As we mark Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on April 8 for the 60th consecutive year—this somber day was first placed onto the Jewish calendar in 1953, at the instigation of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion—we again ask ourselves a deceptively simple question: Why do we still remember the 6 million Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust, along with millions of others?
There is no better day than Yom HaShoah to explore these issues. Unlike the various other Holocaust Memorial Days that take place during the year, most commonly on Jan. 27 (the United Nations-designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaShoah is an overtly Jewish occasion, launched by a Jewish state that came into existence only three years after the Second World War ended with the defeat of the Nazis and their allies.
As with any genocide, the Holocaust provides us with an opportunity to consider both particular and universal lessons. I intend to look at both, and then suggest ways in which the particular and the universal might be intelligently merged.
Let’s start with the particular: The state of the Jews and the manner in which that most toxic and persistent of hatreds, anti-Semitism, continues to impact us.
Two immediate, and on the surface contradictory, conclusions can be reached. On the one hand, the post-Holocaust era has been, relative to the broad sweep of Jewish history, something of a golden age. In the vast majority of states in which we live, Jews experience no legal discrimination, and the kind of violent, mass anti-Semitism that distinguished the Nazi period seems a historical relic. There are approximately 13.5 million Jews in the world today, compared with 11 million in 1945—a figure that underlines the failure of the Nazis to fulfill their plan of eliminating the Jewish people globally. In the main, Jews are well-represented in the wealthier, more educated demographic of the world’s population. Most importantly of all, we have, in the State of Israel, a place under the sun and, as a consequence, the ability to defend ourselves against present and future enemies.
Now for the flip side. It is also true that anti-Semitic sentiment today is more widespread, and more socially acceptable, than at any other time since 1945. But because so much of this hostility is couched in enmity towards Israel, and because anti-Semites want to engage in anti-Semitism without being tarred with the now vulgar appellation “anti-Semitic,” we are told that protesting these views encourages the further spread of anti-Semitism and amounts to shutting down free speech! Our enemies tell us that we are over-sensitive, and that we label all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. But comparing Israel to the Nazis, or arguing that the lesson of the Holocaust is that Jews should be ten times more noble and pacific than everybody else, as these same enemies regularly do, isn’t criticism of Israeli policy. It’s anti-Semitism in a more slippery form.
Nor can we discount the prospect that state-sponsored anti-Semitism will return. Indeed, in several countries around the world, among them Hungary, Venezuela and Turkey, long-established Jewish populations are again considering emigration because their governments are either directly promoting anti-Semitism (as in Turkey and Venezuela) or collaborating with and encouraging anti-Semitic political parties (like the Jobbik party in Hungary.)
All these realities warn against complacency. It’s hard to get that point across to Jews today, particularly in the U.S., where anti-Semitism never reached the lethal levels of Europe and the Muslim world, and in Israel, where anti-Semitism is regarded as more of a historical rather than contemporary matter. That’s why an intelligent appraisal of current anti-Semitism is essential. Talk too much about the 1930s, and people rightly switch off—absent the existence of concentration camps, pogroms and Nuremburg-style discrimination laws, the comparison makes no sense. Equally, glibly declaring that we’ve never had it so good blinds us to festering problems in countries that most American Jews have never visited.
What about the universal lessons? The world since 1945 has witnessed numerous genocides (and there could have very well been a second genocide of the Jews in the Soviet Union in 1953—the same year that Yom HaShoah was instituted—had Joseph Stalin not suddenly died as his post-war anti-Semitic campaign was reaching its peak.) There was East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971 (a comparatively early example of Muslims slaughtering other Muslims,) Cambodia in the late 1970s, Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, Iraqi Kurdistan in the late 1980s, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and Darfur, western Sudan, North Korea and Syria in our own time. And yes, I am quite aware that there are several other examples I haven’t mentioned—that’s the point.
The persistence of genocide suggests, firstly, that it is a general phenomenon, impacting Jews, Christians, Muslims and others, and including whites in Europe and blacks in Africa among its victims. Secondly, that governments will rarely intervene to prevent genocide from taking place. In that sense, the NATO campaign in Kosovo in 1999 was very much the exception, not the rule.
It’s at this point that we can merge the particular with the universal. I’ve always rejected the insulting notion that the Holocaust should have turned Jews into pacifists, and that by defending ourselves and our state on the battlefield, we are somehow violating the memory of our grandparents and great-grandparents. But I do think that the experience of the Holocaust, along with the undoubted influence which Jews as a group enjoy, should motivate us to form alliances with those who are being persecuted and slaughtered now.
Many of these groups, such as the 25 million stateless Kurds, or the 100 million Christians living with varying degrees of oppression, cannot count on sustained media coverage of their plight. Only a handful of western politicians can be relied on to pick up the cudgels on their behalf. That’s why, if we are searching for a lesson for this Yom HaShoah, I would modestly propose this one: That we extend our concept of what constitutes self-defense to embrace those peoples who cannot—at least not yet—do so effectively for themselves.
That doesn’t mean conferences and dialogue groups and experience-sharing seminars. It means hardcore political advocacy, it means energetically chasing down war criminals like Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir, and it means providing weapons and other aid to those exposed to the horrors of mass slaughter.
Above all, it means that when we say “never again,” we mean it.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.