Celebration, Commemoration and Disappointment By Dr. Michael Berenbaum* and David A. Lehrer

This year it has been an odd holiday season for many Jews. The joy of our celebrations has been marred by disappointment as we ponder the holidays’ themes and their implications for the world around us.

Our commemorations of suffering and slavery and then freedom ought and are meant to resonate in our activities in the real world.

As we celebrated Passover, we are instructed to feel as if we, ourselves, were slaves in Egypt. [Deuteronomy 24:18, “Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God redeemed you from your slavery”]. The Passover Seder had us metaphorically re-experience the exodus—we consumed its symbols (the bitter herbs of slavery and Matzah, the unleavened bread eaten while fleeing) to make dramatic and personal the challenges and the implications of the journey from slavery to freedom.

The eight-day Passover festival has been supplemented by contemporary Jews with three more commemorations on the Jewish calendar, the first addition in more than a millennium.

Today we recollect the Holocaust, the annihilation of six million Jews with Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). One week later Jews observe Israel’s Memorial Day and the sacrifice of its soldiers who defend the right of the Jewish people to be free. It is followed immediately by the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day – this year its 70th.

Most Yom HaShoa commemorations reference the indifference of the world to Jews and Jewish refugees. As the man who would become Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann, said in 1937 (eleven years before the creation of the state) the world was then divided “into places where the Jews could not live and places where they cannot enter.”

In the context of celebration and commemoration, with four holidays whose themes intertwine around freedom, moral responsibility and action we witnessed the prime minister of Israel reneging on an agreement with the United Nations. A pact that would have provided refuge in Israel, Europe and Canada to thousands of Africans who have sought asylum in Israel from persecution and violence and who face the threat of death if they are forced to return to their homelands.

Israel is a sovereign state that has the right and obligation to take care of its own, thirty-nine thousand refugees in a nation the size of Israel is not without issues; but the arrangement with the UN and other nations including Canada, Germany and Italy was a viable and fair resolution to the crisis. Yet Prime Minister Netanyahu cancelled the agreement within hours of endorsing it at the behest of right wing allies.

It is difficult to square our traditions and religious admonitions with the expulsion of desperate immigrants into a world where not only their freedom may be denied, but also their lives taken.

Some will commemorate the Holocaust today to largely teach that the “whole world is against us and only an empowered Jewish people that can defend itself will offer security and safety.” That is one lesson that can be drawn from the tragic events of seventy-five years ago; but surely not its only one.

The Holocaust is also a story that happened to a distinct people that has become a shared universal paradigm which speaks to human conscience. It ought to inspire active moral values, enlarge the domain of human responsibility, elicit compassion, and command respect for universal human rights and dignity. That was the core of the Jewish message transmitted by the survivors and by those millions of others who have become witnesses to their witness.

That message ought to be reflected in Israel, envisioned as a beacon to the world, a place that would not only give substance to Jewish nationalism and chauvinism but also to Jewish values. Values that reflect the Biblical injunctions on how to treat the stranger and the sojourner.  Having been history’s “wanderers” we should comprehend the real-world impact of ignoring the Bible’s noble commands.

Those values were diminished by the Prime Minister of Israel and those who pressured him to abrogate the agreement he had reached to resettle the thousands of African refugees.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Netanyahu was not alone in diminishing history’s lessons and values. For on the very day that coincided with Easter and Passover the President railed against our strangers and sojourners. He demeaned foreign born children in our midst who have lived in America and are American in every sense of the term, save their citizenship papers.

Our holidays are marred by leadership who have ignored the lessons of history and the season and acted in ways as our tradition decried.

* Dr. Michael Berenbaum, is the Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at American Jewish University.