By Abraham H. Miller/ JNS.org
Jews should observe a day of remembrance for the Christians and Yazidis being exterminated in the Middle East. Lighting a yahrzeit (memorial) candle and reciting the prayer known as the Mourner’s Kaddish would be an appropriate way to honor the memory of the righteous Christians who saved Jews from the flames of the Holocaust and to bring the Christian and Yazidi “genocide” (I use that word purposely) to the attention of the world.
I would nominate October 20, 2016 as the date for such an observance. That is the day in 1943 when the Nazis captured Irena Sendler (nee Krzyzanowska), the Polish nurse and social worker who served in the Polish underground in German-occupied Warsaw during World War II, bringing her rescue efforts on behalf of Jewish children to an abrupt end.
Sendler was the head of the children’s section of Zegota, the underground’s department to aid Jews. With the assistance of other members of Zegota, Sendler smuggled approximately 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, saving them from certain death. Aside from diplomats, such as Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg and Japan’s Chiune Sugihara who issued visas to aid Jews in fleeing occupied Europe, Sendler saved more Jews than any single individual.
Sendler’s motivation, like that of many righteous gentiles, came in no small measure from her faith. As Pope Francis has recently acknowledged the common ties that bind his church and the Jewish people together, and as Orthodox rabbis in Europe, Israel, and the United States signed a document affirming Christianity as the “willed divine outcome and gift to the nations,” marking the day by reciting Kaddish would reinforce that unity and attest to the Jewish will to stand up for persecuted gentiles.
Throughout the Holocaust and after, the New York Times buried the story as inconsequential or not involving Jews. Laurel Leff extensively researched NYT’s coverage of the Holocaust and concluded, “You could have read the front page of The New York Times in 1939 and 1940 without knowing that millions of Jews were being sent to Poland, imprisoned in ghettos, and dying of disease and starvation by the tens of thousands. You could have read the front page in 1941 without knowing that the Nazis were machine-gunning hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Soviet Union."
In 2001, former executive editor of the NYT, Max Frankel, admitted that his paper’s coverage of the Holocaust was journalism’s biggest failure.
When it comes to the plight of Christians and Yazidis in today’s Middle East, the NYT history seems to be repeating itself in the proverbial circle, first as tragedy then as farce.
Nicholas Kristof writing in NYT calls the Islamic State’s actions the religious version of ethnic cleansing but refrains from calling it genocide. This is not a simple parsing of words since, under U.S. adherence to the convention, genocide requires a response. The Obama administration’s reluctance to call the Islamic State’s actions genocide mirrors the Clinton administration’s reluctance to apply the term to what was then happening in Rwanda and Bosnia.
One of the great moments of diplomatic “newspeak” occurred in 1994 when State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley was asked whether the situation in Rwanda constituted genocide. Ms. Shelley pranced around the issue, ultimately blurting out the inane statement that she was unaware how many acts of genocide constituted genocide.
Our obligation under the genocide convention is to “prevent and punish.” We, however, have skillfully decided that genocide is in the eye of the beholder. The influential Kristof further blurs that vision by going from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Kristof’s heartfelt sympathies for the victims of the Islamic State find their way to deny genocide and to remind us that few Christians really exist in the area under Islamic State control. This begs the question, what if the Islamic State will crucify all of them? Is that not genocide? After all, Jews constituted less than .75 percent of the pre-World War II population of Germany, so how could we possibly talk about genocide against Jews when they were such a small segment of Germany’s population?
There is method to this indulgence in the absurd. If the influential NYT denies the commission of genocide, it buttresses Obama’s calculated decision to do nothing and to incur no obligation to respond to the genocide convention.
Meanwhile, the Christians and Yazidis will be rescued with the same alacrity as were the Rwandans or the people of Darfur.
To prevent the plight of Christians and Yazidis from being buried in the conscience of America the way Jewish death and tragedy were buried in the NYT, Jews should say Kaddish for the souls of the Islamic State’s victims in the hope that honoring the dead might yet provide refuge to the living.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a senior fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought. Follow the center on Twitter @salomoncenter.
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