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First stop, Yad Vashem. Why?

That is the first place in Israel that foreign dignitaries visit. We can do better.

President Joe Biden talks with American Holocaust survivors Dr. Gita Cycowicz and Rena Quint in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, July 13, 2022, in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(RNS) — Whatever else you might think about President Joe Biden, politically, let us agree on one thing: He is a mensch.

Take his visit to Israel last week. Biden’s first stop — at his request — was Yad Vashem. The images of Biden at the iconic Holocaust memorial and museum moved me to tears — his meeting with two survivors of the Shoah, Dr. Gita Cycowicz and Rena Quint, kneeling before them, in reverence for their age and their legacy, speaking with them quietly, giving them both a kiss on the cheek.

That map of the journey to Israel for visiting foreign dignitaries — first stop, Yad Vashem — is by now a diplomatic tradition. 

Why is it that Yad Vashem is the first stop for foreign visitors? And, is that an appropriate choice?

I think it is simply this: A map always contains a story.

Here is the story: You, dear visitor, are visiting Yad Vashem because it tells you why there must be an Israel. Yad Vashem is the story of Jewish powerlessness. We will never be powerless again. This is why there is an Israel. 

Some years ago, I had a classmate at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was a Quaker minister who taught at Earlham College, a Quaker university in Indiana. He was, as you might expect, a pacifist. He told me he had always resented Israel. Why? “Because they had an air force,” he told me.

Then, he visited Israel. Sure enough, his first stop was Yad Vashem.

This is what he told me: “After an hour at Yad Vashem, I came to understand why Israel needs an air force.”

There is a second story that “first stop, Yad Vashem” tells.

Israel exists not only because of what Yad Vashem represents. What Yad Vashem represents is actually responsible for creating Israel. 

Not true. Oh, yes: The conscience and the sympathies of the world were stirred in the years after the destruction. There was massive international sympathy for the survivors and refugees — the numbers of which were unprecedented in European history.

That sympathy lubricated the wheels of the creation of the state, but it was not solely responsible for creating the state.

The truth is, the state of Israel, in theory, dates back to the 1880s. The infrastructure of what would become the state of Israel had been present for decades.

These stories that connect Israel with the Shoah are not wrong. I have believed and taught them. But, but they are incomplete.

Those stories omit the vast majority of today’s Israelis.

Consider: The vast majority of Jews who died in the camps and ghettos were Ashkenazic. The Ashkenazic, Yiddish-speaking Judaism of central and Eastern Europe had a near death experience. I emphasize “near death.” I inwardly smile when I hear Haredim in Israel speaking Yiddish. It is also why, on my Berkshire excursions, I love to make a pilgrimage to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Our enemies could not wipe out that language.

But, that story is not the story of the overwhelming majority of Israel’s Jews, who come from Middle Eastern backgrounds. Their families never experienced the Shoah — though they did experience pogroms in Iraq and expulsions from Syria. For the emerging majority of Israelis, the Shoah has no role in their story.

Finally, I question the Yad Vashem narrative, because it paints the Jewish people as victims. 

Forty years ago, my teacher and the founder of the institute in Jerusalem that bears his father’s name, Rabbi David Hartman, wrote a crucial, small essay, “Auschwitz or Sinai?

He wrote that essay in the shadow of the 1982 war in Lebanon. In that essay, Hartman admitted that in the 20th century, the Jews had been a traumatized people.

But, he continued:

While I respect and share in the anguish expressed in these sentiments, I believe it is destructive to make the Holocaust the dominant organizing category of modern Jewish history and of our national renewal and rebirth. It is both politically and morally dangerous for our nation to perceive itself essentially as the suffering remnant of the Holocaust. It is childish and often vulgar to attempt to demonstrate how the Jewish people’s suffering is unique in history.

In 1982 — 40 years ago! — this was an outrageous and courageous statement. Hartman wanted the Jewish state to see itself not as a response to Auschwitz — a place of suffering — but as a response to Sinai — the place of revelation and the birthplace of ethical introspection.

Auschwitz is what they did to us; Sinai is what we did for ourselves, at the behest of God. Israel is a continuation of that story. Whether or not you attach God to that activism, Israel is about Jewish self-definition. 

“Well, Rabbi, in every trip there has to be a first stop. What would be the first stop in Israel that you would recommend for foreign dignitaries?”

That is a good question. Next year, Israel will celebrate its 75th birthday. Is it not time for us to refresh the itinerary? Is it not time to find a new first place to visit?

If those visiting foreign dignitaries happen to be arriving in the first two weeks of July, this is what I would do: I would take them directly to the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

In fact, that is precisely where I would have taken Biden.

What would they see?

They would see hundreds of lay leaders, Hillel directors, educators, rabbis and journalists learning sacred Jewish texts, debating the issues facing Israel and the Jewish people and the world.

They would see a Jewish institution welcoming Christian and Muslim clergy, under the direction of Yossi Klein Halevi and Abdullah Antepli.

They would see an institution that teaches Israeli young people and Israeli soldiers.

What would they see? The most important thing any person needs to see when they come to Israel — that Judaism is alive and growing and noisy and resplendent with infinite possibility.

In other words, it is not only that “Am Yisrael chai” — the people of Israel lives — but the second verse of that famous song — “Od Avinu chai” — “God, as the ultimate voice behind and within our sacred texts, still lives.”

Hartman, of blessed memory, titled his essay “Auschwitz or Sinai.”

Don’t show them an Israel that is a response to Auschwitz; they know about that already.

Show them an Israel that is a response to Sinai. Show them that Judaism lives — and that the Torah is on the lips of its teachers, and that this is, again in his words, a living covenant.