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Which was more important to Jewish history—Holocaust or creation of Israel?

November 12, 2009 Leave a comment

By Arnold Flick 

LA JOLLA, California–In March this year, President Obama, while in Egypt, addressed the Muslim world. In speaking of Israel, he in essence described the founding of Israel as an event proceeding from the Holocaust. The Zionist community, both here and in Israel, has been very upset by this description and has responded that the State of Israel was on track for rebirth both before and regardless of the Holocaust.  

This has long been a point of interest to me. Thus for some years now I have asked individual Jews which do they think is the more important event in Jewish history during the 20th Century: the Holocaust or the founding of the State of Israel. While recognizing that this is not a scientific poll, the responses have been illuminating.

My very act of posing the question has elicited responses. “Why do you want to know?” “It’s a meaningless question.” “What are you getting from this?” “Whose side are you on?”  Almost no one has said “That’s an interesting question.”  And with respect to this latter, remember, I have only posed this question to Jews, a people who find most questions interesting.

Answers have been of three main categories. The most frequent answer from the American non-Israeli Jews has been the Holocaust, often, but not always, followed by the remark, that without the Holocaust there would not be an Israel. Some have refused to answer.

The near universal answer from Israeli friends, without an apparent need to explain, has been Israel.

And of course, there is more. Those Jews whom I know to be on the far left politically have answered, without exception, “the Holocaust.”Jews whom I know to be on the political right, usually, but not always, have said “Israel.” Reform Jews have almost always said the Holocaust, conservatives lean to saying Israel, but not always. Jews identifying themselves as Zionists strongly lean to saying Israel. Myself being secular, I know very few Orthodox and have not had the opportunity to ask them.

In his speech in Cairo, President Obama gave a “Holocaust” answer to this question. As is known, President Obama has a circle of Jews close to him and these are, almost by definition, on the political left. Thus, to me, this particular answer in Obama’s speech, written as it likely was by someone close to the Jewish liberals surrounding the President, reflects the near unanimity of the political left in selecting the Holocaust. So in his speech citing the Holocaust, it may have been his Jewish advisors’ voice rather than his own. 

I think the question touches something fundamental in the Jew who identifies himself as Jewish: it relates to his personal definition of what makes a Jew. It does not take much reading in Jewish diaspora periodicals to know that “What is the minimum that makes a Jew?” is a question under debate. “Born of a Jewish mother, born of a Jewish parent, calling oneself Jewish without being of any other religion” are among the prevalent answers. Formal observance or a belief in G-d are not frequent answers to this question, nor is Bar or Bat Mitzvah. For men, a circumcision is required by most, but not by all. In short, there is an obvious spectrum of answers to this fundamental question, not only from the scholars, but from the man on the street as well.          

Many current far-left Jews, including some of my cousins, are the progeny of even farther left parents. The parents selected Yiddish over Hebrew, maybe Birobidjan over Israel, Workmen’s Circle over Zionism. When Stalin’s murderous anti-Semitism could no longer be overlooked, an ideological hole opened deep within the core of the parent. The Holocaust filled that hole, and became the central tenant of Judaism for the parents and their children. The child has now found his way into the arts, media, and social studies and continues to promote, now from a powerful lectern, this, i.e, his parents, core view of being Jewish. So his answer is the “Holocaust” as the seminal event of the Jewish history in the 20th Century.

Flick is a freelance writer based in San Diego