“Max Lehmann, 18/03/1892, Mainz, Germany, Murdered in Bergen Belsen camp.” A name, a date, a place. An identity – a Jewish identity.
Max Lehmann was my husband’s grandfather. I found his information on a page in the “The Book of Names”, when I attended the Yad Vashem unveiling of its new exhibit in the UN Headquarters last Thursday. Timed to coincide with the 2023 International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, along with Israel’s Permanent Mission to the UN, presented “The Book of Names of Holocaust Victims”. It contains the names of 4,800,000 Holocaust victims, and whenever possible, their date of birth, and their place of birth and death.
The book is mammoth. It stands a length of 26.45 feet, is 6.56 feet high and 3.3 feet wide. A strip of light runs the length of the inside of the book, illuminating it, and contains the blank pages of more than 1 million identities of victims that have not yet been recovered.
The irony of installing a temporary exhibit memorializing the 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims at the UN was likely not lost on attendees. The speakers at the event - United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, Israel's Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan, and Yad Vashem Chairman Ambassador Dani Dayan – all mentioned current challenges facing Jews and the State of Israel. Erdan, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, referenced the rise of anti-Semitism, including in the halls of the UN.
That is why this book belongs in that place. It is an indisputable answer to growing trends of Holocaust denial. You cannot argue with evidence in black and white. However, growing trends of anti-Semitism pose a far graver threat, and its origins are not as concrete.
Recovering the Jewish identities of Holocaust victims defies the Nazi goal of eradicating Jewish identity. Nazis began their anti-Semitic crusade with edicts aimed at stripping away Judaism from Jews, until they reached their final solution. A video at the UN event shows a Holocaust survivor detailing the horror of her father having his beard pulled out by Nazis, illustrating the Nazi goal of pulling out the Jewish essence of their victims.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Hatred of Jews has returned with physical violence against “identifiable Jews”, the inescapable moniker of the Orthodox. Attacks on Jews in NYC rose 41% in 2022, with the crimes incurring little retribution, if any. And in addition to blatant extremist anti-Semites, there are the figurative but mounting in-your-face assaults by anti-Israel BDS proponents in academia, corporations, the media, and among politicians.
Yet there is a more malignant and enigmatic threat to Jewish identity today, and it comes from Jews themselves. In a perverse twist of affairs, some Jews seem to be suffering an identity crisis regarding the Jewish state vis-a-vis themselves.
Since the formation of the rightwing and religious coalition under Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel faces a crescendo of condemnation against its new government for its efforts to strengthen Israel’s Jewish character. The loudest voices in the chorus are leftwing Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.
This is nothing new. Back in 2018, the Netanyahu government was slammed by these same leftists for passing the “nation-state bill”, a legal assertion of Jewish identity. Among other things, the bill enshrined the Jewish nature of the state, established Hebrew as its official language and even instituted Shabbos as Israel’s official day of rest. At the time of its passing, one of its architects, then MK Avi Dichter, declared that its aim is to “prevent even the slightest thought, let alone attempt, to transform Israel to a country of all its citizens” - a catch phrase for a non-Jewish state.
Outrage ensued, especially by non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews. Rick Jacobs, head of Reform Judaism, claimed the “damage…is enormous”, and Steven Wernick, head of Conservative Judaism, protested the bill in a letter to the Israeli government and said “Israel is losing its soul”.
Fast forward to today. The same opponents are at it again with a vengeance. Netanyahu’s government has mobilized leftist Jews worldwide, some using Nazi imagery and accusing the government of ending democracy.
Terrorists are slaughtering Jews in Neve Yaakov and elsewhere in Israel, but to the leftists, the rightwing government is the enemy. Mere mention of “judicial reform”, through which the coalition endeavors to undo progressive judicial overreach, is enough to send protestors spilling into the streets of Tel Aviv and onto the pages of mainstream and social media. In the immediate aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack on Jewish worshipers at the Neve Yaakov shul, a group of judicial reform opponents in Tel Aviv were waving PLO flags.
Every day brings another condemnation by leftists for daring to reverse progressive policies they worked hard to cultivate. Any attempt to bolster the Jewish identity of the state, such as amending the Law of Return or safeguarding kashrus, is attacked.
To this end, Reform and Conservative denominations in America have linked arms with mainstream Jewish organizations, like the Jewish Federation and the AJC, and progressive Jewish politicians, such as Democrats Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Brad Sherman and Sen. Jacky Rosen. Even previously considered moderates like the ADL’s Abe Foxman responded to coalition plans by saying, “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.”
Their aim is to turn Israel’s government into a pariah on the world stage and is indifferent to collateral damage to Jews everywhere. Last week, Eynat Guez, founder and CEO of Israel’s Papaya Global, valued at $3.7 billion, announced that the company plans to withdraw all its funds from Israel due to concerns about judicial reform plans.
The Jewish state is now attacked precisely because it seeks to preserve its Jewish identity. Sadly, these culprits have an astonishing track record, having wiped out the Jewish identity of millions of Diaspora Jewry through assimilation - the silent Holocaust, for which there is no Book of Names. Indeed, commenting on proposals to amend the Law of Return, Foxman claimed that, “If Israel becomes a fundamentalist religious state…it will cut Israel off from 70% of world Jewry, who won’t qualify into their definition of ‘who is a Jew’.”
At this time of year, we read about Yetzias Mitzrayim and how the Jews merited redemption from Egypt because they clung to three identifying Jewish characteristics –clothing, language and names. For that merit to stand by us now, Jews need to keep the “Jewish” in their Jewish identity.
Sara Lehmann is an award-winning New York based columnist and interviewer. For more of her writings, please visit saralehmann.com