May 8, 1945 was a great day for humanity. It was the day that Nazi Germany surrendered. People everywhere – throughout Europe and the Western world – were dancing in the street and celebrating. American B-17 Bombers released tens of thousands of leaflets over the recently liberated territories; my father, a GI in General Patton’s army, caught one and it still hangs in his home. It reads, “Nazis quit!”
But there was one man who wasn’t celebrating, one man not jubilant over Germany’s defeat. He was the head of the Zionist movement and his name was David Ben-Gurion.
Ben-Gurion spent that day, May 8, 1945, alone in his room writing in his diary. He wrote that a third of the Jewish people had been massacred, the Jews of Palestine had neither the food to feed themselves nor the arms for self-defense, and, to make matters even worse, there was a former haberdasher in the White House who knew nothing about the Jewish desire for statehood.
The Zionist enterprise was dead, Ben-Gurion wrote, “sad, very sad.” Three years later, almost to the day, May 14, 1948, that same Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the first sovereign Jewish state in two millennia.
The story of how a decimated, dispersed, and dispirited people could, in such a short span of time, regain their strength, unity, and vision and give birth to this state is one of the great dramas of modern history and perhaps the most inspiring epic of all time.
The Holocaust was a crucial - if unspeakably horrific - stage en route to the creation of the State of Israel. But Israel was not created because of the Holocaust. It rose out of the Holocaust’s ashes, but the roots of Israel descended vastly deeper.
For more than 3,000 years, the Jewish people have been inextricably attached – physically, politically, and spiritually – to the Land of Israel. For roughly a third of that period – four times longer than the entire history of the United States – the Jews maintained an independent state in their land and lived as free men and women. Indeed, even our people’s name in Hebrew, Am Yehudi, connotes a people that dwells in that state.
After its destruction by the Romans, the state remained the focus of our people’s yearnings, and rebuilding it, our highest national aspiration. Over the course of the next 2,000 years, Jews from around the world risked grave dangers and deprivations to return to the land of their forefathers.
Jewish communities always existed there, among them, great centers of learning and devotion. Starting in the 19th century, though, a new movement arose, a movement committed to laying the foundations of a modern polity that would serve as the “old new state” of the Jewish people. That movement, Zionism, gained international recognition through the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations. The Jewish claim to peoplehood and self-determination in our ancestral homeland became and tenet of international law.
By the eve of World War II, the Jewish community in the land of Israel – the yishuv – had established a national healthcare plan, a modern school system, and an organization for national defense, it had drained the swamps and made the desert bloom, created innovative social frameworks such as the kibbutz and the moshav, and revived the ancient Hebrew language. It had an internationally renowned university and even a symphony orchestra. The assumption was that this Yishuv would expand through mass immigration from Europe, but that hope was largely extinguished by the Final Solution.
The Holocaust did not create the State – on the contrary, it delayed the State’s creation. While certainly guilt for the Jews’ unspeakable suffering moved many countries to support the UN resolution recognizing that state, the state, representing our people’s longing, unity, and faith, would have emerged nevertheless.
And yet, the Holocaust is central to our modern memory as a people and as the citizens of an independent state. It is a reminder of the great hazards of not having a homeland, a haven from oppression, and shelter from genocide. For this reason, a great many young Israelis visit Poland and Germany before enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces. Bearing Israeli flags beneath the wrought iron gates of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, they see the crematoria, the stacks of suitcases, the shoes and human hair, and they are reminded once again of the meaning of their military service. For that reason, too, visitors to the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel emerge from the harrowing exhibitions and choking halls into a breathtaking view of the Jerusalem hills, majestic and serene.
Today, as Israel faces enemies who, on one hand deny the Holocaust while at the same time seek the weapons to inflict another, preserving the Holocaust’s memory is a moral, as well as a strategic, imperative. We have learned that when genocidal rulers threaten to wipe the Jews off the earth, we must take them seriously.
This lesson is crucial not only for the people of Israel but for nations everywhere - and especially here in the United States.
Remembering what happened to our people more than six decades ago, what could have been done for them and wasn’t, and understanding the threats we continue to face today and the ways we can still overcome them, is vital for Israelis and Americans alike.
Tonight’s honorees, a Holocaust survivor and a hunter of Nazi criminals, together embody this understanding – that we must not forget the past nor ignore the lessons that tragic legacy imparts.
Three years after pronouncing the Zionist movement dead, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the independence of a Jewish state to be called the State of Israel. Not because but in spite of the Holocaust, Israel emerged. And in spite of the Holocaust, we are assembled here today to affirm our commitment to keeping the memory alive and preventing others who would have us re-live it. United in our remembrance, we can endure any challenge. Strengthened by the unbreakable bonds between Israel and the United States, we cannot only survive, we will thrive.