Zachor – זכור– Remember
Note: I wrote this before President Trump’s address at the United States Museum of the Holocaust on the occasion of Yom haShoah, in which he referred to both anti-Semitism and the six-million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. While I assume his words were specifically crafted to compensate for the fact that he didn’t mention either of those on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, they do not. Neither does his speech repair the damage done by the President’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. Below, please find the sermon on delivered this past Friday evening, April 21st.
Sunday evening begins Yom haShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. International Holocaust Memorial Day has already past. The international commemoration was established by the United Nations in 2005 using the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yom haShoah was established in 1951 coinciding with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan. As Yael Shahar wrote in Haaretz, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, “The choice of date was an attempt to focus on those who fought against the Nazis, rather than on those who never had that chance… Israel’s version of Holocaust memorial day was not a commemoration, but a denial of memory.”
Not a denial of history, a denial of memory. It was an attempt to take the focus away from the majority who did NOT survive the Holocaust and place it rather on the foundations of the new Jewish state’s strength and determination to become a new kind of survivor: Jews who survived because they fought, not by chance. Israel’s Yom haShoah is as much about the present as it is about the past. It was established only three years after Israel was founded and only seven years after the war in Europe ended. At that time, in 1951, new Israelis who had emigrated from Europe out of the ashes of the camps were the living reality of the commemoration and the memory. Their children were the inheritors of the memories and were living it out speaking Hebrew in the new state of Israel. The memory of the Holocaust did not need to be recognized in those early days of Israel. It was walking down the street.
In some ways, the Holocaust is still walking down the street in Israel, certainly on Yom haShoah. Israel is the only country in the world that nationally acknowledges Yom haShoah. On that day, air raid sirens sound at noon throughout the country and everyone stops whatever they are doing – literally – and stand silently. People stand in the street. Cars, buses, and trucks stop and everyone gets out. The last time I was in Israel for Yom haShoah I even saw surfers stop surfing and sit on their boards. Of course, Israel conducts more solemn ceremonies on Yom haShoah, but the simplicity and the enormity of all Israelis standing silently is the deepest and most profound articulation of the memory and the history of the Holocaust in the world. Given how many genocides have been carried out or attempted since the Holocaust, it is clear that the world would be better off to acknowledge not merely the history of the Holocaust and not even to honor the memories of our Jewish six million and the five to six million other persons who were murdered but rather to acknowledge what the Holocaust says about the animal that lies deep within the marrow of humanity, ready to blindly and viciously pounce and tear apart victims for minimal or no reason.
And that, my friends, is what is so ominous about the statement that came from the White House on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the comments made by President Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. The statement from the White House did not have any mention of the six million murdered Jews, anti-Semitism or the Jewish community. It remains to be seen if the White House will issue a statement on Yom haShoah as well and whether or not the wording of that statement will be any different. The Press Secretary was inexcusably inept and insulting when he, apparently spontaneously, contrasted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical gassing of Syrians with Hitler’s use of gas. Hitler, he said, “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” and later tried to clarify his words by adding, “”He was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.” Were the six-million not people, his own people? Even if most of them were not Germans, they were conquered people under German authority. In later statements, Spicer did say that he apologized, but he apologized for a bad reference, not for or to anyone he insulted. He apologized for an “inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison”. He also said he made “mistakes” and that was “wrong”. He asked for people’s forgiveness. First of all, Judaism emphasizes apology much more than forgiveness and a person cannot apologize to a “bad and insensitive reference”. A person apologizes to other people. A Press Secretary does that. A President does that, too. Here’s what we got from the White House: another spokesperson, Hope Hicks, who told CNN that, “despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” Not even close to an apology. Not even close to mentioning our six million.
The only eye witnesses to the Holocaust are quite old now and will soon die, taking their memories and the truth with them. We are all, Jew and non-Jew, responsible, to carry out the one imperative that is the Holocaust’s legacy, “zachor/זכור/remember”. When those with such significant bully pulpits as the President of the United States and his Press Secretary blithely fail to mention the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust or clumsily and unintelligently prostitute their memories and the significance of how technology finally caught up with anti-Semitism, insulting the Jews who were murdered and those who survived, our task of zachor becomes that much more difficult. The incline of the mountain of memory and responsibility steepens when careless words give ignorance deeper roots.