Tonight, the 29th of the month of Nisan, represents an interesting point in modern Jewish history. Two days ago, the 27th of the month of Nisan, was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date was selected by the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) on April 12, 1951. Although the date was established by the Israeli government it has become a day commemorated by Jewish communities and individuals worldwide. Next Wednesday is Yom Hazikaron, the Memorial Day for those who lost their lives in the struggle that led to the establishment of the State of Israel and for all military personnel who were killed while in active duty in Israel’s armed forces. The next day, Thursday, is Yom Ha’atzmaoot, the day that commemorates the establishment of the State of Israel, in May 1948.
Here at KHN, at least in the time that I’ve been here as rabbi, we’ve been remiss in more fully acknowledging these days. After the incredible push of getting ready for Pesach, unfortunately, these two days often fall off of our radar. That is as much a result, perhaps, of our exhaustion from the Passover holiday, as it is our ambivalence toward the days themselves. For Yom HaShoah, how do we, how can we, adequately mark this day? Lighting six yartzeit candles, reciting some poems and prayers, and chanting El Male Rachamim and then the Mourners’ Kaddish seems so insufficient, in the shadow of the reality of what happened. I did—at the last minute—attempt to create a simple service here on Wednesday night. No one showed up, and I sat here in the sanctuary alone, reflecting, remembering. That was no one’s fault but my own, for not having made it more of a priority, for not letting people know that it was, is, important for us to come together, somehow, as a community, and mark this day.
Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaoot are more problematic. In our congregation, as we all know too well, we have such a divergence of views and attitudes toward the modern State of Israel. As the Jewish world has learned more, over the last decade or so, about how the modern country came to be, more and more people have felt uncomfortable celebrating it—knowing–just as in the Passover Seder when we spill drops of wine when reciting the 10 plagues—that others had to suffer in order for Jews to live freely, in a safe place, free from attack by those who would destroy them, us, simply because they—we–were Jews. What is known to Israelis and Jews around the world as Yom Ha’atzmaoot, is known to Palestinians and others as the Nakbah—the Catastrophe, or the cataclysm. Even those of us who are grateful for the existence of Israel may feel that our cups are a little less full of joy, because others had to suffer along the way so that Jews could at last live freely and without fear of oppression. We may feel not only uncomfortable but also anguish and heartbreak that now others, Palestinians, are living without their full freedom and civil rights. There is nothing traitorous about acknowledging this discomfort, this anguish, this heartbreak.
Tonight, this moment in time between Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaoot, I feel even more anguish, even more heartbreak, having just finished reading the book, Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film. The author, Glenn Kurtz, discovers an old canister of a roll of film taken by his grandparents during a trip to Poland in 1938. In the book, he attempts to identify the people who appear in the three minutes of footage, and to understand everything he can about the people who appear, their families, and the Jewish village and Jewish life that once existed there, but is no more.
I must admit: though in my twenties I read voraciously everything I could about the Holocaust, in recent years, I have avoided reading anything—it is just too painful. To pick open that wound is almost unbearable. And yet, after reading this book, I am reminded: it is not only important, it is also essential.
It is important to remember that in addition to the millions who were put in concentration camps and/or murdered, that their property and houses were confiscated. Poles are now living in the homes that were once owned by Jews, Polish businesses now occupy what once were Jewish factories and businesses. While some of us have been mortified to learn that Palestinian homes were confiscated by Jews settling the land, we must not forget that Jewish homes and businesses were confiscated by Poles and Germans during the War—never to be returned. Of course, two wrongs do not make a right. That this was done to Jews does not make it acceptable to do it to others. Yet, knowing this, remembering this, only adds to our understanding of the complexity of the events leading to the founding of the State, to the motivation of those who were fleeing pogroms and persecution in their home countries, who were desperate to found a safe homeland for Jews.
I thought about this yesterday, as I listened to the report on the
incredible numbers of those fleeing conflict, repression, oppression, and poverty in their home countries today, in search of a safe place to live. Yesterday’s news reported that in this past five days alone, over 10,000 people were rescued from boats at sea in the Mediterranean. I had to listen several times, not believing I had heard correctly. 10,000 people! Another report told of the tens of thousands of African and Arab migrants who try—each year–to scale one of the fences separating one of the two land borders between Africa and Europe. Some jump into the water, and swim around the chain link border fence, hoping to avoid being seen by the Spanish border guards. None of us living here in America can possibly know the desperation of those fleeing oppression.
Having been reminded of what happened to my own relatives during the Shoah, and during the many pogroms that preceded it, I want to hold, with a broader perspective and greater compassion, what they or other survivors did in order to survive. Not to justify their actions, but simply to hold them with greater compassion and understanding.
Standing here, in the year 2015, between Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaoot, I wonder if that is the best that I and we can and must do—hold it all with greater compassion and understanding– even as we continue to work toward greater peace, and justice, in Israel, and the emerging State of Palestine, and in the world in which we live.
May it be so.
Rabbi Zari M. Weiss