Three years ago, I went to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and later that year to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Last March, after I had been elected Member of Parliament from York Centre, a riding with a large Jewish population, I went to the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem the day it was opened to the public.
As a kid, I attended the United Church of Canada. I grew up in a time when Jews were identified by non-Jews as Jews before they were identified as friends or co-workers, the word "Jew" always said with a swallowed quietness. It is often still the case. It is part of my job as an MP to represent the Jewish community. The question is how to do that best. Despite the work of very strong advocates over a long time, many of the same issues remain. Maybe there is a different way to approach them. Maybe an important role might be to try to explain Israel and the Jewish community to others, and others to the Jewish community.
With the events in the Middle East, this is another moment to try:
As kids, we learned about the murder of six million Jews. We saw images of the concentration camps. We heard of the persecution of Jews in other times, but that didn’t register on us so clearly. The Jewish Museum in Berlin tells the story of the Jewish people from the beginning. The better times, and the bad times that would never not interrupt them. Then 19th century Europe, maybe the best of all times for the Jews, when their contribution in so may fields – science, the arts, politics – was so great it seemed more important than their Jewishness. And as museum-goers, knowing what we knew, we could feel the perfect, awful trap. Then the slide; and the impossible and the unthinkable weren’t.
I knew how important the Holocaust was to Jews, but I think I really didn’t know. It’s not just the number of Jews that were murdered, nor that the Jewish people were almost wiped from the face of Europe. But it was what such an overwhelmingly defining moment had to mean, finally and forever. Never again – not just that this couldn’t couldn’t ever be allowed to happen again. But that bad times would always always follow better times, and you could never imagine, never pretend, otherwise. This was survival, now, at every moment, forever.
"Never again" meant you could never again not fight to create the conditions of "never again." So with every tombstone desecrated, with every hint of anti-semitism, you fought back. And "never again" meant most of all you had to have a place that was your own. Anywhere else was someone else’s turf. Then you had to depend, and you can never depend. The lesson of history was clear. The Holocaust meant forever. As a Jew, you needed some place you could go that was yours when the worst happened. Because the worst would happen.
So Israel, this tiny sliver of land, became their only future.
It is easy for non-Jews to say, "No, this is a different time. We’ve learned. No matter what the government of Iran and jihadists say, the international community will not allow the destruction of Israel." And for these non-Jews to see the prominent roles Jews play in the larger community, in law or business or government, to look at the success and wealth and military might of Israel: and wonder how as a Jew you can feel vulnerable. And for Jews to say, "You don’t understand."
"Never again" means never again can you trust. There will come a moment when even your friends won’t be there. History knows. You can depend only on yourself. So when the media and others encourage Israel to ease off to generate some international good-will, and Israel doesn’t, really Israel is saying, "When you can trust no one, why does international good-will matter?"
Israel was always the great underdog. The story of the Holocaust, Israel’s creation as a state in 1948, the building of a nation out of desert, its crushing victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 against much bigger opponents. You admire and feel for and cheer on the underdog. You want him to make it. In today’s context, to most around the world Israel doesn’t seem like the underdog. The Palestinians do. For the Jewish community, this is hard to take. Don’t you understand, the Jews are the underdog of history and will never not be. To the non-Jew, the battle in south Lebanon had to do with kidnappings, periodic rocket attacks by Hezbollah and Israel’s right to defend itself. To Israel, it had to do with the actions of a surrogate of Iran and Syria and a matter of Israel’s survival as a nation. "Proportionality" is in the eye of what one beholds.
This is a difficult time. It may prove a very dangerous time. It may prove the beginning of a turning point. Once again, we may be learning that military might is less mighty than we thought. It may be that there is no security in any piece of land held by anybody anywhere on earth. It may be that different understandings and approaches will be needed to survive the future. The important voice is the voice that’s missing. That is why Canada can matter.
To survive in this world, to survive in the future, for "never again" it may mean that "some time again" you have to trust.
But how can the Jewish people trust? But they must trust. But how can they?