I was privileged this week to be invited to give the keynote address at the Warsaw Ghetto Commemoration. The following is drawn from my remarks.
“I hear the sound of cannon fire, of exploding rifles, guns, grenades. I wonder how the children of Israel can defend themselves. I look upon you with amazement Jews — your heroism and deeds — and how you remain a fighting people even at the final hour.” — Maria Kann, Polish poet who lived a block from the Warsaw Ghetto
This week we commemorate the 76th anniversary of the uprising of the surviving Warsaw Ghetto Jews that saw several thousand poorly armed survivors holding off Nazi armed might for thirty days – longer than any nation in Europe had. In a few weeks we will be celebrating the 71st anniversary of the independence of the State of Israel. Both events have a relevance for our time. For all time.
We live in an era of ungracious self-absorption and cautious calculation as excuses for inaction. We fear daring to care, and do not lionize what is most indomitable and indefatigable in the nature of man. As Robert Kennedy once said, “...we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” He went on to say that, “Our GDP measures everything except what is most important. It does not measure the compassion in our hearts, the beauty of our poetry, the limitless possibilities of our hopes, the love for each other nor the courage and resolve of our spirits. In short, it tells us everything but what is most important in the character and conscience of man.”
The Jewish people have been the canary in the mineshaft of history. Before horrors are perpetrated against anyone else, they are first perpetrated against the Jews. Yes, not every one of the twenty million killed by the Nazis was a Jew. But every Jew they got their hands on was killed. Simply because they were Jews.
The remnant of that slaughter would have long given up if they just looked at the numbers. But miraculously, 500,000 Jews — speaking more than 25 languages — were victorious against Arab armies representing populations totaling 50 million in 1948. And the State of Israel that was built held to fundamental principles of brotherhood and humanity. It did not take revenge. It built a modern, democratic state that — despite a small population — is a world leader in liberal governance, educational progress, scientific advances and compassion for all people. Despite the controversies over the West Bank and Gaza, let us never forget that holding land for peace after surviving a war of aggression is an accepted principle in international law exercised by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the former Soviet Union. Let us never forget that Israel was the only nation to recognize the Arab State of Palestine in 1948 while its Arab neighbours invaded and occupied it for decades. Let us never forget that Israeli assistance has given Palestinians the highest percentage of university students in the Arab world; the lowest infant mor-tality rate; access to health care on a par with Israelis and Israel even gave the Palestinian Authority 150,000 guns and rifles to arm its police force when the PA was established.
Within Israel, Arabic is an official language, there are Arab judges, diplomats and Members of Parliament. If Israelis measured only the numbers, they would never have fought for a state and they would have been too afraid to stay true to the timeless values of equity and equality once that State was created.
If the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto had measured only the numbers, they would never have risen up. They would have gone silently and passively to their own slaughter.
But the Jews of Warsaw and the Israelis of today believed and believe — without reservation or hesitation — that the courage of the human spirit can conquer the seemingly unconquerable. That bold will can beat down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. Their lessons for us today and for evermore is that “Never Again” means more than never staying mute in the face of injustice. It means that “never again” should mankind hesitate to act against injustice merely because the numbers don’t add up. In our time, and for all time, these dates have proven that “Never Again” is a promise that — with absolute faith — if you will it, nothing is merely a dream. New Jerusalems can become realities every day and in every way.