What the foreign leaders who came to Jerusalem last week to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz will take home from their visits is unknowable. But we do know what they brought with them. Whether they intended to or not, the leaders who came this week to Israel’s capital to bow their heads in memory of the six million sons and daughters of Israel murdered in the Holocaust brought with them a recognition of Zionism’s foundational truth: The Land of Israel is the one and only, eternal homeland of the Jewish people.
In this sense, the event marks a triumph of Zionism over anti-Zionism.
This victory was never assured, and there is no guarantee that this week’s achievement will endure.
Consider the achievement.
Modern Zionism—the movement to reconstitute the Jewish homeland in the land of Israel after nearly 2,000 years of exile—provoked enormous opposition from the very start. Jewish nationalism flew in the face of the prevailing zeitgeist in elite Jewish and non-Jewish circles in the mid and late 19th century. That zeitgeist, conceived by Enlightenment philosophers and embraced by Reform Judaism, asserted that the Jews were members of the Mosaic faith, not a nation. As such, they were free to assimilate—without their particular Jewish identity—into wider society.
The force of Reform Judaism’s rejection of Zionism in favor of universalism was undiminished by the Holocaust. It was undiminished by Israel’s establishment. It was given harsh expression in 1960.
As Daniel Gordis recounts in his book We Stand Divided: The Rift between American Jews and Israel, on May 23, 1960, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion alighted the speaker’s podium at the Knesset and announced that Israeli security forces had captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial for his role in the genocide of European Jewry.
Israeli Jewry responded to the earth-shattering news with a sense that a great historical justice had been served. Eichmann’s capture was proof that the Jews were no longer homeless. By capturing Eichmann, Israel was taking responsibility for the Jewish people as a whole. They had a home. Those who harmed Jews anywhere in the world could henceforth expect to be held accountable by the Jews themselves, from their capital in Jerusalem.
The heads of the American Jewish community were not happy with this turn of events.
Joseph Proskauer, former president of the American Jewish Committee, claimed Israel had no right to act in the name of the Jewish people. Rabbi Elmer Berger from the American Jewish Council said Israel’s capture of Eichmann was a “Zionist declaration of war” against the Jews in America.
With the Six-Day War of 1967, Israeli Jews obliterated the stereotype of the Jew as a weak penitent. Israel’s triumph stirred Jewish pride and nationalism in Jewish hearts from the Soviet gulag to San Francisco. Following the war, the Reform movement formally embraced Zionism.
But the Reform Jews had been far from alone in embracing the anti-Zionist myth that rejected the fact that the Jews are a nation and that Israel is the Jewish homeland.
This position was happily embraced by Israel’s worst enemies—the Arab states, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Soviet Union, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian regime and Hamas. From the Arab League to the PLO charter, to the Hamas covenant, to the KGB propaganda shop, all insisted that Zionism was a form of European colonialism. The Jews had no roots in Jerusalem or the land of Israel. Judaism was a mere religion. Jews were not a nation. Israel itself was nothing more than a sop for European guilt. It was a European colonial project created to cleanse the conscience of Europe in the wake of the Holocaust.
A decade ago, the anti-Zionist forces scored their greatest political victory. On June 4, 2009, the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, delivered his “Address to the Muslim World” at American University in Cairo. Before an audience that included a large contingent of Muslim Brotherhood members, specifically invited by the White House, Obama resonated their rejection of Jewish history and denial of the Jewish roots and rights to the Land of Israel.
Netanyahu spent 10 years insisting on the truth
In Cairo, Obama asserted that Israel’s establishment was a product of “a tragic history … Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.”
Obama pointedly failed to utter a word about the nation of Israel’s historic ties to its homeland. Instead, he announced that he would travel from Cairo to Buchenwald concentration camp. Jerusalem was not on his itinerary.
