The following are remarks I delivered at the Yom Hashoah observance on Monday evening. For an audio version, click here.

Several years ago, the writer Daniel Mendelsohn came to Northwestern to talk about his Holocaust-related memoir, The Lost. In his talk, Mendelsohn reflected on one of the key questions of his book, namely what effects, if any, are at play in the discrepancies between historical truth and the truth of memory. Does it make a difference, Mendelsohn asked, if the historical records show that cousin Fayge died in 1942 and not 1943, as Bubbe remembered it? Or if she was born in 1922, and not 1924, as Zayde insists? Does it make a difference if she spelled her name with an i and not a y, or if her birthmark was on the left arm and not the right?

These are seemingly small details, separated by orders of magnitude from questions of the historical veracity of the Holocaust. What they remind us of, however, is that we are at a critical moment, a “hinge moment,” as Mendelsohn put it. We are at a moment when the Holocaust, the Shoah, is swinging, when it is moving from being memory to being history.

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain writes in his Passover Haggadah that history is his story—a story from which are a separate, something we are able to objectify and treat at a remove. Memory, by contrast, is my story, our story. Memory is lived. It is, in the psycho-social sense, an imagination, an imaginary—it is a world we enter into and which enters into us. Or, perhaps, memory is that which constitutes our world. To be human is to have memory, to remember and to re-member—to constitute ourselves by making ourselves members of our story. To remember is to fulfill our role as the constituents, the custodians, of memory.

The work of Holocaust history and scholarship, of documenting and quantifying and using the best of science to understand what happened—this work is vital. But that work runs parallel with the task of remembering, of telling and making meaning, of telling and retelling again. If the former is the work of historians, the latter is the work of artists and actors, writers and musicians, poets and clergymen.

That is why we gather here. That is why we tell our stories: not simply to dryly testify to the historical facticity of the Holocaust, but to do what the Rabbis of two thousand years ago instructed us to do at the Passover seder that we enacted not two weeks ago: b’khol dor va’dor hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah memitzrayim – In every generation each individual is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt. Today we can add that in each generation, each individual is obligated to see himself as if he personally lived through the Shoah. I hesitate to specify whether we must see ourselves as having survived or perished – we are perhaps still too close to the events to know how we lived through. But we must see ourselves as having been there, having suffered. Not to be despondent, not to be fatalistic, not to wallow in self-pity, but simply and powerfully to imagine ourselves as part of the story of the Shoah. That is our duty, to those who perished, to those who survived, and to ourselves. We must make the stories of the Shoah our stories, if we are to keep memory from becoming simply history.

It is that simple, and yet it cannot possibly be that simple. For the phrase “Never Forget,” which has become the motto of the lampcarriers of zekher haShoah, of Shoah memory, begs a question of interpretation: On whose behalf are we not to forget? When we say Never Forget, do we do so on behalf of the khallalei ha-Shoah, the victims and their families? Or do we do so on behalf of humanity as a whole, for the Nazis’ attack upon very concept of what it means to be human?

Likewise, when we utter the more muscular phrase ‘Never Again,’ how do we mean it? To what extent is the Shoah a unique feature of Jewish life, and to what extent is it a feature of the life of humanity as a whole? When we say ‘Never Again,’ do we mean Never again for the Jews? Or do we mean Never again for anyone?

A year ago today, my family and I observed Yom Hashoah in Israel. My wife and I purposely got our kids in the car and began driving so that we would be on the road when the air raid sirens sounded. We wanted our children to see and feel what Yom Hashoah in Israel is: a moment of national unity, a moment of shared memory. When the siren sounds, every Jewish man, woman, and child across the country stops what they are doing—they rise from their desks at work, they stop walking in the shopping malls, they pull their cars to the side of the road and stand at attention. In this singular moment, time overrides space, and commands the attention of a nation.

No one else could observe Yom Hashoah this way, because the Shoah is a unique memory of the Jewish people. (Not, I would hasten to add, because the Holocaust provides the raison d’etre of the State of Israel. That false storyline has sadly become popularized of late, a testament both to the effectiveness of Holocaust education, and ineffectiveness of Zionist education, on the general American public. Zionism predates the Shoah by two generations, and the State of Israel was being built before the ovens of Auschwitz and Treblinka. The Shoah perhaps hastened, but certainly did not cause, the establishment of Medinat Yisrael. But I digress.)

