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.

Meet ‘Joe,’ bringing objectivity to Mideast reporting in 280 characters or less

Since March, the Gazan border has played host to a series of violent demonstrations. Thousands of rioters, some of whom are armed with hand grenades, Molotov cocktails and slingshots, regularly amass along the border. As a whole, major media outlets have failed to accurately and objectively cover the events of the so-called “March of Return,” and as a result, the truth surrounding the events of the last several months has been largely obfuscated.

Enter Joseph Truzman, known on Twitter simply as “Joe.” What began as a hobby of tracking and documenting various Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip has become the “go to” source for objective coverage of the ongoing clashes in the enclave.

“What I do is all about showing what is [happening] on the ground without advocating,” said Truzman, who works from Oregon. “I want a good representation of the facts on the ground.”

Truzman, who daily tweets dozens photosvideos and statements from the various factions in the Gaza Strip, has garnered attention from high-profile journalists and, more notably, high-ranking Israeli officials who regularly share his content on their own social media pages.

Joe was tight-lipped on how he gathers his information. “I can’t reveal the secrets to my recipe,” he joked. He went on to say that protecting the identity of his sources, especially of those in Gaza, is of the utmost importance. In the Hamas-controlled strip, these informants risk death when they share information that may expose the militants’ tactics to the outside world.

Truzman has followed Israeli security affairs since childhood, specifically those related to Gaza.

“I read books on the Yom Kippur War and Israeli security services as a kid,” he said.

Truzman’s childhood passion was palpable through the phone as he recalled every detail of a story he had read about Israeli operatives infiltrating Gazan militant leadership, entering the country by sea and posing as Palestinians from Lebanon. His attention to detail is evident in his work today. In spite of the platform’s notorious brevity, Truzman manages to share content that is both digestible and revealing.

In the coming months, Truzman expects to release new content with the hope of making the information from the border more accessible to his followers.

“From my own take, the border [violence] isn’t going to stop any time soon,” said Truzman. “I plan on doing this for a long time.”

Perhaps one of the most significant motivating factors for Truzman’s commitment to the subject has been what he calls the “downright awful” coverage of the ongoing situation by major media outlets.

“When I started,” said Truzman, who has collected more than 4,200 followers over the last eight months, “I was surprised at the lack of information going into some of these stories. As far as the journalists covering it, they’re not doing their jobs—I almost feel like they don’t really care. A lot of times, I’ve found that they’re just flat-out wrong.”

Where journalists failed, Truzman has succeeded in providing objective, well-researched coverage of the ongoing border riots. For example, on Sept. 29, an article from the Guardian reported that the increasing number of gatherings being held at night are “to save lives as people can move under the cover of darkness,” omitting, as Truzman had reported nearly a week prior to the article’s publication, that the purpose of these “night-time confusion” units is to regularly launch incendiary balloons and explosives towards Israel.

“Staying objective is a learning process,” he said. “I always think about my posts; I think about how it will be received by everyone out there. You can remain as neutral as possible, you’re still going to get people who don’t like [your content].”

In spite of the occasional criticism, Joe’s impartiality has led both Israelis and Palestinians to reach out and express their thanks to him.

“I have Palestinians who message me saying good job; I have Israelis who message me saying good job. I think that means I’m doing something right.”

To keep up with the latest from the Gaza border, follow Joe Truzman on Twitter @Jtruzmah.

An open letter to the participants who left their Birthright trip

I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I am hesitant to engage with you because a response would give your rhetoric a degree of legitimacy. On the other hand, your rhetoric is so presumptive and your intentions for participating on this trip are so disingenuous that I feel compelled to speak out. Ironically, the guiding principle that has ultimately led me to pen a response is Hillel’s famous adage in Pirkei Avot: If not now, when? I am sure you are familiar with it.

After reading your tweets and Facebook posts, a few things stood out to me that I feel we need to discuss. The first is the purpose of Birthright.

Taglit-Birthright has never purported to be the forum for young Jews to engage in-depth with the Israeli-Arab conflict. One glance at the Birthright Israel website should be enough to understand that. Instead, Birthright was born out of a sentiment that you yourselves expressed—that Jews no longer feel connected to their Judaism. The goal of the program was, in part, to succeed where Jewish communal institutions in the United States had failed, and to provide young Jews some kind of connection to their heritage, their spiritual identities and their Jewish community. To be sure, the institution’s work is also motivated by a desire to give participants a connection to Israel, but connection does not mean an unwavering support of the Israeli government. It means that you begin to form a relationship with the land and with the people.

So they took you to Jerusalem to see how religious Jews pray and to Tel Aviv to show you how secular Jews party. They took you to the desert to see how Jewish pioneers feed a country and to Tzfat to see how Jewish artists create mystical works. They do not do this because of an ethnocentric supremacist ideology they want to force on you. They do it to show you that for the first time in 2,000 years, Jews of all varieties are free to be what they want to be in the land of their genesis. It’s a celebration of the good for a group of 40 participants who may have never seen the good of being Jewish in their lives.

But you knew that, and still, you went in order to promote the agenda of an organization whose narrative you seem to have accepted without question.

If you wanted to participate on a trip to Israel that allowed you to meet with Palestinians and Israelis, and engage with the conflict on a deeper level, I know of at least five organizations that offer such trips. Finding them is as simple as Googling “Israel-Palestine educational trips.” But again, you chose to feign ignorance for 10 full days, take advantage of the free trip provided by those “far-right Jewish billionaires” you fear so much and tweet IfNotNow talking points as though they were your own.

Moreover, your one-to-one equation of a social-justice ethos with Jewish values is deeply troubling, especially considering that at multiple points in your magnum opus you express clearly that you have never felt particularly close to your Jewish identity. How can you simultaneously be distant from your community and its values, and speak with authority on what the community’s values are and what they are not?

What is most disappointing is that, for all your talk of wanting to critically engage with a complex issue, the path you have chosen—disparaging an organization, disrupting the experience of 35 other participants, being dishonest about your reason for taking part in the trip—was the least critical, most predictable path you could have taken.

Solving complex issues requires patience and critical examination of the individuals and ideas that created the problem. There are scholars, politicians, lawyers and activists who have devoted their entire lives to trying to make sense of the conflict and improve the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians dealing with its consequences. It would be embarrassing to say you made your minds up after 10 days. How upsetting it is to see that you made your minds up before you even set foot on the plane to Israel.

In spite of my frustration with the absurdity of this incident, I still welcome and accept you as part of my Jewish community, as it is written, “Love your fellow as yourself.” I also recognize my own limitations as a student of this conflict. As members of a shared Jewish community, I invite you to join me in studying the history, learning from diverse texts and sharing our insights with one another. I believe this is how we make progress and how we in the American Jewish community can positively contribute to building a better world.