World leaders and delegations from more than 30 nations arrived in Jerusalem Tuesday for the inauguration of the new museum at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial. Rather than further focus on the documentary aspects of the Nazi genocide, the new Holocaust center, which is four times as large as the existing museum, will explore the unprecedented tragedy by stressing the personal stories of the murdered victims and eradicated communities.
The message of the humanitarian obligation of remembrance embodied by Yad Vashem’s new museum has never been more current or more vital. With blatant antisemitism experiencing a dangerous renaissance in national capitals from London to Paris to Buenos Aires to Tehran, the new exhibition of the systematic destruction of European Jewry will help visitors better understand the warning bells of unconstrained racial and religious hatred that are sounding globally unchallenged.
For Israelis the lessons of the Holocaust are sadly never permitted to be very far from our minds. Our national homeland, which was molded into being out of the ashes of the concentration camps and the tattered remnants of those who survived the murder of 6 million of our people, has been threatened with destruction since the very hour we proclaimed our independence in 1948. In the nearly 57 years since then, we have fought six major wars and weathered unrelenting terrorist attacks on our civilians both in Israel and abroad.
Barely a week has passed in the last half-century without a new deadly offense being leveled against our cities and towns by our Arab neighbors. This has been coupled with some of recent history’s most brutal terrorist attacks on Jewish synagogues, institutions, communities and individuals as a surrogate means of inflicting suffering on our nation.
For too long, our neighbors’ mosques, media and even textbooks and school curricula have promoted hatred and the genocide of the Jewish people. Tragically, these days it seems to surprise no one but ourselves to learn of the latest cemetery desecration, antisemitic epithet or violent attack on Jews somewhere in the world.
The expanded museum’s inauguration comes against a background of the government of Iran and its proxies — the terrorist organizations Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — threatening renewed attacks against Israel that could again destabilize our region and derail peace talks with the Palestinians. Tehran’s ongoing refusal to abandon its quest for a nuclear bomb, which it has insistently implied it will use against the Jewish state, has become our number-one security concern. While international conflicts between other nations are mostly limited to border disputes and struggles over maritime rights, when Israel is involved it is always our very future existence that is being threatened, with complete destruction lying at the core of the aggression.
For Israelis, and for Jews everywhere, the awareness of the Holocaust is part and parcel of our very identity. The names Aushwitz, Treblinka, Dachau, Buchenwald and Mauthausen have become a sacred part of our heritage. If the world leaders who visited Jerusalem this week want to better understand our foreign policy concerns and our inflexible demand for security guarantees, then the exhibits and displays at the new Yad Vashem museum will provide invaluable insights. Indeed, for Israelis the lessons of our tragic past are never permitted to be anachronisms; they are always relevant and reflective of our current reality.
In the coming days, Jews around the world will celebrate our most joyful festival of Purim. The holiday, like so many others in our tradition, commemorates the miraculous redemption of the Jewish community of ancient Persia from a wicked antisemite, Haman, who was obsessed with our people’s physical and spiritual destruction. Haman, who had managed to ingratiate himself with the all-powerful monarch of the day, utilizes his connections and good will to convince the king to fix a calendar date upon which to murder all the Jews of the vast Persian empire.
Like other fanatical haters throughout the ages, this viceroy employs the classic antisemitic logic to whisper his case in the king’s ear: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from every other people’s. They do not observe even the king’s laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be recorded that they be destroyed.” (Book of Esther III:8-9)
Through a complex series of wondrous and providential coincidences, however, a Jewish heroine, Esther, is chosen to be queen and the stage is set for her to foil the conspiracy and turn the tables on Haman. As this admirable women of valor vacillates over the life-threatening risk she must personally subject herself to in order to save her people, she is pointedly probed into action by her uncle: “Do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the king’s palace, any more than the rest of the Jews.… And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained your royal position.” (Book of Esther IV:13-14) Esther is charged to sacrifice herself if necessary, but most of all she must act.
As such, in our worldview it is a clear line that unifies the ancient Persian tyrants who sought our destruction centuries ago to the murderous Nazis who practiced genocide against us, to the current Islamic suicide bombers who have devastated our Israeli cities, to the modern-day rulers in Persia who scurry to secure an Iranian nuclear weapon with which to destroy our people. All of these, we understand, must be confronted and fought.
In the Israel of my childhood, we used to say about certain people that they “came from there.” I use this expression now, knowing that the “there” we whispered about — the Shoah — is not just one place. And we see that even those who “came from there,” even they cannot always remember everything. The names. The faces. The loved ones. The world that was — and was destroyed.
None of us could possibly remember the 6 million names. But each of us can assume the responsibility for one personal memory, of an individual or a family. To get to know intimately the story of a single community.
This is the intent of Yad Vashem’s new museum — to personalize this complex contemporary story and simply teach it so its universal lessons can be absorbed by all. For Jews, the past merits remembering not solely as an eternal memorial to our past suffering, but also as a shining beacon and guide for all of humanity to avoid the tragedies and horror once again in our shared futures. Indeed, in each generation to remember, and to never again forget.