Gaza, Genocide and International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Rabbi Brant Rosen - Shalom Rav

It’s safe to say that International Holocaust Remembrance Day arrived on Saturday, January 27 at a deeply fraught moment for the Jewish community. Just today, we’ve received the news that the International Court of Justice, ruling on a case brought by South Africa, has ordered Israel to take action to “prevent acts of genocide” in Gaza. And the day before, a federal court in California heard a case brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Palestinian human rights organizations, Palestinians in Gaza and Palestinian Americans accusing Biden and other senior US leaders of being complicit in genocide.

In short, International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2024 is arriving just as Israel and the US government are literally being judged on the world stage for an ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people.

As we contemplate the monumental nature of this moment, it’s instructive to consider the history of International Holocaust Remembrance Day itself. This annual commemoration was created by the UN in 2005, to take place annually on January 27: the day Auschwitz was liberated by allied forces. In its resolution establishing the day, the UN General Assembly made it clear that this observance would not merely be about commemorating the past; it pointedly urged member states “to develop educational programs that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide. "The General Assembly also made it explicit that this remembrance would not be limited to the European Jewry alone, but should also extend to “countless members of other minorities” who were murdered en masse by the Nazi regime.

As then Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon pointedly commented during the 2015 commemoration, “More than a million inmates, primarily Jews, were brutally and systematically killed in the place where the Nazis introduced the monstrous concept of ‘industrialized murder.’ Among the other victims were non-Jewish Poles, political prisoners, Soviet prisoners of war, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, disabled persons and Jehovah’s witnesses.”

In other words, International Holocaust Remembrance Day was purposely established to universalize the memory and the lessons of the Holocaust.

There is of course, another Holocaust memorial day widely observed by the world Jewish community – namely, Yom Hashoah. In contrast, to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah is not universal in nature – it is a day set apart by the Jewish community to mourn their own in a Jewish context, as part of the Jewish festival calendar. While it is altogether appropriate for Jews to honor the memories of their ancestors in such a way, it’s worth noting the history of this particular day as well.

Yom Hashoah was officially founded by an act of Israeli parliament in 1951, immediately following the founding of the state itself. It was purposefully established on Jewish date of the 27 Nisan (April/May) to begin a week of commemoration leading into Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day), concluding with Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). In this way, Yom Hashoah served to promote the Zionist historical mythology that viewed the establishment of the state of Israel as a “rebirth,” arising out of the ashes of the Holocaust, through the brave sacrifice made by the soldiers who fought in the War of Independence.

Like many Jews growing up in America, I simply accepted Yom Hashoah as an organic part of the rhythm of the Jewish year, observed annually in synagogue services and communal commemorations. I was never taught that it was first and foremost an Israeli national holiday. And of course, I was never taught that the state of Israel was founded in the wake of the Holocaust was established through the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people from their homes.

While there should most certainly be a communal Jewish day of memorial for the six million, it’s worth questioning the prominent status afforded Yom Hashoah by world Jewry. This is, after all, a day that serves to reinforce the view that the Israel’s founding was a “redemptive” moment for the Jewish people following the tragic cataclysm of the Holocaust – utterly ignoring the reality that the state of Israel was established through the dispossession of another people. I strongly believe we should consider an entirely different Jewish frame for commemorating the Holocaust; in the meantime, however, we should have no illusions about the real agenda behind Yom Hashoah and the problematic narrative it seeks to support.

It might well be said that in this terrifying current moment, the very real implications of this Zionist mythology are being directly challenged by the universal message of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s actually quite staggering to consider: as the world prepares to observe this day, compelling legal proceedings are formally accusing Israel of (and the US of abetting) genocide. Even more sobering: it arrives amidst an increasingly damning verdict in the court of public opinion in which, according to a recent poll, “more than one in three Americans believe Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians.”

I realize how painful – even unthinkable – it will be for many Jews to lift up the lessons of International Holocaust Remembrance Day to suggest Israel that is committing genocide against the Palestinian people. But as I suggested in my sermon this past Yom Kippur, we must find the courage to say out loud the words that must be spoken. If this particular day is truly is to be a day for us to apply the “lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide,” it is all the more critical for us to speak out and name a genocide that is literally unfolding before us in real time. No matter how uncomfortable or painful the prospect.

In this regard, I’m immensely proud to be part of a Jewish community that has the courage to say these words out loud. In a just released public letter to President Biden, the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council is demanding that he “honor the word and spirit of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day by using (his) office to bring a ceasefire to this tragic violence — and to broker a truly just peace that will bring freedom and security for all who live between the river and the sea..”

An excerpt:

    We hold the traumatic history of our people with care and sensitivity — and know how painful it is for Jews to grasp that a Jewish state could possibly commit a genocide. Nevertheless, we must agree with increasing numbers of scholars and international rights experts who have determined that Israel’s actions in Gaza constitute, in the words of Prof. Raz Segal, “a textbook case of genocide.”

    We support and uplift South Africa’s recent application to the International Court of Justice claiming Israel is in breach of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. And now, Palestinian human rights organizations, together with Palestinians in the US and Gaza, are bringing a case against your administration for failure to prevent, and complicity in, the Israeli government’s unfolding genocide against them, their families, and the 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza. We stand in support of their action as well.

    According to a core teaching of Jewish spiritual tradition, humanity was created in the image of God. That means that each and every human being is of infinite value. The UN 1948 Convention on Genocide was created to uphold this very idea. The Torah also teaches that there will always be moments when we must make a critical moral choice. As Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” President Biden, you have chosen death. Instead of using your considerable power to prevent or end this genocide, you have directly abetted it with weapons, funds and diplomatic cover.

    On this day of remembrance in 2021, you noted that, “The Holocaust was no accident of history.” As you stated, “It occurred because too many governments cold-bloodedly adopted and implemented hate-fuelled laws, policies, and practices to vilify and dehumanize entire groups of people, and too many individuals stood by silently. Silence is complicity.”

  President Biden, what is happening right now in Gaza is no accident of history — and your complicity has been anything but silent. We call upon you to be true to your word and end US complicity in Israel’s genocide against the Palestinian people.

This International Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us find the courage to speak the words that must be spoken. Ceasefire now. Never again, for anyone. No more genocide.

+ This article was originally published by Shalom Rav on Fri 26 Jan 2024