One Sunday morning when I was about 9 years old, my Hebrew school class was ushered into a large room to watch a film about the Holocaust. While I don’t remember much of it, one sequence was irrevocably burned onto my brain. At the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, with the camp littered with emaciated bodies and a few walking dead, a British soldier sat on a bulldozer shoving naked dead Jews into a mass grave. I thought about this for a considerable time. But rather than rage at the Nazis, my anger was at the Jews. Why hadn’t the Jews fought back? Why had so many just gone like sheep to the slaughter? Why didn’t anyone do anything to stop this?
As time went on, I learned more about these events and that some Jews did fight back — at Treblinka, at Sobibor and in the Warsaw Ghetto. From relatives and others, I heard stories of survival. But most of all, I heard endless platitudes. “Never again!” was the popular slogan. But what did it mean? Never again would there be genocides in general, or just of Jews? Did the world really learn anything, or was it just appropriate to denounce the Holocaust in the way that people perfunctorily reply “fine” to “how are you doing?” Over time, I became numb to all of this. I found that I was no longer even surprised that the Holocaust occurred. I was just amazed at the mechanization of its implementation.
Teaching the Holocaust became de rigueur in public schools in the United States and the West, ignored in the Muslim world and irrelevant in Africa and Asia. The world began to refer to just about any mass killing or population transfer as genocide. Were ethnically based mass killings even preventable?
Each coming decade since the end of World War II brought with it more wars, mass killings and the like. While some eventually were stopped by international interventions, at the end of the day, they happened. Rodney King asked, “Can we all get along?” And I understood that the answer, in the long run, was no. I realized this was a pessimistic view of humanity, but it was historically realistic. When the going gets tough, when chaos ensues, people fall back to their respective corners. Individuality succumbs to group dynamics. Each group looks out for its own. Woe to those who have no group to depend on.
Even though some Jews fought back against the Germans, they were disorganized and unprepared. I knew that the wartime Allies were aware of Auschwitz but decided against bombing the camp or the associated rail lines. To those countries fighting the Nazis, winning the war was their main priority and saving Jews was very low on the list. What about the locals? How many were willing to risk their lives or those of their children to save strangers? Would I have? Doubtful.
That the Jews had no one to come to their rescue was due to the fact that they were scattered willy-nilly in various countries often among people who considered them interlopers and were glad to see them go. No matter how long Jews had lived in certain lands, no matter how much they tried to assimilate or ignore their background, they were never considered to be native citizens. The Nazis taught me that being a Jew was based on blood, not on religious observance. There was no escape from it. To be a Jew means to belong to a club from which one can never resign.
To me, the slogan “never again” only means never again to the Jews. To pretend that the Holocaust will teach the world to eschew violence against “them” in favor of “us” is naive and contrary to historical evidence. The Jews must make sure it will never happen to them again. Depending on the good will of other countries or the vague concept of altruism is a recipe for disaster.
Jews are more than just a religious group, they are a people, and a people need a country of their own. Not just as a homeland or cultural mecca, but a nation that will protect them no matter where they reside. What the Jews needed in 1939, and did not have, was Israel.
Too many Diaspora Jews think they sit comfortably in their Western lives and have nothing to fear. But antisemitism continues to be present, now even more insidiously disguised under the veil of anti-Zionism. Progressives denounce Israel as racist. To many Muslims, Jew and Israeli are one and the same. Even some Jews validate “legitimate” criticism of Israel. The U.N. has been anti-Israel for as long as I personally can remember, going so far as to pass a resolution in 1972 equating Zionism with racism. How can criticism of Israel be any less than antisemitism?
My lesson from the Holocaust is this: No one is going to save the Jews except the Jews. Israel is the guarantor of “never again.” Israel is the only country in the world that is tasked with not only protecting its own citizens but also those of its Diaspora. Israel had to go after Adolf Eichmann and other fugitive Nazis when European democracies moved on. Israel had to rescue foreign Jews when an Air France jet was hijacked to Uganda by Palestinian terrorists and France dithered. Israel rescued the Sephardi Jews of Arab lands, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and Jews in Bosnia and Ukraine when they came under fire. Israel’s Law of Return offers any Jew a new home at any time.
Those Jews who do not support Israel or are indifferent to it, those — including Jews among them — who think that championing the plight of the Palestinians or labeling Israel as apartheid, are doomed to ignorance. Those who fail to recognize that only Israel will ever truly protect the Jewish people have learned nothing from the Holocaust. I have. I am a Zionist.
Mark Hotz teaches 10th and 11th grade history at Yeshivat Mekor Chaim and has been studying world events for several decades.