Reflecting on Yom Hashoah

Yana Gitelman

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Today, Holocaust remembrance is as important as ever. As the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindles, we must uphold their legacies. We must all recognize and staunchly resist anti-semitism in their honor. Yom Hashoah Ve Hagevurah, or Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, should serve in part as a reminder that while the Holocaust itself is history, the anti-semitic and hateful sentiments that fueled it persist.

Set on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Yom Hashoah was intended to emphasize the resistance of Jews in the Holocaust. That mission is just as important today as it was when the day began in Israel in the late 1950s.

I learned about the Holocaust in school for the first time in fifth grade. I remember feeling disturbed but not personally associated with the event. I would have had the same reaction to learning about a genocide against any other group. When we revisited the topic in eighth grade I began to connect with it more in terms of my familial history, but I never felt personally endangered. Each class period that covered this tragedy left me with the message that the Holocaust was horrific, and that it could never happen in our world today. I saw it as a dark moment that came and went, and I saw the world today as a safe place for Jews. I would have never considered myself a member of a marginalized group, and I truly believed anti-semitism did not exist in America. Despite the fact that many of my friends were Jewish, we rarely talked about Judaism because it did not affect our lives on a material level. At times, some of my peers would tell Holocaust jokes and perpetuate anti-semitic stereotypes. Occasionally my non-Jewish peers would jokingly pick up coins off the ground and hand them to me. If that happened to me in a private middle school in New York City, imagine what happens in areas with smaller Jewish communities. I never truly felt justified expressing any opposition in moments like these out of fear of coming off as sensitive or out of touch with my privilege. Looking back, I am surprised that making light of such a serious topic was considered socially acceptable. I would have a very different reaction to these comments today knowing what I know now.

It wasn’t until recently that I started to associate my Jewish identity with fear. Hearing the news of the Pittsburgh shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue was surreal. The shooter attacked my Jewish and my refugee community. He did so to target the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which brought my parents to the United States and made my life in America possible. He attacked three vital aspects of my identity all in one fell swoop, just 356 miles from my home.

The Pittsburgh shooting made me more aware and proud of my identity than I had ever been before. The mainstream response was disappointing, to say the least. It was only mentioned in one of my classes. Many of my friends had still not heard of the attack a week later. People hesitated to even call it a terrorist attack, and instead treated it as an isolated incident. Some media outlets and politicians used the example to talk about gun control without addressing the other underlying problem of the hate that brings people to take up arms against a religious group. While this was a tragic mass shooting, it was not just another example of gun violence. I felt that an opportunity to have an important conversation about anti-semitism today had been ignored.

Furthermore, some people suggested that synagogues should be better prepared for violence. Although it may be a necessary measure for today’s reality, a world in which synagogues need armed guards is not a world any of us should want to live in. Walking through metal detectors on my way to Passover seder did not make me feel safer. It recalled the feeling I had after Pittsburgh: fear.

The Poway Synagogue shooting in California last week reminded me once again of the harsh reality that anti-semitism is very much alive today.

No one in my family even mentioned the event, perhaps because the relatively few casualties do not seem to warrant much attention. This hate crime resulted in one death and several injuries, but it should be alarming regardless of these numbers. It was an act of terrorism and should be discussed as one. Pure hate motivated the shooter to attack Jews in their Holy Place on the last day of Passover, and this should be terrifying in itself.

As we talk about the Holocaust it is important to remember that the hate which motivated it are not extinct, and patterns throughout history often repeat themselves. Jews have been persecuted since ancient times, and the tenets of anti-semitic rhetoric still exist today. It is on each and every one of us to point out anti-semitism and to ensure it does not materialize into violence, custom, or legislation. Our government does not have explicitly anti-semitic policy; however, it has also done nothing to prevent the future mass murders of Jews in light of the recent shootings, and does not rule out the possibility of another wave of popular anti-semitism in the future.

In a democracy, the court of public opinion ultimately shapes politics and law, so it is our responsibility  to ensure that hatred does not become commonplace. When we hear anti-semitic speech, we must explain the factual and moral offense. When we see violent action taken against the Jewish community, we must not be afraid to discuss the larger culture that tolerates and breeds that violence. We deserve better not only as a Jewish community, but as a nation that prides itself on acceptance and religious freedom. Above all, we deserve better as humans who rely on mutual understanding and love in order to prevent catastrophe.