On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, We Must Ask More of the World

The 27th of January marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day, dedicated to the memories of the victims of the Holocaust, was designated as such by the United Nations in 2005, 60 years after the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russian Army. It is a day where the world remembers how it liberated those in the camp from a literal hell on earth—death industrialized, and at least in theory, made a promise to the huddled masses that they would always find protection were the forces of evil again to rise. This, it would seem, was an important step in the evolution of humankind’s ability to see itself in the other; a beacon of hope in a century of otherwise profound darkness. Progress; however, is never guaranteed.

On the 75th anniversary of Liberation, I found myself asking, “Has the world lived up to its promise? Have we remembered the victims? Have we prevented subsequent genocides? Have we punished their perpetrators, or has ‘Never Again’ become little more than a shallow talking point?”

If the past seven decades have shown us anything, it is that the world has not been true to its word. Since the end of World War II, the international community has largely failed to prevent genocide. The millions of souls lost in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Iraq, and Syria serve as a testament to a profound promise broken. In an article for The Conversation, Rachel Burns argues that perhaps the most salient aspect of the UN Convention on Genocide’s legacy is its inability to prevent genocide or punish its perpetrators.

Equally as troublesome are the rising rates of Holocaust denial coupled, expectedly, with a pandemic rise in antisemitism. 75 years after the Holocaust, the world is relapsing. Jews have again become prominent targets in the streets of New York, Paris, and Jerusalem. Progress is never guaranteed.

Given the state of the world, this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day is more important than ever and yet, seems stained by this broken promise. International pledges to bolster Holocaust education efforts and conferences in honor of the victims seem, at best, ceremonial and at worst, political doublespeak. How can the international community move past platitudes and actualize its promises? One insight may be found in the message of Yom HaShoah, Israel’s official Holocaust Remembrance Day.

On the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan, Israel, together with Jewish communities around the world, will observe Yom HaShoah, enshrined in Israeli Law in 1959 as a solemn day of commemoration, reflection, and education. The date was chosen in honor of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, led by the 23-year old Mordecai Anielewicz, a member of the Zionist Youth Movement, Hashomer Hatzair. The uprising would go on to become one of the most well-known acts of Jewish resistance in history.

To my mind, the decision to recognize an ultimately unsuccessful struggle for liberation as its official day of commemoration day is emblematic of how fundamental action is to the Israeli worldview. Jewish liberation, argues the Israeli, is in the hands of Jews. The right to self-determination extends beyond physical borders, reaching those in need, wherever they may be found. This is the promise of Israel and it is one that has largely been kept.

In Entebbe, the Israeli army conducted one of the most daring rescues in modern military history and saved 102 of 106 hostages taken precisely because they were Jewish. In Ethiopia, nearly all of a community that had been disconnected from the rest of the Jewish world for centuries was rescued from persecution and death. Israel provided sanctuary, albeit an imperfect one, to an overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern and North African Jews that fled or were forced out of their homes throughout the 20th century.

From this we learn that when confronted with evil, inaction is impermissible. For the world, this means it is incumbent upon us to intercede in the face of tyrants and fundamentally evil ideologies.

This requires us to define moral boundaries and set clear limits on the types of behaviors we will tolerate at the international level. This is easier said than done, but consensus on a universal code of ethics is not required to better cooperate as an international community on matters of genocidal proportions. Our responsibility to our fellow human beings to try will always outweigh the potential costs of action.

Why Now? What Making Aliyah Means in 2019

A little over a year ago I started telling people that I was planning on moving to Israel. Without fail, their first question was, “why?”

It’s a fair question. Practically speaking, the United States would be a better place to build a life. It offers more economic opportunity, social mobility, and a lifetime of friendships, not to mention the freedom from sirens and rockets overhead. In the States, I understand how to find work, how to pay taxes, how to date (sort of), and how to read and write and speak with ease. The US is familiar. Israel, in many ways, is still unknown.

