Never Forget

hrdThis Tuesday, December 10, is International Human Rights Day. On this day in 1948, 65 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  I will mark the day by listening to an address by Ruth Messinger, the head of American Jewish World Service, an organization widely regarded for its commitment to fight against worldwide poverty and achieve global human rights.

I mention all this because I am working on a book project with Anthony Le Donne on memory and Jewish-Christian dialog. At the moment, I am trying to write my contribution to the section of the book addressing memory of the Shoah.[1] The world’s discovery of the Shoah led “immediately” to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The two events are interconnected.

Writing my piece about memory and the Shoah, I remember from my childhood in the 1960s the Jewish rallying cry in response to the Shoah: “never again!” This rallying cry left me with mixed emotions. Never again? Of course not. But never what again, and to whom, and how to prevent it, and at what cost? The cry “never again!” rings hollow in many ears today, now that the Shoah has been followed by genocide in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and many other places. It rings hollow for me after our national debate earlier this year concerning Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people. I completely understand the reluctance of most Americans to commit to yet another Middle Eastern war. But genocide is not going to come to an end merely because we adopt United Nations declarations. What is our commitment to human rights, what is the meaning of “never again!”, if we’re not willing to back our words with force?

I’m not suggesting that this is an easy question. I am suggesting that our commitment to human rights requires us to at least address the question. Actually, I think it requires a great deal more than this. I agree with those who argue we must find peaceful ways to promote universal rights and values throughout the world, and that military force is (at best) a means of last (and perhaps, desperate) resort. But from this vantage point, it is painfully obvious that we’re not doing all we can to promote human rights in peaceful ways. Consider that the cost of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is roughly $680 billion to date, and the cost of the Iraq war is over $815 billion. But by some measures, the U.S. is not nearly as willing to spend money to promote human rights in peaceful ways. U.S. military expenditures are more than 20 times higher than what the nation spends to assist the world’s needy. But if we’re unwilling to use military force to oppose genocide, doesn’t that reluctance morally require us to find other ways to oppose genocide?

I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions. But I do believe that these questions must be part of any effort to remember the Shoah. While the phrase “never again!” seems to have gone out of fashion, there remains a fashionable stock response to the Shoah: we will never forget. But if our response to post-Shoah genocide is that “it’s none of our business” or “there’s nothing we can do”, then we’ve already forgotten.

As I work on my piece, I’d like to hear from you. How do you remember the Shoah?

[1] For those not familiar with this term, “Shoah” in Hebrew means “destruction.” “Shoah” is the standard Hebrew term used to refer to the murder of European Jews by the Nazis – the event commonly referred to as “the Holocaust” in English. Some people object to use of the term “Holocaust”, as one of the primary meanings of the word “holocaust” is a sacrifice consumed by fire. The idea that millions of people died as a sacrifice to G-d is too horrible for me to contemplate. I think it is better to refer to this catastrophe in a way that does not suggest whether or how the catastrophe fit into a divine plan. However, I fully understand that people use the term “the Holocaust” with the greatest respect for the Jewish people (and for humankind), and without intending to make a theological statement, and I am in no way offended by others’ use of this term.

  • Anthony Le Donne

    It was recently suggested to me that the support of generous immigration policies in affluent nations are crucial to remembering the Holocaust rightly. The question was posed to me: if the Holocaust was underway now, would our current policies allow us to show hospitality to those refugees?


    • lbehrendt

      The simple answer to your question is “no”. The number of refugees that can emigrate to the U.S. is set each year by statute. Typically, the number varies from 70,000 to 100,000 refugees annually. This is a ceiling, not a quota — the number of refugees actually admitted each year is less than this. Still, it’s my understanding that the U.S. admits more refugees than any other nation in the developed world.

      I agree that remembering the Holocaust requires us to be generous when it comes to immigration policies. There are numbers of Jewish organizations who argue that Jewish memory of our own immigration requires us to fight strongly for immigration reform.

      • Chris Eyre

        There are some interesting international statistics at this site:- Needless to say,
        Australia looks very good on those figures. The UK doesn’t look as good. I’m slightly torn; I think we should be offering an open door to refugees in danger of any kind of ethnic cleansing, but am aware that we are a rather crowded island.

  • Chris Eyre

    “He who does not study history is doomed to repeat it” springs to mind (I don’t have the attribution, probably because I’ve paraphrased the original). To extend that, you could add “or is doomed to see it repeated”. The trouble is, the “there’s nothing we can do” response is often very close to reality.

    In particular, I am extremely averse to military solutions, as firstly my country has a lamentable record of colonial interventions and secondly I don’t see that wars in general make such situations significantly better, or at least not in terms of decreasing the overall sum of human suffering.
    That really leaves diplomatic pressure, support of relief agencies and welcoming refugees to our country – as I’ve mentioned in another comment, I’m somewhat torn there, but come down on the side of “welcome them in”. Certainly I’ve historically campaigned for the UK party most likely to support these principles.

    But I still don’t feel enough is being done. I don’t feel I’ve done enough personally in the past, though I have welcomed refugees to my town and advocated for individual refugees on a couple of occasions.

    I’m working on a more detailed answer, which may appear on my blog soon(ish).
    Thanks for making me think.

    • lbehrendt

      Chris, I’m personally not being on military solutions to global problems. And I’m pleased that diplomatic efforts (so far) seem to be paying off in Syria. But I don’t believe that diplomacy is going to prevent genocide unless it is backed by a realistic threat of military action. And I don’t believe that the kinds of genocide perpetrated by the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao could be stopped by any means short of military action.

      Perhaps we should simply admit to ourselves that we’re not equipped to prevent genocide, and that “never again” makes sense only if followed by “G-d willing.” There’s a danger in this admission, in that it sends a signal to all peoples that they’re on their own when it comes to self-defense. That’s a dangerous signal in a post-nuclear world.

      I would feel a little bit better about life if the Allies in WWII had sent just one squadron of planes, just one, to bomb the rail lines heading to Auschwitz. I doubt that it would have done any good, but at least the gesture would have signified some vague kind of concern.

      • Chris Eyre

        Diplomacy certainly has to be backed by credible threat, and sanctions don’t seem all that effective. Thus there has to be an ability to project force, and occasionally it must be used (otherwise it isn’t credible). The snag is, even where there’s been military action in the past it’s been very much reactive and hasn’t prevented much.

        There are, of course, options other than using our own military, but the best that generally seems to achieve is civil war.

        Although I have had huge difficulty accepting it, with my 20/20 hindsight, those who were involved in the WWII combat who I’ve talked to about it all said they were shocked at the revelations when the camps were entered. In general they hadn’t been able to credit reports, if they’d heard them, because such things just didn’t happen in “civilised” Western nations.

        At the higher levels, I don’t know whether they were better informed – I suspect so. But nothing I’ve read in history indicates to me that national leaders stick with ethical principles if they think their country’s survival is on the line. Indeed, having had some slight acquaintance with being an elected representative, albeit at a fairly low level, I’m not sure that I’d operate any differently myself.