A year ago, I was on my first visit to Israel. Frankly, it was exciting to be invited as part of the delegation that accompanied Prime Minister Stephen Harper on what was also his first visit to The Holy Land. The special experience of walking where Jesus walked was made even more unique by the environment of that visit. Conversations with cabinet ministers in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. A walk-and-talk with Members of Parliament through the streets of Jerusalem to the Garden Tomb. A state dinner at which the Prime Minister of Israel implored the Prime Minister of Canada to perform with a Beatles cover band; and he did!
My knowledge of Israel from the Scriptures and studying history could not compare with the actual experience of walking the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee or visiting several holy sites. And, meeting the living stones; a reminder that it’s not just about the sites but also the people of The Holy Land – Jews and Arabs.
It’s the people that are the reason for Israel. And, like every other democracy on Earth, the people cause of both political peace and political unrest. Unlike every other democracy on the planet, however, Israel is under a constant and distinct form of threat of violence, from within and outside its borders, for no reason other than its very existence.
If an awareness of the history of the Jews, as it was called in Bible College, wasn’t enough to give a heartfelt understanding of the United Nations’ decision to establish the State of Israel in 1948 then a visit to Yad Vashem was. Yad Vashem is “the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust.” More than 6 million people – men, women and children – exterminated, gone prematurely from the history of several nations, simply because they were born Jewish.
I have not been to a concentration camp but Yad Vashem carried me to the heart of the hatred and loss suffered by the Jewish people, as well as the hope and victory of the resilient living stones of the Middle East’s only functional democracy.
Sitting at a meal with a survivor of the death camps is heart stirring. Having an extended conversation at the airport in Tel Aviv with the author of an autobiographical survivor memoir I had read was a deeper stirring still. Being on the same flight as we returned home to the relative safety of Canada was pause for quiet, personal reflection.
The events of recent days in France brought to light, again, something that has been bubbling to the surface in many European nations for months, and to which Canada is not immune. Something that is centuries old.
In addition to caricatures of Mohammed, the magazine Charlie Hebdo published grotesque caricatures of Jews over recent months; contributing to a rising tide of anti-semitism in France and throughout Europe. Four French Jews were murdered in a Paris kosher deli by the same radical Islamist cell who killed at Charlie Hebdo. Born and raised in France, French Jews are again feeling unsafe in their own nation, their own neighbourhoods. It’s a feeling that was supposed to be “never again.”
Today, at Ottawa’s City Hall, I attended a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps where over 1 million were killed. Present were survivors, ambassadors and Members of Parliament, among others. One of the speakers, Floralove Katz, put what happened in Paris in precise perspective, “Cartoonists were murdered for cartooning. Journalists were murdered for journalism. Police were murdered for policing. Jews were murdered for being Jewish.”
Never again is not just about remembering the genocide of the holocaust. Never again is not just about telling the truth about what happened. Never again is not just about providing assistance to aging survivors of the Holocaust or listening to their stories of horrific human behaviour.
Never again is about standing together to prevent what took place from happening again, not just the behaviour but the underlying attitudes that feed the behaviour. Never again is about teaching our children more than tolerance. We need to teach them, by word and deed, to live with acceptance of “other.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu has assured the French Jews that Israel is open to welcome those who wish to move there. Although, for me at least, it’s a concern that Jews from France (and currently also large numbers from Ukraine) would make Aliyah (immigrating from the diaspora to Israel) out of fear rather than desire.
Israel is both the safest and not a safe place.
Israel was born from and bears the heart of never again. But, it’s necessary for the rest of the world – the rest of us – to share that heart or Israel will instead become the centre of again.