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.

A Home for the Holidays

I. Cleaning

Of the many things I have looked forward to in Israel, spending the holidays with my family has been among the most anticipated. The last time I was home for the holidays was 2001. I was six and honestly, I can’t remember anything. As a result, I committed to making Aliyah before Rosh Hashanah, 5780, the turn of the Jewish New Year.

In the week leading up to the holiday, my Abba, brother, and I went to my grandparents’ house in the neighborhood of Canaan in Tzfat to clean. In a few days, fifteen people would descend onto this house to celebrate together. In the synagogue above the house, “Beit Knesset Beit Elokim,” which my Sabba Moshe had maintained with his brother Yisrael for decades, neighbors, many from the same village in Morocco, would come to pray in the same style as their fathers and grandfathers had. There was plenty to do.

Since I had last been in the house in Canaan, our lives changed completely. With the death of my Savta earlier this year, the pictures on the wall began to collect dust and the house waited, silently preserving memories. The soul that once animated the boisterous center of our familial life had, in the absence of my grandparents, gone dormant, rendering the structure still. The new year presented us with the chance to revive it.

As I walked through the house, sweeping up dust and debris into little piles, I had a few moments to think. I was still in the US when my Savta died. When it happened, I hadn’t seen her in nearly three years, and even then, she had long since lost much of her memory. The last time we said goodbye, in the hope of not confusing my Savta further, I told her that I was going home for the night and I would see her again tomorrow. Three years later, sweeping the same floors she swept, I felt I finally had a chance to say goodbye to my Savta Chana whose love transcended distance, time, and even death.

Gripping the same broom she had used a thousand times, I thought of the little woman I was lucky enough to call my Savta. She was tiny, barely five feet off the ground, but an absolute force. Her hair was a henna-dyed fiery orange that conveyed her ferocious vitality even after her body began to weaken in her old age. My Savtah’s hands were simultaneously the tools of a skilled artist when she cooked or baked for her eight children and twenty-four grandchildren, and lethal weapons when she pinched your cheeks, accompanied by a Kappara Aleicha or Nabibashk, terms of endearment for those she loved.

There is an inherent magic that places possess in their ability to connect us to each other. It’s why we return to the site of a first date to propose, or why we avoid that same place after a bad breakup. It’s why tourists flock in the millions to national monuments, and devoted widows bring flowers to their late partner’s grave. Places lock away vivid memories for safekeeping, until we return to explore and reminisce and laugh and cry at all of the wondrous moments we’d nearly forgotten.

II. The Brown Paper Bag

In the synagogue above the house, I followed along in the Siddur, trying to sing unfamiliar melodies. I’ve always thought the synagogue itself was beautiful. At its entrance, a staircase of more than a dozen steps leads worshippers into the center of a simple room. Red benches line the walls allowing those present to see each other, although few raise their eyes from their prayers, except to look longingly towards heaven. At the front of the room stands the ark. Behind its red curtain rest six ornately decorated Torah scrolls.

The story behind the synagogue’s founding is a rather incredible one. In the 20th century, nearly 250,000 Moroccan Jews came to Israel. Their arrival was a combination of persecution and ideology. Among these new Israelis was Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeria, more commonly known as the Baba Sali. The Baba Sali was a master Kabbalist and Torah scholar of the highest order. Within the Sephardi community, stories of the mystic’s seemingly supernatural gifts are ubiquitous. One such story took place in that same house in Canaan.

After settling in Netivot, the Baba Sali set out to visit the members of his community throughout the country. Tzfat was home to significant Moroccan community, including my Sabba Moshe and his brother, Yisrael, who knew the Abuhatzeria family in Morocco. When the sage came to Tzfat, he always stayed with the two brothers. What are today separate homes were, at the time,  little more than two rooms, separated by a curtain.

On the first such occasion, the pair rushed to prepare the space for the Baba Sali. Yisrael, who owned a corner store in the neighborhood, brought dozens of bottles of Arak, a fennel-based liquor, to the house. The Baba Sali was known to give his blessings by pouring a small shot of Arak for each of his devotees. Thousands of people came to seek out his spiritual advice and so, logically, a lot of the drink was needed.

The wall of the room in which the holy man would receive his visitors was lined with bottles of the Middle Eastern alcohol. As the story goes, upon entering the room, the Baba Sali did something peculiar. He took a single bottle of Arak, opened it, and placed it in a brown paper bag. He handed the bottle to his assistant and instructed him not to put the bottle down until the last person had been in to see him. As the pilgrims entered the room, the bottle continued to yield, pour after pour. It was miraculous. The bottle seemed to never run dry. Finally, when the last person had seen the mystic, he instructed his assistant to remove the brown bag and set the bottle down. When he revealed the bottle, it was empty.

These visits happened nearly a dozen times over the course of twenty years. It was on one such occasion that the Baba Sali instructed Sabba Moshe and Yisrael to build a synagogue above their joined houses. 

It was in this synagogue that I sat alone on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. While the other worshipers had gone home to eat and rest, I slipped away from my family for a few moments of privacy with my thoughts. As I sat, I spent little time thinking about the miraculous story of the Baba Sali. Instead, I thought about Sabba Moshe. I stared at the spot in the synagogue where he always sat. I thought about his absence and I cried. I cried because of the loss I felt—that my family felt. I cried because of how unfairly suffering seems to be distributed. I remembered him making silly faces at me during Shabbat prayers and squeezing my hand like a lemon when I went to shake his and I laughed. I scanned the room for a brown paper bag, that I might place these memories into it and make them infinite.

