January 12th, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

This week, the anti-Israel show trial in The Hague exploded onto the public consciousness. Israel scrambled to get a judge onto the panel and has sent representatives to advocate Israel’s position.

As I watched the spectacle unfold, I was reminded of the prescient words of Vladimir Zev Jabotinsky, published in 1913 during the blood-libel trial of Mendel Beilis in Kiev. Jabotinsky was a proud Jewish patriot fed up with the cowering apologetics of the “Galut” (exile) Jew. As a Zionist activist, he spearheaded a Jewish identity reformation that was unapologetically unapologetic.

“Who are we, that we must make excuses to them?” Jabotinsky thundered, in an essay appropriately titled No Apologies. “And who are they, to interrogate us? What is the purpose of this mock trial over the entire people where the sentence is known in advance? Our habit of constantly and zealously answering to any rabble has already done us a lot of harm and will do much more. The situation that has been created as a result, tragically confirms the well-known saying: ‘he who apologizes – condemns himself.’”

“Once again, we have taken on the role of prisoners on trial – we press our hands to our hearts, and with quivering fingers, we leaf through old stacks of supporting documents that no one is interested in … How much longer will this go on? Tell me, my friends, are you not already tired of this charade? Isn’t it high time, in response to all these accusations, rebukes, suspicions, smears, and denunciations – both present and future – to fold our arms over our chests and loudly, clearly, coldly, and calmly put forth the only argument that this public can understand: why don’t you all go to hell?”

Jabotinsky could well have written these words in January 2024, about the genocide case against Israel being brought by South Africa at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). As the week progressed, I found the circus developing in The Hague so disturbing that I decided to visit the Auschwitz Exhibition at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, just to remind myself what happens to Jews when they don’t take the threats against them seriously.

The exhibition – which features 700 original artifacts along with a curated account of the role of Auschwitz in the Final Solution – has been open for months but is winding up its run at the end of January.

I’d heard it was terrific – well put together and very evocative – but until this week, I didn’t feel the need to visit, having read countless books and seen countless documentaries on the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jewish people in what would later become known as the Holocaust.

In addition to which, besides for having personally been acquainted with dozens of Auschwitz survivors, some years ago I visited the original site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland. So, I thought to myself: “Been there, done that.”

But events over the past few weeks, and particularly this week, have been a seismic shock to the system. As Ronald Reagan once put it, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

At no time that I can recall have these words been more relevant – and not just for the United States, but for the entire free world.

Clearly, the need to challenge vicious tyrants and to protect ourselves against terrorists has not been passed from the previous generation into the bloodstream of the emerging generation. And the results are evident for all to see – Gen Z is utterly besotted with freedom-hating thugs, and is seemingly intent on painting anyone who challenges these thugs as the enemy.

Mix into that equation the oldest hatred – antisemitism – and you have a perfect storm. The popular mantra among the younger generation is as simple as it is pernicious: Israel is evil, Palestinians can do no evil, and if you dare call us antisemites for saying so, that proves you are the oppressor.

In broad terms, I didn’t learn very much that I didn’t already know at the Auschwitz exhibition. Of the 1.1 million Jews who entered Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944, 900,000 were murdered almost immediately – first they were gassed to death, and then their bodies were incinerated.

The victims represented a broad cross-section of Jewish society – young, old, men, women, boys, girls, rich, poor, religious, secular, educated, uneducated. There was literally nothing that could save you from getting killed, although if you were in your teens or twenties, you might get a short reprieve.

Young men and women were separated out from the vast majority of those who arrived, to be used as slave laborers, and some of them did manage to survive Auschwitz’s brutal conditions until they were liberated by Russian forces in January 1945.

But the exhibition did offer me some glimpses into the personal tragedies of individual Holocaust victims and their families. There was a section about the prewar Jewish community of Oswiecim – the Polish name for Auschwitz. Oswiecim Jewry had thrived during the interwar years. One story, about the Haberfeld family of Oswiecim, was especially tragic.

In August 1939, Alfons Haberfeld and his wife Felicja, who had a business producing alcoholic beverages, traveled to New York to showcase their products at the World Fair. While on their way home, Germany invaded Poland, and the return journey was abruptly halted as their ship rerouted to Scotland, preventing their return to Poland, which was now under German occupation.

The Haberfelds’ five-year-old daughter, Franciszka, was not with them – she had been left in her grandmother’s care while her parents were on their business trip. The Haberfelds never saw Franciska again. In 1942, both she and her grandmother were murdered by the Nazis in the Bełżec death camp. Alfons and Felicja eventually made their way to the United States, and in 1952 were instrumental in establishing a community organization in Los Angeles for Holocaust survivors called Club 1939. Alfons died in 1970, and Felicja died in 2010.

The Haberfelds were no doubt conscious of the threat from Hitler, and of the likelihood of a German invasion, when they left for New York. The Nazi hatred for Jews had already wrought havoc on the German, Austrian, and Czech Jewish communities, as evidenced by the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, which had resulted in dozens of state-sanctioned killings of Jews.

And yet, life went on, and the threat was dismissed or minimized, or willfully ignored. By the time European Jewry woke up, it was far too late – and the result was: Auschwitz. Just like today, those who hated Jews used legal means and formal institutions to present Jews as evil, clearing the way for an outcome that remains the most significant attempt to wipe out a nation in human history.

Currently, at every synagogue around the world, we are reading through the Torah portions in Exodus that recall the story of the first attempt to delegitimize, enslave, and wipe out the Jews. Pharaoh, the world’s most powerful leader, became convinced that Jews represented a grave threat to Egyptian civilization.

Demoralized and dispirited, the Jews of that era were almost annihilated. But Moses came, and he stood up to the tyranny of Pharaoh, who no doubt represented the feelings of the majority. Moses didn’t care – he was unapologetically proud of his people and of his heritage, and he refused to be cowed, even when Pharaoh stubbornly persisted with his cruelty.

Just like Pharaoh, the world has hardened its heart against Israel. From the ICJ in The Hague, to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Israel is vilified – and as a result, Jews are in existential danger yet again.

But we have nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, we can be proud of who we are and what we represent. The end of all this will be a triumph of truth over lies, and the Jewish people will prevail – as they have throughout history. Until then, we must stay strong, and we must certainly never apologize.

Photograph: UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek. Courtesy of the ICJ. All rights reserved.

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