I’m working from home today. A few minutes before 10am, I step out onto my rooftop porch. I pace a bit. I look at traffic. I look at the people walking in the street below. It’s a sunny day with blue skies and a cold breeze. Waiting in the sun I’m both hot and cold.
The siren begins. Low at first and then filling the whole valley, echoing in remembrance. Cars stop and drivers get out of their cars to stand. Pedestrians stop as if someone pressed the pause button. Two minutes – one hundred and twenty seconds – standing together we remember.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is a solemn day in Israel: television stations air holocaust memorials, the radio plays quiet music, schools have special programming, workplaces gather for small memorials, people light candles. It’s right to remember and there will never be a time when it will be correct to stop having the siren, to drive through the siren, to not stop everything we are doing for two minutes.
Defining Israel exclusively in the shadow of the Holocaust does a huge disservice to all of the positive Zionism that built, and continues to build, the State of Israel.
The Holocaust did not spark the wave of immigrants who built 28 communities in the ancestral homeland from 1882 to 1904.
The Holocaust did not inspire the building of Tel Aviv in 1909 and the establishment of Degania, a small community next to the Sea of Galilee, in 1909.
The Holocaust did not inspire Lord James Balfour in 1917 to write in the Balfour Declaration “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”
It was not the Holocaust that facilitated 800,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries in the 1950s to be relocated and housed in Israel and a million Russian Jews in the 1990s to find their homes in Israel.
It was not the Holocaust that inspired 12 Israelis (so far) to win the Nobel Prize.
It was not the Holocaust that turned Israel into a “Start-Up Nation” with the highest number of startups per capita and second to the US in actual number of startups.
The Holocaust annihilated half of the Jewish population of the planet, but it does not have to be the defining moment of Israel’s history. We are not victims with no other place to go. Israel doesn’t exist only so that there will be a sanctuary in case another Holocaust comes. We want to live in our ancestral homeland – to be a free people in our land. We want to be a nation like other nations. And if we do it right, perhaps we can even be a light unto the nations.
The image of a phoenix rising from the ashes is beautiful and poetic, but next week when we’ll celebrate the State of Israel’s 69th birthday, we will know that we are so much more.