My initial answer is true, albeit a bit clichéd. “Israel is my home,” I say with confidence. It is the place I was born—the place where, despite all those challenges, I feel a sense of belonging, of community, of family.

For most, this answer suffices and the conversation carries on to other topics. On rare occasions, someone will ask me a second question, one that I feel is more relevant than ever.

“Why now?”

I could answer this question on a superficial level by saying something about the importance of social integration to my chance of success in a country notorious for its prickly people and unforgiving bureaucracy. While true, my answer fails to get to the heart of the question, which I believe is actually two. The first—is it safe to be a Jew in America in 2019? The second—if so, why would anyone leave?

In November, I wrote about my grandparents’ journey out of Morocco. Now, as then, I believe there was an ideological component to their move. For many, hearing that Jews were building a state in their ancestral homeland made the dream of returning home from exile a little more tangible and filled them, little by little, with a hope that they too might one day return. Still, when Jews of the Middle East finally left for Israel, they did so largely as refugees.

Like all refugees, my Sabba and Safta were fleeing growing insecurity in their country of birth. This persecution prompted them to leave their microscopic Moroccan village in 1950, nearly 20 years before the end of the Arab world’s mass Jewish exodus which, all told, resulted in the displacement of nearly 850,000 souls. Jewish history is, in many ways the story of refugees fleeing from persecution to persecution. Rome. Spain. France. Great Britain. Germany. Iraq. Tunisia. Iran. Russia. Poland—to name a few.

Today, in the U.S., there is a sense that this insecurity is again creeping into the mainstream and hatred of Jews is again becoming normalized, if it ever wasn’t. In the past year alone, we’ve faced attacks in our houses of worship and on the streets of major American cities. Our graves and our schools have been desecrated by symbols of hate meant to intimidate us into feeling like outsiders. Antisemitic canards have been employed by prominent members of both major American political parties while simultaneously taking up the mantle of defender of the Jewish people to score cheap political points. It may be incorrect to say that the familiar sense of insecurity is creeping. Rather, it seems to have arrived with the fanfare and splendor of a great ruler returning to his kingdom, forcing us to confront our deepest paranoia—perhaps our safety is not guaranteed.

Then again, maybe it’s not about safety at all.

I know dozens of Jews who have never considered leaving the States. Perhaps it’s fueled by naiveté, but in spite of these hardships, they have never experienced the fear to which I am referring or expressed any serious concern for their own personal safety as a direct result of their Jewish identity. Their belief is that the U.S. will continue to be a safe place to be Jewish for the foreseeable future, a result of their lived experience in a time of unparalleled American comfort.

Who is right? The paranoid or the naive? As always, the answer is somewhere in the murky gray area between the two extremes.

It is correct to say that Jews need always to be vigilante. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has articulated, antisemitism is a virus which can mutate and spread at a rapid pace, and it is our responsibility to remain watchful, not only for our own safety, but for the safety of all marginalized groups. Where antisemitism goes, all other forms of hate will surely follow. On the other hand it is true that the US has afforded Jews unparalleled opportunity and prosperity. Healthy skepticism of our institutions and leaders, matched with our responsibility to improve the world can ensure that the US remains a safe place to be a Jew.

This now begs the question, if the US can be a safe haven for Jews, why would anyone leave? The answer, in fact, lies in the very security and prosperity we’ve experienced in the States.

I often wonder if my grandparents’ feelings about Israel changed at all because they came in search of refuge. Was the spirit of early Zionists conferred to them? Did they feel as though they were liberating themselves and taking their destiny into their own hands or was their liberation a consequence of the absence of choice?

As Jews living in America in the 21st century, we have a privilege that virtually no prior generation has had—that is total agency. With that agency comes the power to choose for ourselves and for future generations, to never be refugees again. I have a chance to take advantage of a unique and non-guaranteed opportunity as a Jew to go to Israel out of an immense love for my home and not, like my grandparents, in search of refuge.

When I’m asked why I’m moving to Israel or why I’m moving now, the answer is simple. I am among the first people in generations who has the opportunity to choose. How then could I choose anything else?