Yom Hashoah 2023

March of the Living provides a powerful opportunity for Jewish unity amid political divisions

The Jewish people are in an emotional low point, elevating politics above peoplehood. Unity is the strength of the Jewish people. Such unity was on full display at the March of the Living.

At the March of the Living in Poland five years ago, when Israel was celebrating its 70th year, April 12, 2018. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90.
At the March of the Living in Poland five years ago, when Israel was celebrating its 70th year, April 12, 2018. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90.
Alex Traiman
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).

There are no words to describe a trip to the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The camps are surprisingly well-preserved and are a living testament to the most heinous crime in modern human history: the systematic extermination not just of every Jew, but of the attempt to annihilate every single one to the extent that shockingly detailed records were kept on so many of the 6 million killed.

Visitors to the camps witness the cruelest of inhumane living conditions of the concentration camps, only to be outranked by the remnants of the mass murder factories in adjacent extermination camps where more than 1 million-plus Jews were gassed and cremated, at a pace of more than 4,500 per day towards the end of World War II.

The Nazis, who carried out this extensively organized ethnic cleansing could have cared less whether a Jewish victim was observant or secular, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, politically right or left, or any other distinction.

It is a message that powerfully hits home. And it is a message that too few Jews truly internalize today. The enemies of the Jewish people have never been and never will be interested in the vast distinctions, religious, political or social, that Jews not only ascribe to one another but take all too seriously.

This week on Holocaust Memorial Day, close to 10,000 pilgrims toured the camps and marched 3.5 kilometers together from the Auschwitz concentration camp to the associated Birkenau genocide center as part of the 35th annual March of the Living.

The march accomplishes what few other Jewish experiences can: humbling each Jewish participant to their core and providing a powerful lesson in Jewish unity.

Each year, the annual event becomes increasingly important, particularly as fewer and fewer survivors are alive to relate their firsthand accounts of the horrors wrought by the Nazis. (This year, more than 40 survivors participated.) Touring the sites where the atrocities took place provides a visceral reminder of the horrors that leaves a permanent mark on the soul of every participant.

It would behoove each and every Jewish political and religious leader, every teacher and community organizer, and for that matter, each member of the Jewish people to make such a trip, and to internalize the lowest common denominator for nearly each and every historical enemy of the people of Israel: A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.

These days, the Jewish people are at an emotional low point, elevating politics above peoplehood, and in the process emboldening the modern-day enemies of the Jewish state.

For weeks, leaders of a protest movement ostensibly focused on preventing legislated judicial reforms have warned of the possibility of political violence and a civil war. Israel’s own President Isaac Herzog, who has been attempting to bridge political divides by bringing opposing parties together and presiding over negotiations, has warned that the Jewish state—about to celebrate its 75th birthday next week—may not make it to its 80th birthday. Former prime ministers and some party leaders have parroted that talking point.

Days after Herzog’s warning, his words were joyfully quoted by Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah, leaders of Hamas and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Such warnings are not only irresponsible and dangerous, they are also absurd.

The horrors of the Holocaust occurred, in part, because the Jewish people were defenseless in countries not their own. Today, the Jewish people have a fully developed state with a top-flight economy; one of the world’s most battle-ready militaries; and an arsenal of the world’s most powerful weapons. Israel is a technological and intelligence superpower.

A first-world country is burgeoning with buildings and road infrastructures that are being built faster than onlookers can keep tabs on.

The State of Israel is proof of the Jewish people’s victory over the Nazis. While 6 million perished in the Holocaust, today Israel boasts 9 million citizens—a number that grows day after day and would make Nazi agitators roll in their graves.

Israel is nowhere near disappearing. To the contrary, five years from now, Israel is poised to be not only a regional but a global superpower. Any honest observer can clearly see that.

Any comments to the contrary—particularly from Israel’s own leadership—serve only to weaken a nation that gets stronger year by year and to embolden enemies that don’t see the horror in places like Auschwitz-Birkenau, but use them to dream of what’s possible in the future. Israel’s leaders must know better than to feed such machinations. That means looking past internal political feuds—important as arguments may be—and finding a more constructive path forward.

If Israeli leaders and an overly divisive media cannot figure out how to find unity even within intense debate, the burden must fall to the citizens themselves. Leadership comes in all forms, and all forms of leaders must find ways to bring our people together.

Unity is the strength of the Jewish people. Such unity was on full display at the March of the Living.

This year’s march was led by current U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, a Biden, Democratic Party appointee; and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a Trump Republican Party appointee. The two share little in common when it comes to political ideology and religious observance. But the pair put politics where it belongs—on the side—to lead the march together, to commemorate the Holocaust together, to stand up against the rising tide of antisemitism together and to extol the strength of the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship together.

Their message of unity reinforced the sentiments internalized by each and every Jew present.

At the march’s memorial ceremony, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, himself a Holocaust survivor, stated powerfully: “We Jews have learned how to die together. In fact, we are experts at it. What we are not as good at, is figuring out how to live together. We need to do that better.”

A trip to March of the Living is a good place to start.

Alex Traiman is CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.

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