The state of Israel,” “Israel independence,” “the Israel Defense Forces,” “the prime minister of Israel” … it seems, nowadays, we tend to take all those for granted. We refer to the existence of a Jewish state as a solid fact. Young Jewish adults are focused on the Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the perspective of Israel as the stronger force in the region, losing track of how lucky we are to be in this unique situation.
Several weeks ago, the internationally known Israeli author A.B Yehoshua reminded us of the course of history in a very provocative talk. “We have never analyzed the Holocaust from the perspective of a Jewish failure,” Yehoshua told an audience in Israel. “Clearly the aggression was German, but the writing was on the wall for the last 2,000 years.”
Looking at Jewish history does make one wonder: Why didn’t we prepare? In 1096, Christian crusaders slaughtered thousands of Jews across Europe on their way to Jerusalem; in 1190, the entire York, England, Jewish community was murdered; in 1290, the Jewish community of England was forced to leave the kingdom; in 1492, the Jews of Spain were forced to leave amid the Inquisition; in 1648, there were massive murders of Jews across Poland and in 1736, massive murders of Jews in Iran. Even this partial, random list is too long. All across the world Jewish communities were violently attacked for simply being Jewish, century after century.
In 1897, for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people decided to take their fate into their own hands. They decided to re-create the Jewish state. They made up their minds that waiting nearly 2,000 years for the Messiah was long enough and it was time to take action. Unfortunately, this vision came too late, and its fulfillment was too slow to prevent the Holocaust. Many Jews at the time simply did not want to change their lifestyles and leave their communities for a faraway desolate land. Later, when the Nazi regime came to power, it was too late.
Re-creating a Jewish state was not a simple task: drying the swamps, building institutions, learning to work the land, protecting the community, even reviving the Hebrew language. Many young men and women have paid with their lives and many are still paying to make this vision real: of being a free people in our land; of being a nation like all the nations, with a flag, an anthem and an army that can protect us, assuring that never again will Jewish people be marched to their deaths. It is with a mixture of tears, pain and joy that we celebrate Israel today — with a fierce memory of one-third of our people murdered in the Holocaust; with a burning pain for the loved ones, friends and relatives who died protecting our Jewish state; and with the hope and happiness of knowing we are now a fully free and liberated people, controlling our fate. Knowing that we are home.
On April 22 at 2 p.m. we will gather at the Tucson Jewish Community Center to commemorate the Holocaust. On April 25 at 6:30 p.m. we will commemorate Yom Hazikaron — Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror. The memory of the Holocaust and the memory of those who made the miracle of a modern Israel go hand in hand. On May 6, we will celebrate the Israel Festival, celebrate this tiny place on earth in which the Jewish people are really a nation like all nations and not a minority group. The only place on earth in which Jewish lives are protected by Jewish hands.
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach (Israeli emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.