The last days of April and the beginning days of May are days of memory and remembrance here in Israel. The last Monday in May is Memorial Day in the United States. Official days of remembrance are the feeble attempts of nations and governments to somehow strengthen and revitalize national memory. They recall for us difficult times, great human sacrifice and always attempt to teach a lesson from previous generations to the next.
The problem with these days is that they are all formalized, run by committees and usually not that meaningful to the general populace, which only use them as a well anticipated day off from work. Because of this, much of the purpose of the days of remembrance and memory is lost in the barbecue and the beach. But one should not be too cynical about the value of these days of memory because without them there would be no background to our current lives and little understanding of the issues that we face.
It is obvious to all, even after more than seventy years have passed, that the events of World War II and the Holocaust still haunt us. They not only trouble the Jewish people, its primary victim, but they disturb the world generally and provoke uncertainty, fear, hatred and controversy.
The Holocaust deniers are, in reality, only trying to get rid of this ghost that haunts civilization till today. But, as the current world situation shows us, the possibility for genocide, Holocaust and brazen inhumanity still remains part of our national and personal lives. Memorializing the Holocaust with a day of observance only intensifies the presence of this disturbing memory that gives our generation no peace or respite.
The day commemorating the founding of the State of Israel sixty-eight years ago, represents to me not so much what occurred but what it prevented from occurring. Having lived through the last half of the 1940s I clearly remember how desperate the situation of the Jewish people the world over was at that time. No one was optimistic about our future. All of the wise savants predicted the conquest of then Palestine by the invading armies and Arab militia.
Today there are many that say that it was a foregone conclusion that Israel would survive and win its war of independence. But many times these statements are written not only in perfect hindsight but also with an intended agenda attached to them.
In May 1948 when I was a young student in Chicago, our fears were palpable and our hopes very limited as to the fate of our people then fighting for their lives in the new state of Israel. To those who were not alive at that time, Israel Independence Day is a day of celebration and leisure. But to those of us who were present on the original first Israel Independence Day it remains a day of wonder and joyful surprise. Israel became the driving force in the Jewish world, the center of Torah and Judaism, and in its own way, a glimmer of light unto the nations of the world. Without it, I hazard to say, the Jewish world today would be far smaller, far weaker, far more secular and in greater danger of survival.
The road has not been easy and the cost very dear…..and the butcher still demands payment on a regular basis throughout the Jewish world. Nevertheless, we have every cause for optimism. These days of remembrance reminds us not only of the dangers through which we have passed but also of the fortitude and determination of the Jewish people to survive and prosper.
I have often pointed out that throughout human history there have been no great national comebacks. Rome will never again be an empire, nor will Great Britain rule over a quarter of the globe’s surface again. History’s inexorable rule has been that gone is gone.
These days of remembrance remind us of our exceptionalism as a people. We have come back in a fashion so remarkable that it truly staggers the imagination. The Holocaust haunts us but it has not destroyed us. Much of Russian Jewry escaped to better lives and better times and places. Anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric abounds but in no way does this inhibit the growth of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. These are important things to remember and contemplate during this period of national memory. These realizations will stand us in a very good stead as we continue on our future path of growth, accomplishment and holiness.