Sunday, April 29, 2012

From the March of the Living to the March for Life

On the evening of Yom Ha’Atsmaut, Israel Independence Day, I went with a friend to the closing event of the 2012 "March of the Living" in the Latrun amphitheatre, located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The March of the Living is an educational program that brings Jewish teens from all over the world to Poland on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. They march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest concentration camp complex built during World War II, and then to Israel to observe Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day) and Yom Ha'Atzmaut.

According to its website, the March of the Living divides its goals into “universal” and “Jewish” goals.

The universal goals include remembering those who perished in the Holocaust, paying tribute to survivors, recognizing and learning from the actions of the “righteous among the nations,” honoring the veterans of World War II, fighting anti-Semitism and racial discrimination, and inspiring the participants to build a world free of oppression and intolerance, founded upon “freedom, democracy and justice, for all members of the human family.”

The “Jewish goals” of the march include bolstering the Jewish identity of the next generation through learning about the Jewish heritage of pre-war Eastern Europe, understanding the importance of the existence of Israel as spiritual center and homeland of the Jewish people, fostering Jewish unity, and promoting tikkun olam ("repairing the world") and the Jewish people’s responsibility to be a light onto the nations.

All very worthy and noble goals.  Even though I did not participate in the March, at the spectacular closing evening in Latrun I could indeed feel that the participants were bound by what had been a very deep and meaningful time spent together. Beyond the extraordinary performance which combined engaging songs, professional dances and choreographies, impressive pyrotechnics and fireworks, and moving speeches, movie clips and testimonies, there was a graspable sense of unity and purpose among the thousands of young Jewish people who had no doubt experienced an unforgettable two weeks.

One could sense that the shaping of the Jewish nation out of the calamity of the Shoah, through the rebirth and growth of the State of Israel thanks to the sacrifice of so many, was a call to responsibility for the future generations, encapsulated by the evening’s slogan of “embrace the past, grasp the future.”

As I sat there enjoying the show, many thoughts went through my mind.

First, I was struck by the strength that comes from this incredible sense of purpose, dedication and self-sacrifice born out of the Jewish people’s struggle for survival throughout the ages. It’s no wonder, I thought, that Israel has won all the wars launched against them by their Arab enemies - who not only totally lack any sense of common purpose but are often bitter rivals among themselves.

At the same time, it was clear to me how a greater Hand of protection had been upon the people of Israel in protecting them from the foes that have risen and continue to rise against them.

For this reason, I thought it unfortunate and rather sad that the One who is primarily responsible for the survival of the Jewish People, the Shomer Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps, was more or less left on the sidelines of the evening. With hardly any verbal acknowledgement made to the enduring providence and protection of the God of Israel over His people, I felt that the event left at times a bit of an awkward feeling of self-congratulation – as if the survival and thriving of the Jewish people through history were due to their own tenacity and determination alone.

While aware that the March of the Living is not a “religious event” per se, I could not help but wish that some thanksgiving and praise would have been given to God for His faithfulness to His people – especially now that the dark clouds of new and greater threats are gathering on the horizon of the Jewish nation.

Fortunately, this uneasy feeling was partially relieved with the uplifting performances of some traditional religious Jewish songs, such as Adon Olam (Lord of the Ages), Mashiach (Messiah) and Ein lanu al mi lehisha’en (“We have no one else to lean on but our Father who is in heaven”) – which were my personal highlights of the evening.

I also wished that a dimension of reconciliation would have been better integrated into the event, such as the work done by the much smaller Yad b’Yad initiative, which sends groups of Israelis and Germans together to Germany, Auschwitz, and Israel with the goal of fostering reconciliation, healing and friendships between them. As much as I appreciate the mission of the March of the Living, I felt that its implicit message of “we survived even though everyone is against us, and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again” fell quite a bit short of Yad b’Yad’s vision of bringing together Germans and Israelis, calling the former to repentance and the latter to forgiveness, healing their respective wounds of guilt and victimization, and leading them to true friendship and unity between Jew and Gentile.

Of course, since such a vision of the “one new man” is grounded in the work of reconciliation accomplished by Yeshua the Messiah of Israel and Prince of Peace, it is probably unrealistic to expect it from a Jewish organization that does not accept Him as Messiah and Savior. Still, one may hope for this vision of true reconciliation to come to pass in the future, since it is an integral part of Israel's calling and vocation as announced by the ancient prophets.

Finally, while admiring the March of the Living event, I could not help but think of its quasi-namesake the “March for Life” - the annual pro-life rally that draws some 250,000 participants in Washington D.C. every year with the goal of overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in America.

The March of the Living and March for Life.  I thought of the “Great Disconnect” between Israel and the Church: How many Jews at the event in Latrun even know what is the March for Life?  How many of my Catholic friends in the U.S. even know what is the March of the Living?

The March of the Living and March for Life.  Two holocausts.  6 millions Jews in Europe from 1941 to 1945 (average 1.5 million a year).  Over 54 million unborn - in America alone - from 1973 to 2011 (average 1.4 million a year).

The March of the Living and March for Life.  Two celebrations of life. One group marching to celebrate the life that came out of the ashes of the Shoah seventy years ago, having survived a mad criminal regime and a nation that had killed its own conscience. One group marching to protect the life of future generations, threatened today by a culture of selfishness that has also killed its conscience in tolerating the legal wholesale slaughter of millions of innocents for the sake of “choice.”

The March of the Living and March for Life...  and a chilling question: of all those Jews who take pride in celebrating the victory of life over death at the March of the Living, how many simultaneously choose the side of death when it comes to today's silent genocide of the unborn?  After all, it is known that a majority of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and secular Jews are aligned with the so-called "reproductive choice" camp, with not a few Jews being even leaders in the pro-abortion movement.  Survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants, and at the same time accomplices in the greatest modern-day Holocaust.  A chilling thought indeed.

May the people at the March for Life in Washington D.C. be inspired by the heritage, memory and mission of the March of the Living. But more importantly, may those participants in the March of the Living also fight for life in the battle that is taking place before their very eyes today. God forbid that those whose ancestors survived a Holocaust become accomplices of another. May they "embrace the past and grasp the future" by joining the cause of the March for Life.