So you survey the world in January 1946. It’s a year after the liberation of Auschwitz, and just months since the war has ended. You cast your eyes toward Eastern Europe, which not much earlier had been the world’s center of Jewish life, learning, literature and culture. Eastern European Jewry is gone. Though we commonly say that Hitler annihilated one third of the world’s Jews, that number is technically correct but misses the point. The number that really matters is that after Hitler, 90 percent of Eastern Europe’s Jews had been murdered. Prior to the war, there had been some 3,200,000 Polish Jews. At the end of the war, merely 300,000 were left. By 1950, estimates are that 100,000 Jews remained in Poland. As far as Polish Jewry was concerned, Hitler had won.
Hitler won in Hungary, too, and throughout Eastern Europe. The great seat of Jewish life was simply no longer. There are a few Jews left there, of course, but many of those who did survive will for a long time be living under Soviet rule, which, if you’d had a crystal ball, you’d know was going to get infinitely worse long before it got any better. A future for the Jews? It did not look pretty.
You could look a bit westward. You might turn your attention to Salonika. Some 56,000 Jews had lived there before the war; 98% of them died. Westward still, you might consider France. But the story of Vichy France would bring you no solace. Europe, until only some 10 years earlier the center of the Jewish world, was an enormous, blood-soaked Jewish cemetery – only without markers to note the names of the millions who had been butchered.
So you might turn your attention across the Atlantic Ocean, to the United States. But the American Jews you would have surveyed in 1946 were not the American Jews of today. Today, at AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference, for example, thousands of American Jews (and many non- Jews, as well) ascend the steps of Capitol Hill to speak to their elected officials about Israel. They do so with a sense of absolute entitlement (in the best sense of the word), with no hesitation.
But between 1938 and 1945, how many Jews ascended those steps to demand that at least one bomb be dropped on the tracks to Auschwitz, or that American shores be opened to at least some of the thousands of Jews who had literally nowhere to go? During the worst years that the Jews had known in two millennia, virtually no Jews went to Capitol Hill or the White House. There was the famous Rabbis’ March of October 1943, in which some 400 mostly Orthodox rabbis went to the White House (though FDR refused to meet with them), but that was about it.
In January 1946, American Jews did not interview for positions on Wall Street wearing a kippa, and did not seek jobs on Madison Avenue informing their prospective employers that they would not work on Shabbat. The self-confidence of American Jews that we now take so for granted was almost nowhere to be found back then. With European Jews going up smokestacks, American Jews mostly went about their business, fearful of rocking the boat of American hospitality. A future for the Jews? There was, of course, one other place where there was a sizable Jewish population – Palestine. But in Palestine, too, the shores were sealed. Tens of thousands of British troops were stationed in Palestine, not only to “keep the peace,” but to make sure that Jews did not immigrate and change the demographic balance of the country. The story of the Exodus is famous, perhaps, precisely because it ended reasonably well. Most Jews today can name not even one of the ships that sank, carrying their homeless Jews with them. In January 1946, the British weren’t budging. A future for the Jews? In January 1946, there was little cause to believe in a rich Jewish future. You might have believed that a covenant promised some Jewish future, but it would have been hard to argue it was a bright one.
Now fast-forward 66 years, to 2012.
Where do we find ourselves today? Jewish life in Europe, while facing renewed anti-Semitism in some places, is coming back to life. Berlin is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. There are Jewish cultural festivals in Poland (though staged largely by non-Jews, since there are few Jews left). In Budapest and Prague, Jewish museums, kosher restaurants and synagogues abound. Soviet Jews are largely out, and those who remain have synagogues, schools, camps and community centers. And across the ocean, the success and vibrancy of American Jewish life is legendary.
There was no way to expect any of this in 1946, no reason to even imagine it. How did it happen? The simple but often overlooked truth is that what has made this difference for Jews world over is the State of Israel. It was Israel’s victory in 1967 that injected energy into Soviet Jewry and led them to rattle their cage, demanding their freedom.
Post-1967, the world saw the Jews as people who would shape their own destiny. Unlike the Tibetans (or Chechnyans or Basques, to name just a few), Jews were no longer tiptoeing around the world, waiting to see what the world had in store for them.
The re-creation of the Jewish state has changed not only how the world sees the Jews, but how the Jews see themselves. The days of “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we appeared to them” (Num. 13:33) are gone, and the reason is the State of Israel.
We are a people sometimes over-inclined to indulge in hand-wringing (and at others, unwilling to do the hand-wringing we ought to). And we face our challenges. Iran is worrisome, Egyptian peace is tenuous. Hila Bezaleli’s tragic death was a metaphor for the lack of accountability that plagues this country. The behavior of Lt.-Col. Shalom Eisner, as well as the reactions to what he did, is also deeply unsettling.
But let us remember this, nevertheless: it is far too easy to lose sight of what we have accomplished. Sixty-six years ago, no sane, level-headed person could have imagined that we would have what we have. A language brought back to life, and bookstores filled with hundreds of linear feet of books in a language that just a century ago almost no one spoke. More people studying Torah now than there were in Europe at its height. An economic engine that is the envy of many supposedly more established countries. A democracy fashioned by immigrants, most of whom had never lived in a functioning democracy. Cutting-edge health care. An army that keeps us so safe, we go days on end without even thinking about our enemies.
That’s worth remembering in the midst of the attacks on us, from the international community as well as from Jews. There’s much to repair, and too often, we fail to meet the standards we’ve set for ourselves. All true, and they demand our continued attention, but at the same time, we dare not lose sight of what we’ve built. To borrow the phrase from Virginia Slims, “we’ve come a long way, baby.”
The Jews have a future because the Jews have a state.
There are moments when a People has earned a celebration. Yom Ha’atzmaut is, without question, one of those moments.