Three weeks ago, on March 22nd, I had the honor of accompanying President Barack Obama on his first presidential trip to Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem, atop Mount Herzl—Israel’s equivalent to Arlington National Cemetery—I watched as the President laid a wreath at the gravesite of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who gave his life in the struggle for peace. But the President also laid a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement and author of the book, The Jewish State.
The act was laden with significance. At a time when millions still deny that a Jewish people exists and has a millennia-long connection to the Land of Israel, the President’s wreath reaffirmed the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in our ancestral homeland. “The dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea,” the President declared. Herzl died a half-century before the Holocaust, so President Obama’s act helped refute the myth that Israel arose solely as a result of the Holocaust.
That message was reinforced when the President proceeded from Mt. Herzl to Israel’s National Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. There, with the entire world at his witness, the President proclaimed: “The State of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust. But with the survival of a strong Jewish State of Israel, such a Holocaust will never happen again.”
These were historic moments, but they were rendered more stirring still by what happened next. Standing alongside the President at Yad Vashem was Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a survivor of the Holocaust.
Rabbi Lau recalled how he and his brother, Naphtali, were liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945. The anniversary of their salvation is today, April 11. Today, 68 years ago, battle-hardened American G.I.’s entered Buchenwald and were horror-struck. They saw the mounds of bodies. They saw human beings so desiccated, so broken, that even among the living, many were beyond relief. And Buchenwald was a labor camp, not a death camp like Auschwitz and Treblinka, built solely to kill millions.
Among those soldiers was Army Chaplain Hershel Schacter. Rabbi Lau remembered seeing Schacter running through the camp, frantically searching for survivors, and assuring them in Yiddish, “Shalom Aleichem, Jews, you are free.”
That memory remained with the two young brothers long after they moved to Israel. There, Rabbi Lau became the nation’s Chief Rabbi. Naphtali served as Israel’s Consul-General in New York and as a senior advisor to Moshe Dayan. Rabbi Schacter returned to the United States, became a principled force in American spiritual life, a leader of the struggle for Soviet Jewish freedom, and an unflagging champion of the State of Israel. He died, aged 95, only hours before President Obama’s visit to Yad Vashem.
In his remarks to President Obama, Rabbi Lau recalled meeting another American liberator of Buchenwald, who wasn’t Jewish, many years later in Seattle. Approaching Rabbi Lau with tears in his eyes, the man said, “before I give back my soul to the Lord, I’m asking from you forgiveness for being late. We came too late.” At this point, Rabbi Lau turned to his esteemed guest and said, “Mr. President, don’t be too late.”
All those present understood that Rabbi Lau was referring to the Middle East and, specifically, to Iran. Anti-Semitism is commonplace in the Middle East, where state-run media propagate the worst Nazi lies and blood libels. The Iranian regime denies the murder of six million European Jews and vows to murder six million Israeli Jews while developing the nuclear means to do so. Nevertheless, 2013 is not 1945.
Herzl’s vision of a proud and independent Jewish state has been realized. That state, as President Obama has fervently maintained, has the right to defend itself against any threat. We have the right and we have the ability—an ability denied to the inmates of Buchenwald. And in contrast to our lethal solitude during the Holocaust, the Jewish people today have a friend. And not just any friend, but the most powerful democracy on earth, the United States of America. “Atem lo lavad,” President Obama said in Hebrew to 2,000 Israeli university students, "You are not alone.”
We are not. Just look at our intelligence sharing, our joint military maneuvers. Look at the Iron Dome anti-missile system, funded by the Administration and the Congress, that saves lives and prevents wars.
Yet, who among us can dismiss the words of Rabbi Lau? Yes, Israel is a strong and intrepid state and, indeed, our alliance with America is unbreakable. But nuclear weapons in the hands of the genocidal Iranian regime will threaten the entire world. And the world must not be late.
Four days from now, the citizens of Israel will again turn their eyes to Mount Herzl for commemoration of Israel’s 65th year of independence. Together with the President’s visit, this ceremony testifies to our triumph over those who sought to destroy us. It reminds us of our successes as well as our sacrifices, of the challenges we still face but also of the friendships we cherish. While celebrating our freedom—our moment of greatest joy—we will remember our darkest sorrows. We will sing in praise of our liberty while solemnly we will pledge: we will never be late again.