WHY SHOULD I ANSWER HIM?
YOM HASHOAH, 2019
We see and hear much these days about the dramatic rise of anti-Semitism not only in Europe, not only in places in the world where there strangely are no Jews but also and surprisingly here in America. It is this age-old irrational hatred many of us had hoped or even assumed would never directly touch our lives. Surely the Holocaust’s genocidal plan to annihilate the Jewish people wherever they were, demonstrated to the world how horrendous hatred can be left unchecked. Perhaps, many of us thought we had left that all behind notwithstanding that in so many ways the Holocaust remains indelibly imprinted in our minds and in the history of the Jewish people. Perhaps the past is never quite past. Just in terms of numbers alone, we have yet to restore what the world’s Jewish population was just prior to the Holocaust.
Though we have known anti-Semitism continues to lurk in the minds of evil racist and bigoted people, we may have believed we would no longer witness in our enlightened times emboldened anti-Semites emerge and parade proudly down the streets in free societies. This is indeed a rude awakening causing many of us to feel vulnerable and even fearful. After all, if we can’t pray safely within our synagogues, if the very essence of who we are is so open to attack, then where can we feel safe?
We are a people that must of necessity view ourselves as part of the flow of history. As it is often said about history, not to understand the past means we are doomed to repeat it. Ignorance of Jewish history renders us unable to more fully understand the times in which we live. Anti-Semitism is not new to America. Even some U.S Presidents have expressed anti-Semitic thoughts, like Ulysses S. Grant. What is new though is how emboldened and legitimized anti-Semites now feel though they are certainly not mainstream. What is also not new is anti-Zionism as a new form of anti-Semitism. It has been around since the State of Israel was established in 1948. All we are witnessing is ever-evolving expressions and manifestations of that form of anti-Semitism. First and for centuries, anti-Semitism was religious in nature. Next and during the modern period religious anti-Semitism was married to racist anti-Semitism producing a virulent form whose seeds were planted in the French Enlightenment culminating in the Holocaust. And today, we hear these morphed expressions that one can be an anti-Zionist without being an anti-Semite. Oh, really? It is possible for people to harbor anti-Semitic feelings even without understanding how anti-Semitic their views are. Ignorance can be a potent force.
So let’s review. The concept of Israel as the eternal homeland for the Jewish people is called Zionism. Israel is central to being Jewish and dates back to the inception of the Jewish people with God’s promise of this homeland to Abraham. Jews are indigenous to Israel with an unbroken presence there since those very days. Israel is more than a nation-state; it is more than a geographical space. It embodies a redemptive spiritual vision we have carried with us wherever we have gone throughout the centuries. We may disagree with Israeli policies, with the present political administration there but to somehow separate Zionism from the soul of the Jewish people is to amputate the very essence of what it means to be a Jew.
We may ponder why do they hate us? When asked this question, Elie Wiesel’s response was, “Let him tell me why he hates me. Why should I answer for him” (Howard Reich, The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel, Chicago Review Press, Inc. 2019)? Anti-Semitism is not rational; it makes no sense, but that it is a real and serious defect in the history of humanity is undeniable. Perhaps it tells us something about a flaw in human nature, about how threatened some feel by difference, but whatever the myriad of reasons, we should know by now that as long as there are people, there will be haters. Our job is not so much to get into the mind of haters. How should we respond--that we really aren’t what they think we are??
Rather, our responsibility is to carry the lessons of history forward, to defy our haters by keeping the memory of who we have always been alive, and to live our lives in the present as Jews not defined by those who have persecuted us but by the values of living Jewish lives. Being Jewish is never about how we have been murdered but how we have lived and embodied the ideals and ideas of Torah. Therein lies our continuing redemptive promise and presence to ourselves and to the world.
Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is upon us and this year carries a particular poignancy given the recent synagogue attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway. We listen to the words and sentiments of those who survived those brutal attacks, we watch the video footage of what took place. As Wiesel observed, “To hear a witness is to become a witness.” This then becomes our sacred responsibility to carry the lessons of the consequences of hatred forward, to honor the memory of those who perished because of such hatred and to always embody a defiant sense of Never Forget and Never Again (The Holocaust and ‘Why?’ Ellie Wiesel’s Provocative Answer, Chicago Tribune, May 1, 2019).