Obama’s speech was the single most hostile act any U.S. leader ever took against the Jewish state. Speaking to a room full of Israel’s enemies, Obama resonated their lies and propaganda.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly stunned by the existential hostility towards Israel and the Jewish people Obama displayed in Cairo. But once he recognized the nature of the problem, Netanyahu spent the next 10 years insisting on the truth. Despite catcalls of criticism from the Israeli left, from liberal American Jews, from the European Union and from the Obama administration, Netanyahu and the governments he led insisted on telling the truth about Israel and Zionism over and over and over again, and insisted that the truth be acknowledged.
At every opportunity, Netanyahu stated and restated that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and was never the capital of any other nation. He stated and repeated endlessly that Israel is the homeland and the nation-state of the Jewish people and was never the homeland or nation-state of any other people.
Over time, it made a difference.
The arrival of dozens of world leaders in Jerusalem to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and commit themselves to fight anti-Semitism represents a spectacular reversal.
By coming to Jerusalem the visiting dignitaries embraced the truth at the heart of Zionism: Israel was not founded because of Auschwitz. It was founded because the Jews came home to live in their homeland as a free nation, finally.
Had the State of Israel existed in 1939, Auschwitz would never have been built.
Whether they realized it or not, these leaders’ presence in Jerusalem at a conference on Mt. Herzl dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism made clear that Israel is the best weapon against anti-Semitism. You don’t defeat anti-Semitism with hate speech laws, although judiciously written and applied laws can contribute to the effort. You defeat anti-Semitism by embracing Israel. The stronger, more secure and more peaceful Israel is, the safer Jews will be throughout the world.
This stunning statement—which the leaders made simply by congregating in Jerusalem—was a hundred years in the making. It didn’t happen by chance. It was the product of years of hard, thankless work. And if that work doesn’t continue apace into the future, the recognition will be fleeting.
Obama’s presidency facilitated the rise of anti-Zionist forces in the Democratic Party and empowered anti-Zionists in the American Jewish community.
J Street was formed at the outset of the Obama presidency. By blaming Israel for the absence of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, it serves as an incubator for anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which reject Israel’s right to exist. These groups, in turn, radicalize the Jewish establishment.
In 2018, almost all major American Jewish organizations condemned Israel for the Knesset’s passage of the Nation-State Law. The law, which enjoys massive public support in Israel, gives constitutional weight to Israel’s identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The opposition of groups like the Jewish Federations of North America to a law that does no more than restate the obvious is a clear sign of that American Jewish Zionism is fraying.
Then there is the so-called “international community.”
During their visits this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and Prince Charles all divided their time between commemorating the Holocaust and pledging to fight anti-Semitism in Jerusalem on the one hand, and traveling to Ramallah to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, a Holocaust-denying anti-Semite, on the other.
The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor’s recommendation to try Israeli leaders and soldiers for imaginary war crimes represents an attempt by the so-called international community to criminalize Israel’s very existence.
French President Macron’s made-for-TV abuse of Israeli forces charged with protecting him Wednesday in the Old City is proof that for the nations of Europe, anti-Semitism remains a powerful political weapon.
Keeping our guard up
To secure what has been painstakingly accomplished, we need to commit ourselves to keep our guard up. We must continue to tell the truth and call out the lies of the anti-Semites. The Jewish people are a nation. Israel is our state. Had Israel existed in 1939, as the Zionists and the doomed Jews of Europe had hoped, there never would have been a Holocaust.
To prevent a new Holocaust in a world still drenched in Jew-hatred, the reconstituted Jewish state must be defended. Israeli leaders and citizens and supporters of Israel worldwide must stand up to liars and deceivers who create convenient myths about Jewish identity that conform to their prejudices and lifestyle choices. If we do these things, this week’s events will pave the way to more triumphs.
If we fail to do these things, if we take this week’s events for granted, then 10 years hence we will not remember the conference at Yad Vashem as the moment that rendered Obama’s anti-Semitic screed in Cairo an insignificant historical footnote. Instead, we will view his speech as a turning point, and this week’s conference as an insignificant blip on the screen of history.