Israeli generals probably don’t cry very often. These are men of steel nerves, professional soldiers toughened by the rigors of battle and a lifetime devoted to strict military discipline.
But there was a moment during his recent swearing-in ceremony when the new chief of staff of the Israeli army, Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, could not hold back his tears.
That moment came when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned from the familiar generalities about army service to a very personal subject: the contrast between the suffering Gantz’s mother endured during the Holocaust and the national triumph her son’s career symbolizes.
What the audience did not know, however, was that there was also a personal element on Netanyahu’s side. Seventy years ago, his father, the scholar and Zionist activist professor Benzion Netanyahu, authored a stirring Passover eve proclamation likewise anchored in the themes of Jewish victory in the face of unbearable persecution and the ability of the Jews to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Prof. Netanyahu’s words offer one last lesson to take with us from this year’s Passover holiday.
“When your mother was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, she weighed just 28 kilograms [62 lbs.],” the prime minister noted. “I am certain that at the time, she never dreamed that 66 years later her son, yet to be born, would be the 20th chief of staff of the army of the State of Israel, the Jewish state. Perhaps she did not dream of such a thing, but it has come true before our eyes.”
Lt.-Gen. Gantz made it clear, in his remarks at the ceremony, that he appreciated the historical significance of the journey from Bergen-Belsen to Jerusalem, from Jewish weakness and homelessness to sovereignty and independence.
“I am the son of the Jewish people’s chain of generations,” he declared.
The Israeli army, after all, is not just any army, and its chief of staff is not just another general. They are intrinsically connected to the Jews’ unique national experience, both in exile and in their homeland.
Which is exactly the point Prof. Benzion Netanyahu made in his Passover 1941 message. At the time, Netanyahu served as executive director of the New Zionist Organization of America, the U.S. wing of the militant Revisionist Zionist movement. He was also editor of its biweekly publication, Zionews.
His lead editorial in each issue of Zionews typically dealt with the latest Palestine-related political developments and controversies, not something from the Jewish calendar. In fact, Netanyahu’s April 21, 1941 editorial was the only occasion in the journal’s five year-history that he devoted that premier space to a reflection on a Jewish holiday.
“For ages and generations we have assembled in our homes on the first and second evenings of Passover to commemorate the liberation of our forefathers from the slavery of Egypt,” he began.
“Thousands of years have passed since; new slavery, hatreds and persecutions followed our race into every corner of the world.”
He cited a number of examples of such persecutions, including, of course, the Jews being “burned on the fires of the Spanish Inquisition,” which was the subject of the Ph.D. dissertation he was then writing.
Netanyahu also recalled how the Jews were “uprooted [by the Romans] from free and independent Judea to be slaves.” They were “beaten and killed by the Cossacks of the Ukraine.” The “Russian pogromists shed our blood like water.” “The Arab effendis have proclaimed a holy war on us.” And “Hitler and Mussolini have started a march of extermination against us.”
Yet the suffering of the Jews could never separate them from their faith or extinguish their hopes:
“Through oceans of blood, our blood, through oceans of tears, our tears, hated, persecuted, beaten, wandering and homeless, we assemble at the Passover Seder to thank God for our liberation from Egypt, and to express once again the hope of the [Haggadah]: ‘This year we are still slaves – next year we shall be free men.'”
“It is a great hope,” Prof. Netanyahu concluded. “It is a great spirit of a great nation. Only a nation of our spiritual caliber could come through the ages of unparalleled sufferings with its spirit unbroken; still alive; still striving for liberty. Next year we shall be free men.”