In its curriculum guide for high schools, the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education has a unit on “conscience and moral responsibility.” One of its “performance objectives” is to help students “assess the relationship between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.”
The unit includes readings on displaced persons and the Exodus, and from Walter Laqueur’s History of Zionism. Students are urged to form small groups and discuss the following: “Question: What would have happened if the Jews of Europe had Palestine (now Israel) as a safe haven to which to flee in the 1930s?”
I remember similar lessons from my own days in Hebrew school. I was taught that Jews yearned for Zion for millennia, and the Jews who drained the swamps were well on their way to nation-building before the Nazis rose to power. But it was made clear to us that the nations that voted to accept a Jewish state in 1947, including the United States, did so in large part as recompense for the Holocaust. What’s more, as Laqueur himself had written, “It took the advent of Nazism, the holocaust [sic] and total Arab rejection of the national home to convert the Zionist movement to the belief in statehood.”
That’s why I didn’t quite understand the conniption fit thrown by Jewish organizations after President Obama’s Cairo speech in June.
In that speech, Obama condemned those in the Arab world who would deny the Holocaust. Leading up to that, he said the following: “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”
The critics felt Obama’s statement, with its emphasis on “tragic history,” was reductive. As David Harris of the American Jewish Committee put it, “The president implied that the Holocaust was the primary reason for Israel’s creation. That is unfortunate — and factually incorrect.” Others said Obama was playing into the hands of Arabs who insist that the Jews have no other claim on “Palestine” and who say that Muslims should not have to pay the price for European guilt over that “tragic history.”
Whether Obama should have listed other reasons for Israel’s creation, and legitimacy, is debatable. But hearing the criticism, Obama’s speechwriters may have wondered why, if linking Israel and the Holocaust is taboo, Israel insists that all visiting dignitaries pay a stop at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. The Jews on his team may well have had Hebrew school lessons like mine, which tended to dwell on the Jews’ “tragic history” and the Zionist hope that was both kindled by centuries of persecution, and kept alive in spite of it. This is standard teaching in American Hebrew and day schools.
I bring this up not to defend Obama at this late date, but because Israel’s ambassador to Washington, former New Jerseyan Michael Oren, has written a piece that restores common sense to assessing “the relationship between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.”
Oren’s article for The New Republic is titled “Deep Denial: Why the Holocaust Still Matters.” He denounces Iran’s despicable Shoa denial and genocidal rhetoric and the Goldstone Report’s one-sided condemnation of Israel’s behavior in the Gaza war. What links them, Oren writes, is that both deny the right of Jews to defend themselves, and deny the very fact that Jews need defending.
These rights, he continues, are certainly rooted in the Holocaust. “Many factors contributed to the Holocaust,” he writes, “but none more elemental than the Jews’ inability to defend themselves. Israel and its citizen Defense Forces represent the most palpable means for redressing that incapacity.”
Furthermore, he writes, “denying the Holocaust not only deprives Israel of its raison d’être, but, more nefariously still, it invalidates the Jews’ need to defend themselves.”
Finally, Oren, like Obama, makes the connection between Holocaust denial and peace. Holocaust denial, said Obama, “evoke[s] in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.” Writes Oren: “No amount of vitriol will compel Israel onto a course of self-destruction. But what will be destroyed is any chance for peace.”
You may not like “Holocaust” and “Israel” in the same sentence, since it implies cause and effect. Any good curriculum about Israel or the Holocaust will recognize the complex web of religious and historical factors that justify Israel’s existence. But Oren’s essay makes clear where the Shoa fits in that web. And he, Obama, and even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who offered a history lesson on the Shoa at the UN General Assembly — seem to agree on this point: The “aspiration for a Jewish homeland” predated the Holocaust by thousands of years. But Israel itself was born in its aftermath, and the Shoa’s centrality to Israel’s self-understanding, and our understanding of Israel, cannot be denied.
And the understanding is this: The Holocaust happened, it matters to Jews, and Israelis are not about to make peace with those who simultaneously deny the worst tragedy that has befallen the Jews and traffic in the same hatred that brought it about.