The sirens of Holocaust Remembrance Day wail tomorrow, April 19, over the destruction of European Jewry, and Israelis will stop in their tracks in silence. After 59 years, as the nation comes to this eerie standstill, what should we be thinking about?
For Zionists, the transcending lesson of the Holocaust is that Jews must be strong enough to defend their survival, come what may. If the Shoah was the culmination of Jewish powerlessness, then Israel is the embodiment of Jewish power. It is strength – not supplication – that must guarantee our survival in a hostile environment.
That Israel chose the 27th day of Nisan to remember the Holocaust and its martyrs makes perfect sense. The Hebrew date, corresponding to the month of April, falls between the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising on the first day of Pessah in April 1943 and Israel's Independence Day on 5 Iyar. It was in April 1933 that the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany began.
By April 1936, the Arab Revolt in Palestine had further restricted the possibility of asylum and survival. In April 1940, Auschwitz was established near the Polish town of Oswiecim. And by April 1942, the Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing squads, had wiped out the Jews of the Crimea.
On the other hand, it was in April 1944 that two Jewish prisoners escaped from Auschwitz and passed on to the papal representative in Slovakia a detailed report on the killings in the camp. Finally, it was in April 1945 that Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and most of the other camps were liberated.
What ought we to do with these recollections as the siren pierces the silence? Reflect, perhaps, on the tension between the universal and parochial implications of the Holocaust, over the way Holocaust symbolism has been hijacked, over the Holocaust and Jewish identity, and about what the Shoah means in the context of the Arab-Israel conflict.
Jews have been tireless in using the Holocaust to teach about man's inhumanity to man. Has it made a difference? Ask the 1.7 million Cambodians slaughtered between 1975-1979 by communist lunatics. Ask the over 800,000 Rwandans cut down by machetes – in a mere 100 days – in 1994.
Clearly, efforts to universalize the lessons of the Holocaust have utterly failed.
Would a forced visit of Hutu killers through Washington DC's Holocaust Museum saved a single Tutsi?
No one predisposed to genocide will be shamed into human decency by exposure to Schindler's List. More than that: Even humanists who mourn Hitler's Jewish victims have, in the blink of a relativist eye, condemned Israel for eliminating Ahmed Yassin, though he was single-mindedly committed to a new genocide.
The disconnect is both glaring and instructive.
Then comes the issue of victimization. Through books, museums, memorials, and cinema, the Holocaust has become a universal metaphor of victimization – invoked by everyone from AIDS and anti-abortion activists to African-American nationalists (who define slavery as the "real Holocaust"), and pro-Arab propagandists portraying Palestinians as the true inheritors of Nazi-era victimization.
And yet, since last Holocaust Remembrance Day, the sense of Jewish isolation in the Diaspora has grown. Europe has regressed to bouts of violent street anti-Semitism. That the source is largely Euro-Muslim is small comfort, for it shows European society has failed to acculturate its Muslim population to the values of modernity.
In America, Jews discovered they were uniquely out of sync with the majority over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, even if they didn't leave the theater feeling the film was anti-Semitic. Where was the sensitivity we thought we had inculcated?
Within the community, some Jews have used the Holocaust as a misguided source of Jewish identity. The good news is this fad is ebbing. The bad news is it may have been replaced by ephemeral types of affiliation such as pop-Kabbala.
The lesson? Continuity can't be bought on the cheap – through guilt or fads – but only through the hard work of Jewish education connecting a new generation to its civilizational heritage.
Applying lessons from the Holocaust to the Arab-Israel conflict is a tricky business.
We are loathe to equate today's foes with the Nazis. But as Yad Vashem's Yehuda Bauer has argued, "Nazism, Stalinist communism, and radical Islam are different from each other, but they also have a certain similarity: All three aim, or aimed, at exclusive control over the world, all three oppose or opposed all expressions of democracy, and all three attacked Jews..." On this day, it is worth remembering that in Mein Kampf Hitler predicted terrorism and force would be victorious over reason.
The battle continues.