The Liberators & the Liberated: The Covenant Lives On
A theme of this year’s Days of Remembrance ceremony is liberation and while the Holocaust is horribly unique in human history, the liberation of its survivors links them with others freed from captivity. Liberation, we learn, is not merely an isolated event but rather a process in which the liberated and the liberator can be linked by ties of mutual commitment, shared values, and trust.
Several weeks ago, while gathered around the Seder table, we recalled how the Children of Israel were freed from 400 years of slavery and enabled to fulfill their national destiny. But the transformation from slaves to freedmen did not end with the Exodus. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty harrowing years before entering their Promised Land and, even then, endured many hardships.
65 years ago, at the end of World War II in Europe, battle-hardened GI’s marched into concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald. They encountered piles of emaciated corpses, mounds of human hair and human ashes, and the survivors’ lifeless eyes. These images would forever haunt the liberators, among them President Obama’s great uncle as well as one of my own uncles. Then and there they vowed, “Never again.”
For the Jews, four years of Nazi captivity proved more devastating than the 400 years their forbearers endured in antiquity. Six million died and only a scant few witnessed the sublime moment of freedom. Yet, that tattered remnant still had to struggle to return to their Promised Land where their fellow-Jews had already laid the foundations for a modern, democratic state. They had to fight to achieve their independence, facing incalculable odds. Next week, we will celebrate their triumph and the rebirth of Jewish statehood in our homeland, the Land of Israel.
Israel later provided refuge for exoduses from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and East Africa. It became a beacon of freedom in a region unaccustomed to such lights and a wellspring of cutting-edge science and art.
Yet Israel has never known peace. The rights enjoyed by all nations—even the right to exist—is widely denied to Israel, and its citizens threatened with destruction. If true freedom resides in freedom from threat, then the struggle for Israel’s liberation persists.
And so, too, does the commitment to realizing that freedom. Indeed, every liberation can be a promise—a covenant sealed by common values and visions.
“I will bring you out of affliction…into a land flowing with milk and honey,” God promised Moses. For Israel, the covenant made by those intrepid GI’s has been upheld by a succession of American presidents. Harry Truman, who first recognized the reborn Jewish state, swore to ensure “a strong, prosperous, free and independent democratic” Israel. John Fitzgerald Kennedy said that Israel “carried the shield of democracy and honors the sword of freedom.” And President Obama decreed that “the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable today, tomorrow and forever.”
The relationship between liberator and liberated can be eternal, evolving and strengthening over time. Continued sacrifice is demanded of both, and unwavering dedication. Much work remains before hatred of all peoples is defeated and generations of conflict resolved.
Let us remember, then, as we gather to mourn the unspeakable losses of the Holocaust, the pledge made by American soldiers and presidents. Let us recall the words of Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, and President Obama. Let us reaffirm the timeless covenant: freedom for individuals and nations alike, peace for Israel. And for the Jewish people everywhere, never again.