It’s almost impossible to describe, for those who’ve never done is, what it is like to watch the national Yom Hashoah ceremony on Israeli TV. The air in the room feels too thick to breathe. The speeches say nothing new (for what hasn’t already been said?), the music is simultaneously beautiful and heartrending. Then come the stories: six individual people, six worlds destroyed, six lives rebuilt, six human beings who through luck and grit actually survived. It’s difficult – actually, impossible – to speak.
The siren the next morning is the perfect response. Stillness and silence – because no words suffice. Like the Biblical Aaron when he lost his sons, the very best that we can do is to do nothing.
But what are we really commemorating? On one level, obviously, it’s the enormity of the loss, the indescribable suffering of broken human beings, many of whose names are lost forever. It’s the unspeakable human capacity for unmitigated evil, the fact that seventy years later we are a people reborn but still broken, a people renewed and yet deeply and perhaps permanently scarred. And silence is, perhaps, the only response to the fact that the older we get, the less we comprehend.
For me, the silence is about all that, but also more. It is about the undeniable fact that though much has changed, too much remains the same. Hatred of the Jew –always illogical, often deadly and forever morphing to fit the times – continues, largely unabated.
There’s Iran’s obvious venomous rhetoric. And there’s Greece, where the Golden Dawn party, which regularly employs Nazi references, now sits comfortably in Parliament. Ukraine’s Svoboda party openly uses inflammatory language about Jews. In Hungary, the University of Budapest Student Council recently began keeping lists of Jewish students; Hungry’s Jobbik party, the country’s third largest, is expressly anti-Semitic. In the United States, where constitutional protection of free speech has virtually no limits, a vicious anti-Semitic underbelly of the internet has found a home for hundreds of web sites that Europe would never permit.
That is why the placement of Yom Ha-Shoah and Yom Hazikaron one week apart from each other was so brilliant. To most observers, the perennial hatred of the Jew and Israel’s interminable conflict with its neighbors have little to do with each other. The former, many say, is a despicable phenomenon that any decent human being must decry. But the second, they insist, is very different. It is a national conflict, a festering disagreement between two peoples about how to share one land, or even, perhaps, the desperate but legitimate campaign waged by a stateless people to achieve the same sort of sovereignty that the Jews won for themselves some sixty-five years ago.
But are the two really so unrelated? Is it really true that hatred of the Jew on the one hand, and Palestinian rejection of Israel on the other, are so thoroughly disconnected?
Hamas wants us to understand that they are not. That is why, as the ceremony at Yad Vashem was still unfolding, they launched a rocket towards Israel. It was fortunate that no one was hurt and no damage was caused; but it was unfortunate that the international press paid almost no attention to the hapless attack.
There was nothing accidental about the timing. “Us, too!” Hamas was saying. “At precisely the moment at which you pause to reflect on all that the Shoah still evokes in you – understand this. Even that, we will desecrate. Not because our national conflict takes precedence, but because we, too, will not rest until you are destroyed.”
It sounds counterintuitive, but sadly, it’s not. Too many people today simply have no idea that significant elements of Palestinian nationalism have long been tied not only to aspirations for sovereignty, but to hatred of the Jew no less. Haj Amin al-Husseini linked early Palestinian nationalist aspirations to the Nazi effort, seeking Hitler’s assistance in opposing the creation of a Jewish state. Mahmoud Abbas, on whom Barack Obama and John Kerry still pin their hopes for peace, wrote a doctoral dissertation on the link between Nazism and Zionism. He insists that he would not write that dissertation now, but is that because it would be impolitic, or because he knows that all the “research” for his doctorate was bogus?
If what drove the Palestinians was nationalism and not hatred, why would have Gazans have elected Hamas (Hitler, too, was elected, of course) – choosing continued conflict instead of a real future – when Israel departed the strip in 2005? And why would John Kerry have to offer Abbas concessions simply for the act of returning to the negotiating table?
With all this in mind, it’s worth revisiting President Obama’s recent trip to Israel. In many ways, the visit was a great success. His speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center, in particular, repaired much of the damage of his Cairo speech, evoked Jewish historical connection to the land, Israeli vulnerability, and acknowledged Israel’s yearnings for peace.
So why did the speech leave me worried? Because while it became clear that Obama understands Israel better than he did, it remains far from certain that he understands that the Muslim rejection of Israel is far more than a national issue and that it is deeply tied to the very sentiments that are at the heart of Yom Hashoah. Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron are not as distinct as we might like to imagine. Not for naught does the eerie siren mark both days.
Zeev Jabotinsky has long since fallen out of favor in most circles. But Jabotinsky merits mention in this context, for both his beliefs and his prescience. Belief-wise, he held a view, now held by very few, that both Jews and Arabs were “natives” to this land. But he was also virtually prophetic, acknowledging that while there would be many Jews who would acknowledge Arab “indigenousness” in this land, there would be very few Arabs who would ever say the same about the Jews. That fact, he concluded, meant that the conflict would endure for far longer than many of Zionism’s leaders wanted to admit.
Without question, there have been Zionists whose ideological passions have been rooted in hate, and Israel has not done nearly enough to root them out. But as a whole, Zionism has been about something much more lofty, and the question that Obama, Kerry and others need to ask themselves is this: “Is the resistance to settling this conflict that the Palestinians continue to exhibit all about negotiations, or is about something much darker, a toxic hatred, the resurgence of dogma that the West would like to believe is on the decline, but is not?”
The seemingly inconsequential rocket attack on Yom Hashoah ought not to escape the notice of the West. In its own pathetic way, it speaks volumes about the difference between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism, about the difference between a movement rooted in the desire for sovereignty versus a movement rooted in hate.
Progress will come to this region only when leaders of the West make it clear, especially to Israel’s neighbors, that they have finally learned to recognize the difference.