On Wednesday evening, Jews in Israel and around the world will mark the annual commemoration of Yom Hashoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust. It is a time of mourning, as well as a day to ponder the lessons of history, as we consider whether humanity has learned much in the more than seven decades since the end of the Second World War. Yet if there’s one phrase I don’t want to hear over the course of those 24 hours, it’s “never again.”
“Never again” has recently been appropriated by the post-Parkland gun-control movement. But though it has lost some of the sense of urgency and power it once conveyed, it’s still a powerful symbol of the determination of a generation eager not to repeat the sins of silence or indifference about genocide or the suffering of fellow Jews. Without the spirit of “never again,” it’s unlikely that the movements to free Soviet Jewry or to defend the State of Israel would have had the success they both achieved. Yet like other efforts to educate the public about the Holocaust, the phrase is a victim of its own success.
In the first 20 years after the murder of 6 million European Jews, the topic was little discussed. As time passed, the survivors found their voices, as did others who wished to teach both the Jews and the world not to forget what happened.
That awakening spawned two separate, yet related, efforts. One of them was the source of a new, energized Jewish communal activism that created a powerful pro-Israel movement in the United States, as well as mobilized those who worked to free the Jews of the former Soviet Union. At the same time, others were working to apply similar lessons to a broader audience in order to educate the world about the consequences of hate and an unwillingness to speak up about genocide.
In the last half-century, Holocaust studies grew from a small niche of scholarship to a vast field encompassing a mass effort to educate the country as a whole. It remains a noble cause. But it’s also appropriate to note that if we consider that its goal was to ensure that “never again” actually meant what it said, then it has been a failure.
Since 1945, that vow as been exposed time and again as a futile lie. Not only have mass murders continued to occur with numbing regularity, we also know that the many of the institutions and individuals who do the most talking about “never again” have conspicuously failed to make good on the pledge.
The horrors of the post-World War II era are too numerous to list completely. But while much of the world did not know what was happening during the Holocaust—though the leaders of the Allied nations who might have acted to aid rescue but failed to do so could not credibly claim ignorance—in real time, that has not been true since then.
Accounts and even pictures of the 1994 massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda were reported all over the front pages of daily newspapers. Ultimately, President Bill Clinton would admit that his failure to act was a terrible mistake. Author Samantha Power drew from this example of Western indifference to mass murder a theory of a “responsibility to protect” innocents from slaughter. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell: America and the New Age of Genocide, said that when hundreds of thousands of people were being killed because of their ethnic identity in Africa, “American leaders did not act because they didn’t want to.” While the lessons of the Holocaust had not been learned, Power hoped to inspire Clinton’s successors to do better.
To say that she failed is the understatement of the 21st century. A decade after she wrote that book, Power wasn’t on the sidelines. When Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime started killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians—and then also used chemical weapons on them in a direct echo of the Holocaust—she was a trusted adviser to President Barack Obama and serving as America’s ambassador to the United Nations. Instead of exercising a “responsibility to protect,” Obama and Power did nothing. Not only that, they actively acquiesced to Russian and Iranian interventions in Syria that ensured the atrocities would increase, while Assad would continue to gas civilians, as he did last weekend in the Damascus suburb of Douma. The ongoing slaughter in Syria is just more proof that talk from even the seemingly most enlightened and well-meaning leaders about “never again” is simply hot air.
The same can be said for many similarly well-intentioned individuals, including many Jews, who claim to care passionately about the memory and lessons of the Holocaust, but can’t seem to differentiate between the murder of 6 million Jews and other issues that aren’t remotely comparable to the Shoah, such as the plight of illegal immigrants in the United States. Efforts to universalize the Holocaust have created a belief that anything that isn’t liked can be compared to the Nazis. But someone who can’t tell the difference between Anne Frank and a person who crosses illegally into the United States seeking work can’t be said to have learned anything about the Shoah, no matter how much they claim they care about it. Unfortunately, that’s the case with many Americans who think they know something about the Holocaust, yet continue to make inappropriate analogies to it on a host of issues.
So perhaps this Yom Hashoah, as much as we should pause and remember the Six Million—and examine what we’ve learned since then—let’s pass on mouthing the usual phrases if we have no intention of honoring them. Instead, let’s cease giving leaders a pass for continuing to do nothing about genocide, as well as to ponder whether in overemphasizing universalizing the lessons of the Holocaust, we’ve unintentionally helped strip it of its real meaning.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter on @jonathans_tobin.