Learning the Lessons of the Past
The last time I visited Yad Vashem I accompanied the Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people.
We went through the exhibition rooms which present heartbreaking documentation of the destruction of European Jewry.
Today in my office, I met Fela, an 82 year old Holocaust survivor. It was important for her to tell me on this day of her memories as a child of seven who was forced to leave her two year old sister. Those memories are always with her.
She told me, "I don't remember what happened yesterday or the day before that, but as is the way of memories at my age, I remember the sad, tearful eyes of my two year old sister whom I left behind to die".
I met Shalom, an 89 year old Holocaust survivor who told me how, aged 13, he left home at Mila 18 in the Warsaw Ghetto. Conditions in the ghetto were deteriorating. So he, a young boy, decided to leave.
He said, "Mother objected and wailed but Father was quiet. He stood up, put his hands on my head, blessed me and told me to save myself".
All the exhibition rooms here are filled with such heart- wrenching stories. When we left Yad Vashem, I told the Prime Minister of Canada that my supreme duty as the Prime Minister of Israel is to ensure that there will be no more memorial sites like this, that there will never be another Holocaust. I have said here many times that we must identify an existential threat in time and take action against it in time.
Tonight, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I ask: Why, in the years preceding the Holocaust, did the overwhelming majority of world leaders and Jewish leaders fail to detect the danger in time?
In retrospect, all the warning signs were there: the strengthening of the Nazi regime year after year; the horrific anti-Semitic propaganda which grew stronger with each passing month; and the murderous attacks on Jews which began as spurts and became a giant wave.
In retrospect, a direct line connects the racial laws and the gas chambers. Few world leaders, notably Churchill, understood the enormity of the threat to humanity posed by Nazism. Few among our leaders, primarily Jabotinsky, warned against the imminent destruction facing our people. But they were widely criticized, their warnings disregarded and dismissed as the rantings of doomsayers and warmongers. How is it possible that so many people failed to understand reality?
The bitter, tragic truth is this: It is not that they did not see. They did not want to see. And why did they choose not to see the truth? Because they did not want to face the consequences of that truth.
During the 1930s, when the Nazis were gaining momentum, the trauma of the First World War was still fresh. Twenty years earlier, the people of the West experienced a terrible trench war, which claimed the lives of 16 million people.
The leaders of the West therefore operated on the basis of one axiom: Avoid another confrontation at any cost. Thus they laid the ground for the most horrible war in history. This axiom of avoiding conflict at any cost was adopted not only by the leaders. It was shared by the peoples themselves, and primarily by the educated elites.
In 1933, for example, the year Hitler rose to power, a meeting was held by the students of Oxford University, an institution which produced generations of British leaders. Following a heated debate, the students voted for a resolution stating that they "would under no circumstances fight for their King and Country".
This resolution passed by an overwhelming majority a mere ten days after Hitler entered the Chancellor's office in Germany. The message reverberated in Berlin. This example illustrates the West's feeble response to the rise of Nazism. Month after month, year after year, more and more information was received in London, Paris and Washington about Nazi capabilities and intentions. The picture gradually became clear for everyone to see. But they had eyes and could not see, they had ears but could not hear.
When you refuse to accept reality as it is, you can deny it. This is precisely what the leaders of the West did. They dismissed the murderous Nazi rhetoric as internal German politics; they downplayed the seriousness of the danger of the Nazi military build-up, claiming that it was the result of the natural will of a proud nation that should be recognized and accepted. The reality was clear, but it was enveloped in a bubble of illusions.
This bubble burst when the Nazis launched their blitzkrieg on Europe and Africa. The price of illusion and wishful thinking was very steep. By the time the leaders of the West finally acted, their peoples paid a terrible price.
World War II claimed the lives not of 16 million people, the horrific number of victims during World War I, but of 60 million, including one third of our people, who were butchered by the Nazi beast.
Citizens of Israel, my brothers and sisters, Has the world learned the mistakes of the past?
Today we again face clear facts and a tangible threat. Iran calls for our destruction. It is developing nuclear weapons. This is the reason it is building underground bunkers for enriching uranium. This is why it is constructing a heavy water facility to produce plutonium. This is the reason it continues to develop inter- continental ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads which will threaten the entire world.
Today, like then, there are those who dismiss Iran's extreme rhetoric as serving domestic purposes.
Today, like then, there are those who view Iran's nuclear ambitions as the result of the natural will of a proud nation, a will that should be accepted.
And today, like then, those who make such claims are deluding themselves. They are making an historic mistake. Fateful talks are currently being held between Iran and the world powers.
This time too, the truth is evident to all: Iran seeks an agreement that will lift the sanctions and leave it as a nuclear threshold state with the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons within several months at most. Iran wants a deal that will eliminate the sanctions and leave its capabilities intact. A deal which enables Iran to be a nuclear threshold state will bring the entire world to the threshold of an abyss.
I hope that the lessons of the past have been learned, and that the desire to avoid confrontation at any cost will not lead to a deal that will exact a much heavier price in the future. I call on the leaders of the world powers to insist that Iran fully dismantle its capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons, and to persist until this goal is achieved. In any event, the people of Israel stand strong.
Faced with an existential threat, our situation today is entirely different than it was during the Holocaust. Today, we have a sovereign Jewish state. As Prime Minister of Israel, I do not hesitate to speak the truth to the world, even when faced with blind eyes and deaf ears. It is not only my right, it is my duty. I am always mindful of this duty, never more so than on this day, in this place.
On the eve of the Holocaust, some Jews avoided speaking out to the world's nations, fearing that the struggle against Nazism would become "a Jewish problem". Others believed that if they kept silent, the danger would pass. They kept silent, and disaster struck.
Today, we are unafraid to speak the truth to world leaders. As is written in the Bible: "I will speak of your testimonies before kings, and I will not be ashamed... listen, for I will speak the truth." Unlike the Holocaust, when the Jewish people were like a wind-tossed leaf and utterly defenseless, we now have great power to defend ourselves, and it is ready for any mission.
This power rests on the courage and ingenuity of the soldiers of the IDF and the men and women of our security forces. It is this power that enabled us, against all odds, to build the State of Israel. Look at the remarkable achievements we have made in the 66 years of our independence.
All of us - scientists, writers, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, employees, artists, farmers - the entire people of Israel, each one in their own field - together we have built a glorious state. The spirit of the people of Israel is sublime, our accomplishments tremendous. Seven decades after the destruction of the Holocaust, the State of Israel is a wonder of the world.
On this day, on behalf of the Jewish people, I say to all those who sought to destroy us, and to all those who still seek to destroy us: You have failed, and you will fail again. The State of Israel is stronger than ever. It is a state that seeks peace with all its neighbors and it pulsates with an iron will to ensure the future of our people.
"The people will arise like a lion cub and raise itself like a lion...and Judea will dwell securely". (Numbers 23:24; Jeremiah 23:6).