This 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. 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?
 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.