Most years, I travel back to Toronto after Pesach and I am not in Israel for Yom Hashoah vHagvurah, which is only 5 days after Pesach ends. But this year I have had the zchut (the privilege) to be here for this poignant and extremely important day.
Officially, Yom Hashoah began at sundown yesterday. Perhaps as a starter with things to consider, someone sent me a video of a debate between Alan Dershowitz and the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. It is interesting to watch, though Kahane was a purveyor of some extremely racist and repugnant views. I'm not convinced that the way to defeat these folks is by giving them a big public stage. Dershowitz did a decent job on some points, but fell quite short on many others. Overall, I'm also not convinced that he accomplished his objective of "exposing and defeating" Kahane. Instead, he probably gave him more publicity than he deserved.
I raise this because the Israeli Knesset has sworn in 6 member of the Religious Zionist party. This collection of new Knesset members includes racists, xenophobes, homophobes, misogynists and generally extreme nationalist types. Some of these new Knesset members have already spoken about proposing laws to make it harder for women to file complaints of sexual assault and harassment, limiting rights for same sex couples in Israel, and legislation aimed at Israeli Arabs. I'm not drawing parallels here but I am also not convinced that the best way to defeat these views is to given them platforms on an ongoing basis.
In the evening yesterday, we want to the Ra'anana commemoration at Yad L'Banim (the City square, essentially). This is an annual event. Generally, the City of Ra'anana (like most cities across the country) honours 6 different Holocaust survivors by telling their life stories - and then calling them up, usually with children or grandchildren, to light one of the 6 torches. In between each group, there are sombre musical performances. There was also an interpretive dance performance this year. Due to Covid, there was no event last year. This year's event was by advance registration only, for those with prove of vaccination only. You had to show photo ID along with proof of vaccination to get in.
These are powerful events, with lots of tears. Stories of people who lost their entire families but somehow made it to Israel and survived. Horrifying stories of harrowing conditions, and cases where these tough individuals somehow eked out their survival. Over the course of the evening, a number of poems were read (some originally written in Yiddish, some in Hebrew) and we heard from a number of speakers including Ra'anana's mayor. Special Yizkor prayers were recited in memory of those who were killed including the El Maleh Rachamim prayer sung by Ra'anana's chief Hazzan. It was a powerful and difficult ceremony.
From there, we went to a friend's house who had invited a member of a Holocaust survivor's family to come and share the survivor's life story for a group of about 30 people.
After that, it was back home to watch the national Holocaust memorial ceremony (we had recorded it) and several Holocaust themed documentaries and programs. The president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, delivered a moving and thoughtful speech. Prime Minister Netanyahu also spoke and delivered what sounded like a campaign speech. Most unfortunate for a Holocaust event.
I also attended a Toronto event, by Zoom, held by the Law Society. This was primarily about how to fight hate speech, and Holocaust denial by using various legal means. It was an interesing and well attended event.
Today at 10 a.m., Israel blared a two minute siren across the country. Everything stops. People get out of their cars and stop on the side of the road for 2 minutes. I was still at home but stood up and observed the siren.
Yom Hashoah in Israel is one of the most important days on the calendar and one of the most powerful. Numerous speakers have noted that one of the raison d'etre's for the State itself is to ensure that this could not happen again. Many have noted that if Israel had been created in the 1920s or the 1930s (or earlier), it is extremely likely that a high number those who were murdered could have been saved.
For many survivors, and indeed, many Israelis, the notion of seeing their children and grandchildren in the army, as pilots, combat soldiers, members of the intelligence forces - or in other important state positions gives them an incredible sense of pride but also a sense of comfort and security. The State of Israel is there to protect them in a way that the Jewish people have not had for more than 2000 years.
This particularist message is somewhat illustrative of the difference between Yad Vashem (the Israeli Holocaust Museum) and the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. If you haven't been to one or the other, I would highly recommend visiting both. The emphasis in Washington is very universalist, in my view. This could have happened to anyone and we need to fight all forms of racism and discrimination to ensure that it does not reoccur. I'm not disputing the validity of this message, though at times I have felt that the U.S. museum downplays the Jewishness of the victims and history of anti-Semitism. (I have visited several times).
Yad Vashem emphasizes the Jewish experience including the history of anti-Semitism, the Jewish communities and culture that were destroyed in Europe and the need, especially, for the Jewish people to look after their own safety and defence rather than relying on anyone else to do so. Yad Vashem certainly addresses others who were targeted - the Roma community and gays and devotes a whole section to those who went out of their way to save Jews. But the message is geared more towards the Israeli experience rather than the broader multi-cultural messages that one might find in Canada or the U.S.
Prime Minister Netanyahu took this a few steps further in his annual Yom Hashoah speech. He sought to tie the fight to obtain vaccines from Pfizer to the commemoration of the Holocaust and he also brought in the ongoing fight to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. So there are certainly those who will, at times, take the Holocaust as an event and use it for political purposes, even on Holocaust Rememberance Day while we are remembering those who perished. Fortunately, he did not also tie it in to his ongoing criminal trial though many were expecting that he might try to do so.
But cynicism aside, the notion that Israel in 1948 included a population of whom approximately 25% were Holocaust survivors - and that these people were able to build a country in the aftermath of such horrible experiences and turn it into a successful, democratic, secure country is actually quite mind boggling.
We remember those who perished and hope and pray for the days of world peace, tolerance and an end to anti-semitism, racism and other forms of group hatred.