History lesson

History lesson

We have long abhorred the invidious idea that Israel “was born of the ashes of the Holocaust.” Some of Israel’s strongest friends and supporters have made this fundamental mistake, and the president of the United States, in his Cairo speech June 4, came dangerously close to it. (What he actually said was, “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” Nor can it – but it is rooted in much else as well.)

This misleading perception does not take into account centuries of Jewish history in the land that’s now called Israel, and therefore can be and, indeed, has been, used to call into question the state’s legitimacy.

We’re grateful, therefore, to Sen. Robert Menendez for publicly setting the record straight. In a speech on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday, sparked by last week’s killing at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, he said that “while the Shoah has a central role in Israel’s identity, it is not the reason behind its founding and it is not the main justification for its existence. The extreme characterization of this mistaken view is the following: the Western powers established Israel in 1948 based on their own guilt, at the expense of the Arab peoples who lived there. Therefore, the current state is illegitimate and should all be wiped off the face of the map.

“This flawed argument is not only in defiance of basic human dignity but in plain defiance of history….” (For the full text of the speech, see the advertisement on page 2.)

This is not to deny the impact of the Holocaust on the modern State of Israel and, of course, on worldwide Jewry. As historian Tom Segev notes in his controversial book “The Seventh Million” (2000, Henry Holt and Company), in the yishuv – the Jewish community of then Palestine – “the rise of the Nazis was seen as confirming the historical prognosis of Zionist ideology.”

The Holocaust, in truth, while murdering the six million, brought those whom Segev calls the seventh million to a state-in-waiting. And it brought attention, sympathy, and money that have helped to sustain Israel over the years. But it was not Israel’s genesis, so to speak. Israel was born not of ashes but of hope.