Why American Jews Should Stop Observing Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day

An interesting thing happened two weeks ago.

When President Trump issued his executive order banning refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, setting off a wave of protests and condemnations, many Jewish groups who opposed the ban noted the cruel irony that the ban was issued on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In addition, Jewish groups also noted with dismay that the statement the Trump White House issued in observance of that day failed to mention Jews specifically, saying that they “took into account all of those who suffered.”

What was interesting is not just these two developments, but that the American Jewish community was paying attention and giving weight to International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In general, the American Jewish community reserves its commemoration for the Holocaust to Yom Hashoah.

The background of the two days are different. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is on January 27, designated by the United Nations General Assembly and coinciding with the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Yom Hashoah (also called “Holocaust Memorial Day” in English) is on the 27th of Nissan on the Jewish calendar (so the Gregorian date shifts year to year, this year it falls on April 24), designated by the Knesset in Israel and meant to evoke the date of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

And so while American Jewish communities generally join with the Israeli community commemorating the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah in the spring, these recent events suggest that perhaps the American Jewish community should shift its observance of the Holocaust to International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January.

The Trump executive order coinciding with International Holocaust Remembrance Day has highlighted for American Jews a fundamental aspect of our narrative: that we are a people whose history — both mythic biblical history and actual history—is one of immigrants and refugees.

This Shabbat in our weekly Torah reading cycle we read Parshat Beshallach, which recounts the climax of the Exodus narrative when hundreds of thousands of Israelites leave Egyptian slavery. It is a paradigmatic story of liberation from oppression, which also involves a mass migration.

And Jewish history is replete with examples of Jewish communities fleeing and seeking safe haven in other lands. American Jewish history is defined by immigration, and we also know too well how this country’s refusal to admit Jewish refugees from Europe during World War II led to devastating consequences. (For example, the story of the St. Louis)

The Trump order and its corresponding date thus provided an important reminder to American Jews—that when we commemorate the Holocaust, our commemoration should fit our narrative and history as American Jews, and not the narrative of Israel. The histories are different, the outcomes are different, and we need to claim our unique story in the development of post-Holocaust Jewish community.

[Which is why, too, the absence from the Trump commemorative statement proved so shocking.]

The American Jewish community has embraced the values not only of Judaism but of America. When confronted with presidential orders that limit immigration and ban refugees, we need to recall our own history as immigrants and refugees. When orders target one religion, we need to recall our own struggle, with both the promise of religious liberty and the challenge of belonging to a minority faith. When certain groups are deemed “other,” we need to recall our own fight against anti-Semitism and hatred, and the promise that all people are equal.

Thus the new political reality provides a new opportunity of activism for Jews in which we “do not oppress the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” as it says many times in our Torah. And it may prove a shift in how–and when–we remember the most devastating episode of our modern history as well.

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