “never again:” “never again” shall our people be subjected to genocide; “never again” shall any people be singled out for slaughter.

We Jews have also have deep religious duty to honor the State of Israel. We honor our history, as we reestablish ties with our ancient land. We teach our children that Judaism is even more than a religion, it is a covenant, with God, with Torah, and with the Land and People of Israel. We have a duty to inform the world that we do not intend to suffer the indignities of statelessness and exile ever again. Instead, we shall project to ourselves and to the world the true image of the Jew as victor, not merely as victim.

Breaking the Holocaust-Israel bond ought not to frighten us, and should not be controversial. Instead, may we be inspired, by the resolve of the brave Jewish men and women who built the State of Israel and protect our Jewish homeland to this day. Let us be lifted up by the message of a secure people, able to determine our own fate. May we strive toward a vision of peace, for shalom can not be created by angry victims, but only by a strong people of many blessings.