by Pedro Enamorado | Yale University
The scene before me laid a soothing bandage over my mourning heart. Sunlight bathed the streets, the hills, the homes before me as I looked down at Jerusalem. My tears had mostly dried by now, after walking through the aching journey of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum. I had visited another Holocaust museum years ago, Dachau, the recreated concentration camp in Germany. But this time, the stories were more real, the hope more palpable, and the scorn and hatred of the perpetrators more cutting. I heard the stories, person by person, of survivors who lived because another sacrificed their life for them. Those that hit me most were the testimony of a mother hiding her daughters in a closet when she heard a knock at the door who begged the soldier, “Please, let me collect my things and bring my coat,” to have mere minutes to say goodbye forever. The other was the story of a son who walked down the stairs to find his father naked, bloody, and barely recognizable on his doorstep and covered him in newspapers to grant him some dignity. One exhibit invited you to look down on piles of shoes left behind by people before they walked into the gas chambers. As I watched survivors share their stories, I stepped inside that closet and saw my mother’s tender face saying goodbye, and looked down at my own father’s bloody corpse. They invited me into their suffering with the understanding that I would feel a mere fraction of it myself and say with them, “never again.”
Yad Vashem offered me a grim backdrop and a reason for the State of Israel. In the 1930s and 40s, most Westerners thought that the liberal ideas of citizenship and democracy had finally won the most people the equality they sought for centuries. The French Revolution made Enlightenment ideas about equal civil rights a reality in most of Europe, especially with the Great War dissolving the last great monarchies. At least, that’s what my history books say happened, making it seem like these heights of anti-Semitism caught Europe off guard. But the exhibits at Yad Vashem showed me how a society raised people to hate Jews. There were anti-Semitic board games, such as one called Juden-Raus about deporting Jews, children’s books teaching Germans to distrust Jews such as The Poisonous Mushroom, and posters portraying Jews as devils and thieves, resembling pigs and rats.
The truth is that all of Europe and the US saw this and looked away, simultaneously rejecting the ideals that transformed Europe from a land of tyrannical monarchs to a democratic society based on republican ideals. Instead, they let the ideology of anti-Semitism creep in and substitute the fundamental ideals of natural rights- that all persons are equal, that their rights to life, liberty, and property are sacred- with a dangerous assertion. Anti-Semites relied on junk science like phrenology to measure skull shapes to establish a biological hierarchy of “human races” with varying degrees of personhood and some of these charts were at the museum. Extending equality to inherently unequal human beings, argued anti-Semites, constrained the progress of the dominant race and the prosperity of their society. Through immersion in propaganda, from media to board games, anti-Semites created a society willing to treat their fellow citizens as sub-human beasts and labeled Jewish people parasites.
The Holocaust showed the world that Theodore Herzl had a point in the 1890s about the need for a Jewish state. He believed it was right for Jewish people to have a state built on democratic ideals that will respect their sacred rights and represent their interests, with an army, justice system, and police force that will never be turned against them as it was in Europe. This state would lobby for fellow Jews on the international stage as well, as Jews did before and during the Holocaust. Herzl realized how great the threat of a society believing Jews were inherently distrustful to Jews and to justice while he covered the French trial against Alfred Dreyfus as a journalist. In the cradle of Enlightenment government, he saw injustice drag on and betray the ideals and legal system he believed would protect Dreyfus. Dreyfus was labeled a spy and was framed by high-ranking officers who refused to do the real work of counter-espionage and a jury of his peers condemned him and acquitted the real traitor after a two-day trial. It took years of lobbying by Jews all over the world and their allies in France to free him. If the ideals of equality, liberty, and fraternity were not in the hearts of the French, what good did equality on paper mean to the Jews? 50 years later the erosion of these ideas produced Nazi Germany. It was only right for the European states whose abysmally failure to protect them, their own citizens, cost over 6 million lives to right that wrong by helping them form the State of Israel in 1947. In this nation where they were the majority, they would use their self-determination to secure their rights and extend equal rights to their fellow Arabs, Druze, Christians, and Muslims.
Yad Vashem and my passage through Israel imprinted me with a greater urgency to stress the importance of telling history correctly, of letting it inform our opinions, and of seeking truth in journalism about Israel. The statistics for Holocaust denial or downplaying I heard at Yad Vashem are staggering, and they get worse with each passing generation. The memory of the Holocaust appears to be fading, and with it fades the perceived burden of Europeans and Americans to support Israel’s right to exist, especially among millennials. It’s unfortunately commonplace to see mainstream newspapers misrepresenting Israel, and finding subtle ways to paint Israel as an oppressor unwilling to negotiate or consider the plight of Palestinians. I have heard college students immediately jump to challenge Israel’s right to exist or to demand that their universities divest from Israel. And I remember an acquaintance at Yale who responded with, “I can’t believe you would say something like that,” because I expressed my belief that almost no group is persecuted the way Jewish people are or the way Israel is. A Jewish friend later came to thank me for standing up for Israel in that conversation. I intend to continue engaging with others to stand with Israel. I hope and believe that the experiences and knowledge I gained in my time with Passages, especially my visit to Yad Vashem and what I learned from their speaker series, and my training as a history B.A. will help me present a fuller picture of what Israel means to me, to the Jewish people, and for justice around the world.