Israel just observed its Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began Wednesday night and lasted until sundown Thursday. The occasion is a time for everyone, not just Israelis, to remember humanity's darkest chapter, to go beyond platitudes and really reflect on what happened. For some reason the standing cells at Auschwitz always resonated with me—tiny areas less than a square yard in which four people would be held and sitting was impossible. As I have previously described, the prisoners "would stay like that for days, leaving the cells to work a full day of hard labor only to return at night and be forced to stand. Many would die of exhaustion in the holdings, each of which had one tiny opening to let enough air in to prevent the prisoners from suffocating." That Germany, one of the world's most developed countries with a vibrant culture, was the perpetrator of such evil is still difficult to grasp.
One gets the sense that remembering the Holocaust is especially important this year, amid a global rise in anti-Semitism. Jews seem to be under siege in every direction, with steep increases in anti-Semitic incidents across the Western world causing grave concern in Jewish communities. Just last week, we saw how real and varied this modern anti-Semitism is, manifesting in a horrific shooting at a synagogue in California and in a shameful, Naziesque cartoon in the New York Times. This Jew-hatred has far-left, far-right, and Islamist strands, all of which feed into each other and spread civilization's oldest virus. No strand is worse than another, and trying to argue for political gain that one is worse only contributes to the discord that fosters such bigotry.
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Yet many pundits and politicians draw a thick line between the kind of anti-Semitism associated with the Holocaust and anti-Semitic campaigns against Israel. For example, Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor at the New York Times, said recently that "all of the talk about anti-Semitism of the left and anti-Israel sentiment [is] serious, but it is not a clear and present danger to [Jews'] life and limb." The problem with this view is that efforts to undermine, demonize, and delegitimize Israel in order to destroy it as the Jewish state threaten not only millions of Israelis, but also Jews around the world.
Israel's basic purpose is to protect the Jewish people, both by serving as a place of refuge and by maintaining a standing military to defend the nation. Israel is of course the homeland of the Jewish people, where Jews yearned to return for 2,000 years. But even more fundamental is physical survival, both as individual Jews and as a people who share beliefs and traditions—a luxury that too often could not be enjoyed in exile. No Israel in the 1930s and 1940s meant millions of Jews were trapped in Europe. Imagine how many lives could have been saved.
Today, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and other efforts to destroy Israel as the Jewish state through demonization and delegitimization would undermine this basic purpose of protecting Jews. Indeed, they would undermine Israel to the point that it effectively ceases to exist as the world has come to recognize it. With anti-Semitism resurgent in Europe and all too prevalent in the Middle East, the implications for Israeli Jews would be disastrous. Moreover, these anti-Israel efforts are inherently anti-Semitic as they single out the Jewish state for boycott and condemnation when, by all relevant standards, other countries are far more deserving.
Abraham Foxman described the latter point well in 2015 shortly before retiring as national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Fifty years ago," he explained, "prognosticators said: ‘Anti-Semitism, it's a historical fact of the past. You don't have to worry about it.' They said: ‘In 50 years, Israel will be a normal nation among all the nations.' Boy, how wrong they were! Israel has become ‘the Jew among the nations.'" What does that mean exactly? Foxman continued: "What everybody else can do, Israel can't do. Tell me a country in the world that can't decide its capital, has to defend its right to defend itself, has to deal with double and triple standards in terms of being told what it should do, how it should do it, who it can do business with, who it should play soccer with, what person can come and sing."
It is important to keep Foxman's words in mind on a day when Israelis, no matter what they were doing, stopped for two minutes of silence to remember the six million Jews murdered as sirens wailed across Israel. Remembering the Holocaust should be a reminder of why Israel is so important to the Jewish people, and why demonizing it is so nefarious. The wellbeing of the Jewish people—and of Judaism itself—is tied to the wellbeing of Israel. Those serious about fighting anti-Semitism should be serious about defending Israel. Anyone else is either a bystander or, worse, part of the problem, isolating Israel as the Jew among nations.