Rabbi’s Essays

Holocaust & Israel

April 20 this year marked the annual observance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date (27 Nisan) was established in order to commemorate the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising. (The great Jewish revolt against the Nazis actually began on the 13th of Nisan, but the observance was moved to two weeks later in order not to interfere with Pesach.) Exactly eight days later (5 Iyyar, but observed this year on April 26, since the 28th is a Shabbat), Jews celebrate Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. Thus the two days-indeed, the two events-are closely linked in time. From Holocaust to Israel appears to follow the expression recited in the Hagaddah: “From darkness to a great light.” One cannot deny some link between the greatest disaster and one of the greatest triumphs in modern Jewish history. They are the Jewish yin and yang of the twentieth century, whose influence and significance to Jewish existence will persist in our conscious-ness as assuredly as the Exodus, Sinai and the destruction of the Temples.

Unfortunately the link between Holocaust and Israel is often taken too far. An assertion that the Holocaust had anything to do with the founding of the Jewish State, is historically dubious and theologically objectionable. Hitler’s campaign of extermination of the Jewish people certainly had some impact on the timing of the creation of the Jewish State. How could it not! To maintain—as so often has been done—that the State of Israel rose out of the ashes of the Six Million, is both historically dubious and theologically pernicious.

Regarding the history: If Hitler never rose to power and imposed the Third Reich, the Jewish State would have been formed. The controversy among historians is not with respect to ‘If,’ but rather ‘When.’ From the organized aliyot to Palestine in the 1880’s, through the creation of the World Zionist Congresses beginning in 1897, and finally to the development of a quasi-governmental Jewish Agency in 1931, the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in the land of Israel) had been undergoing a systematic preparation for nationhood. Was this process interrupted and retarded by the rise of the Third Reich and its attendant disruption of political and material development of a Jewish State, or rather did the revulsion to the Nazi reign of terror speed up the process that created Israel? Either way, after over sixty years of Zionist endeavor (1880’s-1940’s), Israel was going to be founded, Holocaust or not.

As for theology, the contemporary Jewish thinker Emil Fackenheim put it best in his essay, The Commanding Voice of Auschwitz. In it he posited a 614th commandment (a post-Torah addition to the traditional 613): You shall not give Hitler a posthumous victory. The direct connection of the Holocaust with Israel does just that. Moreover, it colors the existence of the Jewish State in mostly negative terms: the result of a combination of European destruction and guilt.

The State of Israel stands as testimony to the triumph of a people and idea that Hitler (Haman, Pharaoh, Hadrian, Torquemeda and many others) sought to destroy. Its founding in 1948, was made all them more dramatic by the background of devastation and loss. But just as the flowers that bloom in a forest after a fire were the results of seeds planted long before the first sparks of conflagration, the creation of a Jewish State was the fruition of ideas and efforts that had been planted well before Adolph Hitler was the apple of any anti-Semite’s eye.

May the memory of our 6 million fallen brothers and sisters burn in our consciousness and be for an eternal blessing. May the renewed State of Israel be the source of collective Jewish hopes for a peaceful and just world for all peoples.