The Shoah is a unique memory of the Jewish people. Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, will and must always have a unique memory of the Shoah. The memory of the six million is part of our inheritance, and we are therefore its primary custodians. And yet humanity as a whole must also not only learn the history, but internalize the memory, of the Holocaust. All of us have this duty, whether or not we are Jews. The Holocaust is both a singular event in Jewish history, and sadly only the most grandiose of a tragic litany of genocides in human history.

So when we say Never Again, we mean both: Never Again for the Jews, and Never Again for anyone:

Never Again for Armenia,
Never Again for Cambodia,
Never Again for Yugoslavia,
Never Again for Rwanda,
Never Again for Sudan,
Never Again for Congo,
Never Again for anyone.

And when we say Never Forget, we likewise say it for ourselves and for all of humanity. Particularly now, at this hinge moment of history, when we say Never Forget, we remind and rededicate ourselves to not only learning the facts of history, but to kindling the flame of memory. Particularly now, particularly today, we must remember to remember.

The 20th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall got a lot of press yesterday, and deservedly so. Yet I hardly saw a whimper about the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, which took place on November 9-10.

The coincidence of these anniversaries is striking. Both were instances of violence. Both were instances of breaking. Yet one was a destructive event that hastened the othering, subjugation, and elimination of a group of people for the sake of German identity; the other was a destructive event that was constructive at heart, and that brought about unification, reconciliation, and formation of a new German identity.

In the 51 years between Kristallnacht and the fall of the wall, the very idea of personhood, of nationhood, shifted dramatically. In 1938, the logic of nations was still rooted in a concept of ethno-racial identity. By 1989, human rights trumped all, and its simple and inexorable power broke through the wall and brought down the Soviet Union. In the ensuing decades, neoliberalism–vaguely defined as a non-dogmatic commitment to democratic and capitalist ideals worldwide–became the  norm, leaving little room for ethno-racial-religious notions of identity. Economics would unite everyone, and walls would continue to come down. At least that was the idea.

Of course, these narratives form the backdrop to the wall that gets the most attention in the world these days, the wall that separates much of Israel and the West Bank. And the questions of these two moments–of November 9, 1938 and November 9, 1989–linger. As Sergio Della Pergola, the noted Israeli demographer, said in a talk yesterday here at NU Hillel, the state of Israel has to choose between three values, of which it can only actually have two: Jewishness, democracy, and geography. It can be Jewish and on the land, but it cannot be democratic; it can be democratic on the land, but not be Jewish; it can be Jewish and democratic, but not on the land.

By the logic of human rights, we have to pay attention to the demographic reality that within a matter of months, 50% of the population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will be Arabs. By the logic of ethno-religious identity, the Jewish State and the Arab state (as they were termed in UN Resolution 181) need to, deserve to, and pragmatically should exist. What walls need to be broken, and what walls need to be erected and protected, to bring about peace? That, to me anyway, is the true question of November 9.

1. Gary Rosenblatt’s column on Roger Cohen.

The first 95% of the article is fantastic–balanced, fair, giving Cohen a reasonable hearing but also citing his critics and raising important questions. It’s a model of journalism. And then, somehow, Gary pivots in the last 30 seconds to this:

Cohen called his book about the Balkan war experience “Hearts Grown Brutal.”

It would seem from his writings and conversation that he believes that when it comes to the Mideast conflict, it is Israeli hearts that have hardened and that the government in Jerusalem is trying to ignore terrible things. He is welcome to his beliefs, of course, but Roger Cohen should be wary of conflating one tragedy with another.

Call it lack of balance or fairness, but to cite only one party to blame for the Israeli-Arab conflict is to deny history and reality, and to weaken one’s credibility beyond logic or truth.

Reading Cohen lately — the anger, blame and one-sidedness of his argument — one wonders whose heart, indeed, has grown brutal.

As readers of this blog well know, I have been among Roger Cohen’s critics. But I think that Gary undermines his own case with this move at the end. I don’t think that Cohen’s “heart has grown brutal,” and to make this kind of argument simply misses the point. Yes, Cohen should be more up-front about the lack of fairness in the Iranian elections (see Friedman’s piece yesterday, which compared Lebanon and Iran), but Cohen is also operating in the prophetic tradition, calling Israelis–and diaspora Jews–to take responsiblity for the things for which we should take responsibility, namely whether to attack Iran (which from what I can tell would be a strategic blunder of epic proportions) and how to use the force we have built up in a manner that befits our national aspirations.