III. Time Travel

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, my family gathered around the table as they had so many times before. I was grateful to be there. We made blessings over pomegranates, apples dipped in honey, and dates. We ate salads and fish and chicken and lamb, all the while laughing at each other’s little jokes and jabs.

After the meal, the cousins decided it was time to go on the walk that we’d always take around the neighborhood to help us burn off some of the excess food and stretch our legs. For some odd reason, we made a left turn instead of a right one. This was strange because, as far back as I can remember, we had always turned right.

As the walk went on, I couldn’t let go of our left turn. Had things changed so much that we had forgotten which way to turn? Why were we walking backwards?

I think now, that we walked backwards because we’d hoped to unwind time and return to the days where our memories were made. The mystics and cooking and handshakes and meals together have combined to elevate this home to a place of holiness. At times, such a special place with such treasured memories makes moving forward feel impossible. How could we ever leave those things behind? 

The most obvious lesson of Rosh Hashanah is that time, no matter the circumstances, presses forward. My hope is that the future holds as many memories as the past. I hope that this house can always be a meeting place for my family in times of celebration, and a place of comfort in times of grief. I hope that this house is always our home, and I hope that one day our children know that when they go for a walk in the neighborhood, they should always turn right.

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?

Fear, love and the Jewish refugee

Nov. 30 is a day meant to commemorate the story of the approximately 850,000 Jews who were forced to flee anti-Jewish persecution across the Arab world in the 20th century. Every year on this day, I have an opportunity to reflect on my own family’s story of exodus, and every year I find it gives me new insights into the story of Israel and the Jewish people.

This month, I had a conversation with a member of the Jewish “anti-occupation” camp. In the course of our discussion, my co-conversationalist said that he prefers not to base his understanding of the world in fear.

This quip took me by surprise, but it seemed to provide the basis for many of his political positions. To provide some context, we were discussing the Israeli security fence—each looking for the inconsistencies in the other’s argument. He attempted to connect my support for Israel’s barrier with U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. I protested, citing the reduction in the number of attacks from the West Bank since the barrier was constructed. He yielded saying, “I can’t argue with that.”

I might have smirked, satisfied that I had bested my opponent with an argument grounded in fact. Then he said it. “I just prefer not to base my understanding of the world in fear.” While the conversation itself focused on the issue of border security, I sensed that he meant also to suggest that Israel’s creation may have been a product of fear.

Having reached an impasse, the conversation ended, but that sentence lingered in my ears and began to replace my self-satisfaction with self-doubt. I began to wrestle with a question: Is my support for Israel borne out of fear?

To answer that, I looked to my grandparents—refugees whose stories have always served as a source of inspiration for my own exploration of Israel and Judaism.

My grandparents, Savta Chana and Sabba Moshe, were born in Tinghir, Morocco, some time in the early 1930s. No one is quite sure of the date because there is no record of their birth, so we celebrate their birthdays on Dec. 31, certain that the actual date must have occurred sometime in the last year. Tinghir itself is a small village at the base of the High Atlas Mountains comprised largely of the Amazigh people, more commonly known as Berber.

In the early 20th century, Morocco was seen as a relatively safe place to be Jewish, thanks in large part to King Mohammad V, who famously responded to the Vichy government’s demand to list all of the countries Jews by saying, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.”

The “mellah” in Tinghir, Morocco.

However, Jews lived as second-class citizens, or dhimmi in Morocco, subject to taxes and other restrictions on their daily lives. In the two decades that followed the creation of the State of Israel, Morocco, along with the rest of the Arab world was virtually emptied of its Jewish citizens.

My own family suffered the consequences of being Jewish in the Arab world both before and after the creation of Israel. I heard stories growing up of occasional riots targeting the Jewish mellah, a walled Jewish quarter akin to a European ghetto. The men of the family would, after hiding their wives and children indoors for protection, be forced to stand outside and fight for their lives. In one such instance, sometime before Israel’s creation, my great-grandfather was lynched by an angry mob, leaving my grandfather, a boy of 4 or 5 years old without a father.

Yet based on conversations I’ve had with my family, I am certain it was not fear that drove our flight from Morocco, but rather a radical love for and devotion to the Land of Israel, instilled in them generation after generation for thousands of years until finally, they returned home. To be sure, thousands of the Middle East’s Jewish refugees were forced to leave their homes behind—motivated by threats to their personal safety—but in searching for a new home, most chose Israel because of this love and devotion.

It seems, in our time, there is great reason for a Jewish person to be fearful. A mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgha neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville and a Labour Party leader in the United Kingdom whose public words and actions have left 40 percent of the country’s Jews considering emigration.

Even in Israel, citizens must endure threats from hostile Iranian tyrants with the proxies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip armed well enough to back up their rhetoric. Israel is a young country whose citizens have endured the pain of loss since its creation. The scars of war and intifadas, kidnappings, stabbings and car-rammings are etched deep in every Israeli’s psyche. The further back in our history you look, the more you realize that this has historically been the price Jews have paid for their membership in this ethno-religious group.

It is in this context that I often wonder what possessed my family to remain Jewish through the years. In hostile lands, facing threats to their lives and more commonly the burden of their faith, it would have been easier to turn their eyes away from Zion. It is because they did not succumb to this fear that I can answer confidently that Israel is not a trepidatious project of self-ghettoization, as the person with whom I spoke may have suggested.

It is instead an expression of an enduring love that has survived a millennium built by Jewish refugees from across the world.