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On being British and Israeli at Yom Hashoah

This week we commemorated Yom Hashoah, and many of us experienced a very moving zoom ceremony in conjunction with the Israeli Embassy, and listened to the testimony of Reuven Frischer, a second generation survivor from Tel Aviv, and his cousin Sam in New York. With the number of survivors ever dwindling seventy five years after the Second World War, we face real challenges in how to preserve the memory of the Shoah for the next generations, in order never to forget.

The message of the Israeli ambassador jarred slightly with me, and with all the chutzpah gained from my first month of aliyah, I would like to unpack a little why I think that was. It provoked a fierce debate in my household, that comes to the very essence of what it means to be Jewish in both Israel and the Diaspora.

The ambassador’s message was stark and powerful: we need Israel, a strong Israel, to make sure such atrocities are never repeated. The world can be a perilous place, and only a Jewish homeland can protect our people.

As a Zionist - and now as an Israeli - I don’t disagree with most of this message. Israel has proven itself since its foundation as both the refuge for many Jews around the world, and as a most amazing and creative country.

But it’s the binary worldview - of a dangerous diaspora versus a safe Israel - that doesn’t work for me, and particularly when it comes to the memory of the Holocaust.

I grew up in the United Kingdom, but I would argue that this is true for those of you who grew up in the US, or Canada or Australia as well. When it came to the Shoah, I would say we split the world into three - not two - parts: namely 1. Nazi-occupied Europe, from where “we” or “our ancestors” left, 2. the countries we fled to (be it in North America, Britain, Australia, South Africa...), and then 3. possibly the State of Israel was part of the story as well, or possibly not.

As most of these countries, like the UK, were fighting Nazism, it led to a worldview in which the forces of evil can be and were overcome. This involved no little sacrifice on the part of those countries doing the fighting. And, at least on my part, it led to an understanding that it is global cooperation and collaboration between all the upstanding countries in the world that can help avoid a repeat in the future.

In Israel there is a cynicism about the United Nations - not surprisingly given the number of times its floor has been hijacked to attack them. There’s also a cynicism about the European Union, about human rights and open borders, which some think sees Europe sleepwalking towards an immigrating Muslim majority, equivalent to impending doom for Jewish life.

As I say, this plays out fiercely in my household. I accuse my wife of Israel wanting to own the memory of the Holocaust, and negating the good around the world that saved Jewish lives and continues to support Jewish communities living in multicultural environments as full and valued members of their societies. And for her part, she accuses me of naïveté, reminding me that for every child saved and Kindertransport that made it successfully to Britain, there were hundreds of Jews who weren’t accepted as refugees by any of the countries around the world, including in the United States and British-mandate Palestine.

It’s a discussion that weighs heavily, and I think both of us feel the other does not really understand where we are coming from. And from one couple it has its echoes and resonances in the larger relations between Jews in the Diaspora and those in Israel. And with all that said, we should try not let such a squabble get in the way of what is really important here: to honour the memory of the six million and to make sure that such an atrocity will never happen again. Ultimately, whether we see the world in two parts or three, this requires both a strong State of Israel and a hearty and healthy Diaspora around the world, working in harmony, and we should do what we can to better our relations and work together in peace.

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