2. Ari Shavit on Bibi and the “Seven Word Solution”

The heart of Shavit’s piece is this: “A demilitarized Palestine alongside a Jewish Israel.” Worth reading, and sums up pretty much what seems necessary.

3. I haven’t written anything about Obama’s speech last week. It was, in general, remarkable and amazing. My two bones to pick:

1) I don’t actually care about equating suffering; I think we need to get over that one. But I do care about ignoring history and making it seem as though Israel would not have happened without the Shoah, which is misleading and plays into the basest elements of Holocaust-denying anti-Semitism. Zionism happened before the Shoah for two or three generations, and the Jewish people have 3,000 years of history in Eretz Yisrael.

2) As Andre Aciman points out (his memoir is well worth the read), and as here quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg, the displacement of Jews in Arab and Muslim countries in 1948 needs to be remembered as part of the narrative.

On Tuesday, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Natalie, the kids, and I traveled from Rehovot to Haifa to meet a long-lost cousin, a nephew of Natalie’s grandmother. Ruven Schneider, now 88, was everything you would expect from the Jewish People’s Greatest Generation: he fought in the Red Army in World War II, came to Palestine and fought in the Palmach, and settled in Haifa. He was a consummate host, baking for us and cooking dinner and insisting that we eat. His son, Arie, married a woman of Tunisian descent, Ruti, whom he met while a soldier. They have four beautiful children and one new grandson.

I find it becomes very hard, at moments like this, to be a died in the wool secular-humanist, that is, someone who believes that we have to treat all people exactly the same. Of course, I say that, and I believe it. And yet, on that basis, why should I feel this special connection (in my own case, through marriage) to someone I’ve never met and may never meet again? Why should he want to show me and my family hospitality? Why would I even feel comfortable entrusting my children with him if need be?

I asked this of one of my former students with whom we met up for dinner in Jerusalem last night. She also has a lot of family in Israel, and has spent much of this year finding them and spending time with them. “It’s because we share a common story,” she says. “It’s as though I’m seeing an alternate vision of me: if so-and-so hadn’t decided to come to America and not Israel, I would be you.”

We are bound by our stories–they’re what make us who we are. They are what unite us with some and potentially divide us from others.

My niece Hadas came into the TV room tonight to watch her usual evening edition of ‘House’ (I think they’re up to season 2 here; they show it every night), only to find that every channel was honoring Holocaust Remembrance Day either by showing the official state ceremony or suspending programming in deference to the state ceremony. So she went upstairs to read. I watched a bit of the ceremony, which felt familiar: poems, songs, Psalms recited by the chief rabbis, survivors and their families.

Later on one of the news programs had a long, 60 Minutes-style segment on the descendents of the Bielskis, the subjects of the movie ‘Defiance.’ Some of them live in Israel, and two of the American grandsons (in their 20s) have made aliyah. The most significant moment came as they toggled between scenes of Zushya Bielski crying over the loss of his wife and child, and images of one of his grandsons taking target practice in an IDF uniform. For me the scene raised all the issues of how the Holocaust is part of Israeli and Jewish memory, both positive and negative, some of which I wrote about in an earlier post.

What would Israel be like if, for instance, its Declaration of Independence didn’t mention the Holocaust, or if every Jewish high school junior didn’t go to Poland for a class trip? Others have written about this much more knowledgably than I can, but the question strikes me as inescapable and essential to ask while I’m here. (Roger Cohen, with all the caveats, asks the same question today.)

Fittingly, Natalie and I are traveling to Kiryat Atta tomorrow to meet the sole surviving son of her grandmother’s sister. We talked about how we want to get there, and decided that it would be best to be on the road at 10 a.m. when the sirens go off all over the country. Drivers stop their cars and get out of them to stand at attention as the siren blasts for two minutes. And then people resume their day. As my dad likes to say, the only things changing are the birds and the traffic lights. It’s a powerful moment, and we want our kids to see it (though we’re not quite sure how we’re going to explain it to them just yet–they’re still too young for this.)