To understand Israel and what it stands for, one has to immerse oneself in the last two weeks of commemorations. It leads from the Holocaust or Yom Ha’Shoah to the Resurrection (Tekuma in Hebrew) that is the rebirth and independence of the Jewish State. But, prior to the celebration of independence (this year commemorating 73 years of Israel’s independence), Israelis remember the sacrifices of its soldiers and civilians, who rose up from the depth of agony and despair, after the loss of Six Million Jewish souls at the hands of the German Nazis. Israel honors its sons and daughters who made the ultimate sacrifice in the country’s wars and in the fight against terrorism. Between April 7, 2021, Yom Ha’shoah, and sundown April 14, Yom Ha’Zikaron, a 2-minute siren sounds to mark each occasion, and the entire country stands still for those two minutes. On major highways throughout Israel, traffic stops, with drivers and passengers stepping out of their cars or buses to stand still in respect for the fallen. It is truly a sight to behold, seen nowhere else.
The Holocaust serves as an indelible lesson that all Israelis understand; that the Jewish people can never again be defenseless, at the mercy of others, nor without a country of their own. In the 1948 War of Independence, Jews were numerically inferior to their Arab enemies, as well as materially (in arms) deficient, suffering from an embargo on arms imposed by Britain and the US on the nascent Jewish state only, while the Arab states received their arms unimpeded. The memory of the Holocaust drove Israeli-Jews to a determination that defied the odds, and in the end, it won the Israeli people the eternal right to be, in the words of the national anthem, “to be a free people in our homeland.”
In the annals of history, it is hard to find another example of a people exiled from their homeland, living in exile for 2000 years, under persecution, inquisition, pogrom, and finally a Holocaust. Mastering the will, courage, and determination to rise up, not in self-pity, but with dignity and pride, Israeli’s reclaimed their place under the sun. That is why there is genuine joy on Independence Day. The short years between the Holocaust and the resurrection of the Jewish nation is one of the miracles of history.
It was not an easy road to resurrection. The US State Department was unfavorable toward an independent Jewish state. Nor was the State Department sensitive to the suffering of Jews in Nazi occupied Europe. Its top brass, anti-Semitic to the core, did everything they could to deny Jew’s refuge in America. My own family suffered the consequences of the State Depart cruelty. My father’s brother-in-law was in New York, when in 1939, WWII broke out. He did the impossible to bring his wife (my father’s sister) and their two children to America. He managed to secure an affidavit for them in a desperate effort to get them out of occupied Poland. The State Department set one hurdle after another, dragging it out for almost two years, and in October, 1942, (my aunt and my two cousins I never met) were deported to the Belzec death camp, where they were gassed and burned.
The 1950’s were difficult years for the nascent Jewish state. With little natural resources, and the need to defend its narrow boundaries (“Auschwitz borders” as Abba Eban, Israel’s legendary foreign minister called the pre-1967 borders), while absorbing over 1.5 million Jewish refugees from the Arab states (Jewish communities that existed there long before the arrival of Islam) that were brutally kicked out of their homes, as well as Holocaust survivors from Europe. Yet, the US was still embargoing weapon sales to Israel, and upheld a policy of evenhandedness between Israel and the Arab states. Eventually, the Arab authoritarian regimes; Egypt, Iraq and Syria, which didn’t share western values, turned to the Soviet Union. Israel, a democracy which shared the US cherished values, was not treated accordingly.
Eight years into Israel’s existence (1956), and following a series of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians by Gaza-based Arab Fedayeen guerillas under Egyptian command, Israel launched what became known as the Sinai Campaign. In addition to terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, Egypt closed the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Egypt’s dictator, Abdul Nasser, ignored the UN resolution regarding allowing Israeli shipping unmolested. Within 100 hours, Israeli forces reached the Suez Canal and captured all of the Sinai Peninsula. Under pressure and threats from the Eisenhower administration, (Israel was defended by Lyndon Johnson in the US Senate) Israel withdrew from the Sinai in March, 1957, and the UN Emergency Force was dispatched to the Sinai. The Eisenhower administration gave Israel’s Premier Ben Gurion guaranteed freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran.
The Cold War was raging ten years after the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, and in 1967, Nasser once again closed the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal to Israeli navigation. In addition, Nasser kicked out the UN force from the Sinai, creating a casus belli for Israel to launch the Six Day War. The Maritime powers: US and Britain did nothing to reverse the Egyptian aggression despite the guarantees Eisenhower gave Israel. Weeks of tension and fear enveloped Israel. Listening to Nasser’s threats to “throw the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea,” Israeli youth were employed in preparing many gravesites for the anticipated military and civilian casualties. On June 5th, 1967, Egypt’s Air Force was destroyed by the IAF, along with the air forces of Jordan, Iraq and Syria. Israel achieved a stunning victory, with the ultimate prize of liberating the Old City of Jerusalem and its Western Wall.
The US attitude toward Israel changed after the Six Day War. Israel brought prestige to US arms by defeating Soviet arms in the air and on the ground. US arms and financial aid started coming, and suddenly, Israel was no longer the nebulous Jewish state, but a regional power. During the War of Attrition, 1969-1970, Israeli pilots downed 36 Soviet pilots in dogfights. The Jewish state demonstrated that Jews will no longer be victimized. Abusing Israel would be costly to the abusers. Once again Israel was in control of King David’s capital, and Jews worldwide could feel proud, with affinity toward their ancestral homeland. Twenty-two years after the WWII and the Holocaust, the Jewish nation was truly resurrected.
It was an impossible dream for the survivors of the Holocaust to witness the transformation from the depth of hell in Nazi-occupied Europe, to the glory of a modern, technological, and prosperous Israel. A nation that is democratic and free, the rule-of-law enshrined, with civil and human rights enjoyed by all its citizens; Arabs and Jews. Nothing better captures these sentiments than the words of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi. A survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald Nazi concentration and death camps, Rabbi Lau was 8 years old in his native Poland when the German Nazis deported him. Speaking at Yad Vashem’s Holocaust Remembrance commemoration, on May 4, 2009, Rabbi Lau said: “Let the young people of Israel know what we have here…a home, freedom, sovereignty, the ability to walk upright, and a backbone. We can and perhaps must kiss the earth of this land that provides us the privilege for a Jewish identity and a full life in our homeland.”