The devastation wrought by the Holocaust is still felt in Jewish life, and its scope still boggles the sane and rational mind of the decent human being. The Nazi evil remains incomprehensible, but the Holocaust must engender practical lessons for Jews or its effects will soon fade into the mists of history – especially in an era characterized by genocides perpetrated on almost every continent. What lessons can be drawn from the Holocaust ?
This question was directed to Menachem Begin in 1981, while he served as Israel’s prime minister, by a group of young American Jews. Begin, one of the great Jewish leaders of the 20th century, experienced the horrors of the Holocaust first hand. His parents and older brother were murdered by the Germans, and he endured almost a year and a half as a prisoner in a USSR labor camp for Polish fighters – experiences that both shaped his world view and his policies as prime minister. His answer (published recently by the Americans for a Safe Israel in their Outpost magazine, November 2010) is more than relevant today; it resonates with ideas and values that should be part of the upbringing of every Jew, and should inform the policies of current Jewish leaders regarding the Arabs of the land of Israel, Iran, and Jewish life across the globe. For sure, the week between Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut is an ideal time to reflect on these matters.
Begin’s words follow:
“I believe the lessons of the Holocaust are these.
First, if an enemy of our people says he seeks to destroy us, believe him. Don’t doubt him for a moment. Don’t make light of it. Do all in your power to deny him the means of carrying out his satanic intent. (Note: one month later, Begin dispatched Israel’s Air Force to destroy the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak.)
Second, when a Jew anywhere in the world is threatened or under attack, do all in your power to come to his aid. Never pause to wonder what the world will think or say. The world will never pity slaughtered Jews. The world may not necessarily like the fighting Jew, but the world will have to take account of him.
Third, a Jew must learn to defend himself. He must forever be prepared for whenever threat looms.
Fourth, Jewish dignity and honor must be protected in all circumstances. The seeds of Jewish destruction lie in passively enabling the enemy to humiliate us. Only when the enemy succeeds in turning the spirit of the Jew into dust and ashes in life, can he turn the Jew into dust and ashes in death. During the Holocaust it was after the enemy had humiliated the Jews, trampled them underfoot, divided them, deceived them, afflicted them, drove brother against brother, only then could he lead them, almost without resistance, to the gates of Auschwitz. Therefore, at all times and whatever the cost, safeguard the dignity and honor of the Jewish people.
Fifth, stand united in the face of the enemy. We Jews love life, for life is holy. But there are things in life more precious than life itself. There are times when one must risk life for the sake of rescuing the lives of others. And when the few risk their own lives for the sake of the many, then they, too, stand the chance of saving themselves.
Sixth, there is a pattern to Jewish history. In our long annals as a nation, we rise, we fall, we return, we are exiled, we are enslaved, we rebel, we liberate ourselves, we are oppressed once more, we rebuild, and again we suffer destruction, climaxing in our own lifetime in the calamity of calamities, the Holocaust, followed by the rebirth of the Jewish State.
So, yes, we have come full circle, and with G-d’s help, with the rebirth of sovereign Israel we have finally broken the historic cycle: no more destruction and no more defeats, and no more oppression – only Jewish liberty, with dignity and honor. These, I believe, are the underlying lessons to be learned from the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust.”
Those were the words of Menachem Begin exactly 30 years ago. In the ensuing decades, historic enemies have continued to attack, and new enemies have risen with new challenges and old threats. The people of Israel have been bloodied and the land of Israel dissected. We have experienced unparalleled moments of national unity, as well as heartrending and anguished periods of national strife. We have heard the cries of some Jews and ignored the pleas of others.
Yet, the hope always remains that the fulfillment of Jewish destiny is quite near – as near, in the language of the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a), as “today, if we but hearken to His voice.” Then, and only then, our past sorrows will be overwhelmed by the tidings of salvation, Jewish national life will reach its apogee and we will greet Moshiach and the dawn of a new era with joy and gratitude.