A Jewish Holiday About Strength, Not Victimhood

On Sunday evening, May 5, begins the Israeli holiday known around the world as “Holocaust Remembrance Day”, or “Yom HaShoah” (shoah being the Hebrew word for holocaust). Anti-Semites will rejoice at the holiday commemorating the death of Jews, and pro-Palestinian supporters of terrorism will make extra efforts to demonstrate that the Holocaust was just the beginning. The world will argue about the fate of Israel, the safety of Jewish college students, and the weakness of a Jewish people who celebrate as a holiday the event of six million of their own being killed. The holiday will be used as a demonstration that Jews are “victims” who celebrate their own demise; and that it is only a matter of time before, as the Hamas Charter phrases it, the “Day of Judgment will come and every Jew obliterated.” These Jew haters, who have come out of the closet and so clearly revealed themselves in the last seven months, use this holiday as a goal rather than a warning.


 And in doing so, they betray their ignorance on every level — for this is actually not “Holocaust Remembrance Day” at all.  The actual name of this holiday is “The Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and for Strength” (Yom Hazikaron l’Shoah v’legevurah).

This is not a day about the Holocaust. The focus of this day is and has always been the powerful strength of the Jewish people, as is exemplified by the Jewish resistance fighters in WWII, specifically the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt.  More than a day of mourning, it is a day of inspiration. More than a day of sadness, it is a day of committing to do what is necessary to stop evil. More than a day of remembering the victims of the death camps, it is a day of remembering not only the courageous heroes who shut down the Nazis, but also the Jewish military heroes who against all odds stopped evil throughout history.

 And there is a 3500 year history of Jewish courage succeeding against the evil military empires of world history despite the odds. We remember the ancient Hebrews under the leadership of Joshua over 3000 years ago.  There were the Jews of Jerusalem 2700 years ago who defeated the Assyrian Empire in their Siege of Jerusalem (you can still walk the underground tunnel they dug that led to their victory in Jerusalem tours) and forced the greatest empire of its time to go back home in defeat. The Maccabees stopped and defeated the mighty Seleucid Greek empire in 167 B.C.E. At Masada, in the first century, 960 Jews held off Roman military battalions for almost two years. This was followed a few years later with the Bar Kokhba Revolt, which held an independent nation of Israel against the might of the entire Roman Empire for four years. We recall the successful Jewish victories against empire after empire for two thousand years from Europe to Persia to China and back to the Middle East in the early 20th century.


 And on this holiday we especially remember the inspiration of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, in which a Jewish flag was raised over the ghetto in Warsaw, and 700 unarmed “soldiers” held off the entire German war machine longer than the entire nation of Poland did. They handed the Nazis their greatest propaganda defeat, showing that the Germans could and would be defeated.

These victories and acts of courage are what this holiday is actually about, not gas chambers. These are the reasons that, when the first commemoration occurred in 1951, the symbol for the holiday was a bronze statue of Mordecai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw uprising. It is why the original full name of the holiday as determined by the Israeli Parliament was “Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Remembrance Day.”

The enemies of Israel should probably remember that this is less a day of mourning victims, and more a day of honoring warriors for freedom.

 Many people throughout history have mistaken a commitment to peace for weakness. They view the Jewish attitude towards treasuring each individual life as if it is a sign of fear. They fail to recognize that at the core of Judaism is the importance of every life… Jewish and non-Jewish.  They mistake Israel’s recalcitrance about quickly destroying her enemies as a weakness that can be exploited rather than what it really is: a commitment to the sanctity of every one of God’s creations. Israel does not hesitate to fight because of fear of defeat, but out of concern that in victory we could lose our own souls by becoming as out of control as our enemies, God forbid.


 And the enemies of Israel forget the other teaching of this holiday that is hidden in plain sight. Israel and the Jewish people’s greatest weapon is not the Iron Dome or weaponry. It’s not the air force or special forces. And it’s not America or any foreign power. Israel’s greatest ally is God, who has demonstrated for over 3000 years that He will always keep His covenant and that the Jewish people will survive.

 Because of the value our religion places on each individual life, Jews are slow to resort to physical confrontation. But history, and this holiday have shown repeatedly that when tyrants and despots go too far, the Jewish people stand up.  And as scary as it is on multiple levels, it appears as if that time is starting to happen.

After trying negotiation and kindness, Jewish students started in the last week to make a stand to stop the domestic terrorism on college campuses, forcing law enforcement to come in and destroy those encampments at Columbia, UCLA, and elsewhere. Since the horrible tragedies in Pittsburgh and Poway, every synagogue I know of (including ours) has armed security present. Jewish gun ownership has radically increased since the BLM riots, and many temple congregants bring their firearms to synagogue services. But while Jews are preparing for physical conflict, we pray for a peace without violence multiple times per day.

This holiday is about strength, and this means the courage to try to work out issues without violence or war. To create peace and safety on college campuses without more destruction. To bring the hostages home and have a lasting peace with her neighbors before Israel’s only alternative is even greater destruction. This holiday also inspires us with the courage of our ancestors when all other alternatives have been exhausted. It is a reminder for us and for the world that if pushed too far, Israel and the Jewish people will not let a holocaust of Jews happen. “Never Again” means what it says.


 It would behoove us all for the world to recognize what this holiday of Remembrance of the Holocaust and for Strength is about. The world must come to its senses before we see the descendants of the Maccabees and Warsaw Ghetto forced to act in ways reminiscent of their ancestors.

In Judaism, the goal of conflict is peace, not victory.  Not a cessation of violence, but a lasting peace, which history has shown can sometimes only be achieved as a result of violence. Yet we continue to pray and act for that miracle of peace to be reached in other ways.

May we all pray for that peace to be found without violence, and for the world to put aside Jew hatred and replace it with harmony and respect.

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