It is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, here in Israel. The day is warm with a very strong breeze and from my window I see it’s blowing towards Jerusalem. It feels different, perhaps because, as I write, there is a strange pale gray membrane that enshrouds Jerusalem and the Judean Hills. Perhaps it is the stillness that silences the hills, pierced only by the siren that came at 10 a.m. this morning. Regardless of where you stand politically or religiously, the Holocaust accompanies our lives here in Israel, an exhortation to reflection and the recognition that there were six million Kedoshim. Many of the Kedoshim would not have believed that in death, we, the Torah public, recognize them as martyred and holy. Many would have rejected the idea; many may have even resented it. Nonetheless, they died in the name of their religion — which many of them did not follow or even believe in during their lives, yet the pintele Yid remained.
In a concentration camp there was a notoriously anti-religious Jew who was given the choice between eating a treif sandwich on Yom Kippur and being killed. A gun was put to his head. Despite his hunger and past anti-religious life, he chose the bullet and he died al kiddush Hashem. Some 70 years after his murder, his decision is enshrined in numerous accounts of the Holocaust. I have wondered, if I were faced with the same choice, would I, the religious Jew, have shown the courage he showed? Would I have made the ultimate sacrifice in Hashem’s honor? I pray that I am never confronted with such a choice.
Yom HaShoah is the first in a series of annual commemorative days established by the government of Israel. Next week another siren will cry on Yom HaZikaron to honor the soldiers and civilians killed in the wars of Israel, and the victims of terror. Immediately following this solemn day will be Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. The days, though secular in nature, nonetheless serve the purpose of focusing a light on sacrifices made by Jews for other Jews in our tumultuous recent history.
Yom HaShoah is a particularly strange construct. It does not commemorate a particular event or person; it recognizes a period of genocide unparalleled in human history. It was established by the Israeli government in 1953, partially to incorporate into the narrative of the nascent state of Israel recognition of the immense tragedy which had recently devoured a third of the Jewish people, and partially to give some Jews a day to perform the religious rite of kaddish and to have a designated yahrzeit for those who perished in the Shoah whose actual date of death is unknown. Yom HaShoah is certainly not a religious holiday. It has no liturgy, no machzor (though there is a heartbreaking entry in selichot written by Rav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, for the six million Jews who perished but that is recited on Tishah B’Av, our historic national day of mourning); and no ritual other than the one performed only here in Israel: standing in silence while a siren wails for two minutes starting at 10 a.m.
Commemorating Yom HaShoah poses certain inherent challenges. Here in Jerusalem, a chareidi Rav was asked what the response to the sirens commemorating Yom HaShoah or Yom HaZikaron should be. He responded that though Israelis typically stand in silence, silence is not a traditional Jewish way of memorializing the dead, but to respect the sensitivities of grieving fellow Jews and to demonstrate basic mentschlikeit, one should stand, and instead of silence, offer Tehillim as an aliyah for the neshamot.
Though the question of how to commemorate Yom HaShoah may be an issue, it is clear how not to spend the day. Unfortunately, there is a small group who not only rejects this Rav’s view but despite the fact that their very ranks were decimated by the Shoah take the memorial days of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron as proper platforms to act out against government policy. They have a custom to make barbecues and picnics in the main public park in Jerusalem, demonstrating great callousness to fellow Jews. The Chief Ashkenazi Rav of Israel, Rabbi Yonah Metzger, has condemned this insensitive practice, calling it a “chillul Hashem.” Hopefully, there will be greater mutual respect shown in the future for all sensitive issues.
Six decades later, the nation still wrestles daily with issues concerning the Shoah and the survivors. It seems on a practical level Holocaust-related issues are omnipresent here in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. Though at times, to our shame, survivors have been neglected, neither they nor the Holocaust have been forgotten. Recently, in response to reports that a significant percentage of survivors are below the poverty line, the Ministry of Finance indicated its intention to raise benefits for survivors.
Instead, the potential benefit of Yom HaShoah is not religious, but to serve as a day of education, remembrance, and contrition for the nations of the world, especially those who engaged in the slaughter and those who denied us refuge. Last week a study released by the European Jewish Congress reported a 30% rise in reported anti-Semitic acts last year around the world. It seems the Holocaust remains an inspiration to those who embrace its vile legacy and conversely to those who deny its existence, or the extent of it. In either case the groups concur on one thing: The Holocaust did not go far enough in the eyes of many neo-Fascist/neo-Nazi groups and Holocaust deniers.
Admittedly, the United Nations already recognizes a Holocaust Memorial day, January 27th, the day that Auschwitz was liberated. The day unfortunately has been diluted from its original intention to recognize the unique set of circumstances surrounding the Holocaust to include other genocides. The U.N.’s commemoration has also been polluted by the Palestinian propaganda disseminated by its leaders who are at the vanguard of Holocaust denial in an attempt to co-opt the day for their own political revisionist purposes. It is therefore essential for an accurate transmission of Jewish history that Israel has Yom HaShoah to retain the focus on the Holocaust which is the slaughter of Jews.
An event of commemoration not set aside by the Israeli government occurred Monday night in Jerusalem when 300 “Free Jonathan Pollard” activists held a peaceful demonstration outside the Jerusalem hotel where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is staying during his visit to Israel. The gathering marked 10,000 days that Jonathan Pollard has been held in prison, the majority of which have been in solitary confinement. He is guilty of the crime of espionage against the United States, spying for Israel, an ally of the United States. Pollard was given a life sentence, the only person in U.S. history to be given a life sentence for spying for an American ally. The maximum sentence today for the crime Pollard committed is 10 years; the median sentence for this crime is two to four years. To this point he has been held three to four times longer than sentences typically handed down for similar crimes, when spying for enemies.
Many believe the State Department sought an extreme punishment for Pollard for two reasons: He spied for Israel, and he is a Jew.
Let us not forget the holy Jews who died for no other reason than being Jewish. Let us remember Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish prisoner held for 28 years.
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com