Our tradition always features multiple layers of stories, and this period of the year is especially resonant. There is the Exodus story of Pesah / Passover, leading to the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot. There is the agricultural framework of the spring harvests. There is the counting of the omer, climbing the 49 rungs as we ascend toward the Sinai moment of contact with God.
Last week we commemorated Yom HaShoah, the day on which we remember those who perished in the Holocaust. Tomorrow evening we mark Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for those who have fallen defending the State of Israel. And then Monday evening and Tuesday we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, marking 69 years since David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State.
In Israel, Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron are particularly somber days. On both days, there are sirens that sounds throughout the country, two minutes on each day, during which everything, and I mean everything, grinds to a halt. All over Israel, people stop what they are doing and stand. Cooks stop cooking. Barbers stop cutting hair. Office workers stop sending email. People who are driving stop their cars, get out, and stand quietly. It’s extraordinarily powerful.
In the spring of 2000 I was studying at Machon Schechter, the rabbinical and graduate school affiliated with the Masorti/Conservative movement, for my first year in cantorial school. On Yom HaZikaron, I went to Har Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem where there is an annual solemn ceremony commemorating all those who gave their lives defending the Jewish state, attended by most of the leaders of Israel. I was actually waiting in the security line with hundreds of other people when the siren went off, and I must say there is nothing quite so powerful as standing, packed in tight, surrounded by people, none of whom are moving or talking. It was surreal and unforgettable.
Most American Jews have a difficult time understanding the power of Yom HaZikaron in particular. Few of us, particularly those of us born after World War II, know somebody who died on the battlefield. But in Israel, everybody does. Most people have served in the Israel Defense Forces, really the great equalizer of Israeli society. Everybody remembers a friend, a cousin, a neighbor, who gave his or her life for the Jewish state. Everybody takes a moment to remember them on that day.
And everybody also understands the narrative that this week suggests. Of course Yom HaShoah is a week before Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut – it makes total sense. And many Israelis are all imbued with the notion that the Shoah led to the establishment of the State. That the Jewish people, devastated by the death machine of National Socialism, arose from the ashes to build a tough, scrappy nation that is now an economic power, the only democracy in the Middle East, the pride of world Jewry.
My father-in-law, Judy’s father, Ervin Hoenig (alav hashalom), was a Shoah survivor who helped build the state. In 1944, when he was 19, the Nazis deported him and the roughly 100 other Jews from his small village in Slovakia to Auschwitz. He survived the selection upon arrival; many of the others in his transport did not, including his mother. He labored in a nearby work camp for seven months.
When the camp was liquidated and most of the prisoners were forced to march west, he got “lucky”: he had been injured and was in the infirmary, but, knowing the Nazis would not leave anybody behind, he summoned all of his strength to sneak down into the basement and hide among sacks of potatoes and corpses. And then the Nazis left, and it was quiet for two weeks until a Soviet regiment of Mongolian soldiers arrived to liberate the camp.
After studying at the university for a few years in Prague, Ervin eventually found his way to Israel, where upon arrival he was handed a rifle and immediately transported into the front lines of the War for Independence to serve with the Palmach, one of the Jewish paramilitary organizations that fought against the Arab armies.
And there are many such stories. Israel emerged from the gas chambers, just as Ezekiel’s dry bones of the valley were re-animated, flesh and sinews magically knitting together to form living beings. (We read that haftarah / prophetic reading two weeks ago on Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah.)
But the story of modern Israel is not so cut-and-dried. It’s a wee bit more complicated. One striking thing that Ervin told me about was how in the early years of the State, the Israelis who were not survivors did not “get it,” did not understand the depth of the Nazi horror. “What was wrong with you people?” they would say to him. “Why didn’t you fight back? Why did you just let them round you up and take you to the camps?”
The narrative of the creation of the State of Israel, at least in those earlier years, was not necessarily about the Shoah. While there is no question that the UN vote for partition on November 29, 1947 passed because the Jews had the sympathy of the world, Ben Gurion’s people were not Holocaust survivors. They were Zionist ideologues. They were pioneers. Most were people who immigrated to Mandate Palestine before the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the Jewish world to help build what would become a new state.
They came, in the words of the poem by Naftali Herz Imber that ultimately became the national anthem of Israel, “Lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu,” to be a free people in our land. They came for the purposes of self-determination, to re-establish a place that the Jews, long strangers in strange lands, could call home, a place that would settle them among the other nations of the world, a place of pride.
This is an Israel that did not come into being in 1948. It did not even really begin with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the same year that Congregation Beth Shalom began, in which the British crown pledged to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Nor did it begin with the first wave of Zionist aliyah in 1882.
You might say that this Israel dwelt in the hearts of Jews all over the world for millennia – Hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years – as they sat in ramshackle synagogues in Poland or in the markets of Persia, wailing by the waters of Babylon in Baghdad and waiting patiently for the messiah in Morocco. The return of those prior to World War II came from an ancient yearning for a national identity and a home to go with it.
The resurrection-after-the-Holocaust narrative is over-simplified. It neglects the Jaffa Orange, a key to early agricultural success, entirely. It leaves the political heavy-lifting of Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann out, not to mention the early Zionist writers Ahad Ha-Am and Hayim Nahman Bialik.
But national stories are like that. Consider American history: the Boston Tea Party. Paul Revere’s ride. There is always more to the story than such simple narratives can provide.
And Israel’s contemporary reality is equally complex. Every now and then I meet American Jews who are afraid to travel to Israel for safety reasons, because they have bought into the media-induced perception of Israel as a place where citizens live in constant fear of terrorist activity. But I know, having spent far more of my life there than in any other country save this one, that you are far safer walking down the street in Israel than in America, for a whole bunch of reasons.
And I also know that the political dialogue is never as simple as some would have it as well. Anti-Israel critics tend to characterize Israel as a monolithic oppressor of millions of Palestinians, that even the lefty intellectuals sipping cappucinos in Tel Aviv cafes and Jewish students on American university campuses are somehow monsters who deny civil rights to innocent, stateless victims. And on the other hand there are zealously pro-Israel activists who profess that Israel’s leaders can do no wrong, and even deny that there is such a thing as a “Palestinian.”
Life is not that simple. There are nearly 13 million people on that tiny strip of land – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Circassians, Karaites, Samaritans, black, white, Asian, etc. – and we should all continue to seek a way that they can all live side-by-side, each under his own vine and fig tree.
If you would like to expand your understanding within this complexity, you might want to check out the podcast produced by the Forward called “Fault Lines.” It features a reasoned, respectful, intelligent discussion between a hawk and a dove, Rabbi Danny Gordis and journalist Peter Beinart.
It is essential that we, as Hovevei Tziyyon, lovers of Zion/Israel, not reduce Israel to any such simple narrative, that we seek out the multiple narratives of Israel to better inform our relationship with it, so that we will all continue to act on those two millennia of yearning, so that the State of Israel will continue to be reishit tzemihat ge-ulateinu, the dawn of the flowering of our redemption.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/29/2017.)