We have just completed, over the course of the last three weeks, the yearly succession of holidays and commemorations that take us from Pesah to Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) to Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism) and to Yom Ha’atzma-ut (Israel Independence Day).
These special days have become central to our Jewish narrative and integral to the construction of our Jewish identity. During these three weeks, we remember, tell, celebrate, and mourn and, in so doing, review and reinforce our story.
We begin with oppression and liberation (Pesah) and then descend into exile, powerlessness, and victimization (Yom Hashoah). We then ascend again to survival, the recovery of power, and sovereignty (Yom Ha’atzma-ut) with the parallel awareness that power and sovereignty exact a heavy price (Yom Hazikaron) and command ethical and moral responsibility (as affirmed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence).
But that is the simple, tell-it-to-me-while-standing-on-one-foot story. Like with the four children of the hagaddah, the real story is far more nuanced and complex. In fact, it is not one unique and unified story but a multiplicity of stories. Once we start asking who remembers what, how, and even why, we get a sense of the tremendous complexity of the events we marked in these past weeks. The story is not one-size-fits-all, the same for everyone. Whose narrative dominates and whose is diminished? Who is not even allowed to tell their story? Multiple narratives exist side by side, and some of them live under the surface. We are a very diverse people and Israel is a diverse and complex society—not everyone tells the same story.
Nevertheless, as we move on from these three weeks, I ask myself whether there are basic lessons we can carry with us, and whether we have obligations based on the history infused in those days of commemoration.
I suggest we consider the following words by Israeli historian and Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, from an address at the Bundestag, the German National Parliament, in 1998:
I come from a people who gave the Ten Commandments to the world. Time has come to strengthen them by three additional ones, which we ought to adopt and commit ourselves to: thou shall not be a perpetrator; thou shall not be a victim; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.