Evoking my father’s defiant Zionist spirit on his yahrzeit
NEW YORK — Addressing the United Nations General Assembly last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that he had come “from the Holy Land, the land of Palestine, the land of divine messages, ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the birthplace of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him).”
No mention of Kings David and Solomon, nor of the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Amos, or of the great Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva, or of Hillel and Shammai, the most prominent members of Jerusalem’s Sanhedrin around the very time of Jesus Christ’s birth. Abbas failed to recall Yokhanan ben Zakkai, who established his yeshiva at Yavneh only decades later, or, for that matter, Yehuda Ha-Nasi, who compiled and edited the Mishna, the compilation of the oral tradition that forms the first section of the Talmud, in the second century of the Common Era. All these men lived in Abbas’s “Holy Land, the land of Palestine” long before the birth of Muhammad. Indeed, the very words “Jews” and “Jewish” are conspicuously absent from Abbas’ speech.
Abbas’ deliberate refusal to acknowledge that before either Christianity or Islam ever appeared on the historical or theological scene, Judaism had been firmly ensconced in what is today the State of Israel speaks volumes.
And when Reuters reports that “The issue of whether and how to suggest that Israel should be a Jewish state ultimately sank” the Quartet’s recent diplomatic efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks,” it is time for all of us, in particular those of us who have long supported a legitimate peace process, to draw our line in the sand.
“My people,” Abbas declared, “desire to exercise their right to enjoy a normal life like the rest of humanity. They believe what the great poet Mahmoud Darwish said: Standing here, staying here, permanent here, eternal here, and we have one goal, one, one: to be.”
Our unambiguous response must be that we insist on precisely the same rights Darwish demands for the Palestinians. For us, a permanent, eternal Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel is not only non-negotiable but must be, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust, one of the cornerstones of any authentic and hopefully lasting peace.
When the remnant of European Jewry emerged from the death camps, forests and hiding places throughout Europe in the winter and spring of 1945, they looked for their families and, overwhelmingly, discovered that their fathers and mothers, their husbands, wives and children, their brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins, had all been murdered by the Germans and their accomplices. And yet, they did not give in to despair. On the contrary, almost from the moment of their liberation, the Holocaust survivors’ defiant affirmation of their Jewish national identity in the Displaced Persons camps of Germany, Austria and Italy took the form of a political and spiritually redemptive Zionism.
The creation of a Jewish state in what was then called Palestine was far more than a practical goal. It was the one ideal that had not been destroyed, and that allowed them to retain the hope that an affirmative future, beyond gas chambers, mass graves and ashes, was still possible for them.
At Bergen-Belsen, the largest of the D.P. camps, a popularly elected Jewish leadership headed by my father, Josef Rosensaft, made Zionism the order of the day. At the first Congress of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany, convened in September 1945 in Belsen by my father and his colleagues, without permission from the British military authorities, the survivors formally adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, and expressing their “Sorrow and indignation that almost six months after liberation, we still find ourselves in guarded camps on British soil soaked with the blood of our people.”
Two months later, my father denounced the British government’s stifling of “Jewish nationalists and Zionist activities” at Belsen in the pages of The New York Times. He further charged “that the British exerted censorship over the inmates’ news sheets in that the Jews are not allowed to proclaim in print their desire to emigrate to Palestine.”
In December 1945, my father told representatives of American Jewry assembled at the first post-war conference of the United Jewish Appeal in Atlantic City, according to a report in The New York Herald Tribune, that the survivors’ sole hope was emigration to Palestine, the only place in the world “willing, able, and ready to open its doors to the broken and shattered Jews of war-ravaged Europe.” The following week, The New York Journal American quoted him as declaring at an emergency conference on Palestine at the Manhattan Center in New York City, that, “We know that the English are prepared to stop us with machine guns. But machine guns cannot stop us.”
In early 1946, he told the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine that if the survivors would not be allowed to go to Palestine, “We shall go back to Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and you will bear the moral responsibility for it.”
Small wonder, then, that according to British Foreign Office documents, my father was considered an “extreme Zionist” and a “dangerous troublemaker.” My father, who taught me that a love of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel is the most important element of Jewish leadership, understood that the goal of a Jewish state was a spiritual lifeline that gave the survivors of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belsen, and all the other centers of horror a sense of purpose and a basis for hope. He died 36 years ago, on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, midway between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I cannot think of a worthier way to honor his memory than by evoking his spirit and his uncompromising dedication to the creation of a new Jewish commonwealth to refute each and every refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, lecturer in law at Columbia Law School and distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law.)