Meir Kahane never copyrighted it, despite the fact that the leader of the Jewish Defense League popularized its use. Nor did those who first used the words “Never Again” when referring to the murder of 6 million Jews in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust establish a permanent claim on this language. But for decades, these two words were associated only with the Shoah, symbolizing the determination to draw conclusions from history and never to allow the Jewish people to be left defenseless in the face of foes determined to destroy them.
But not anymore.
David Hogg, one of the teenage survivors of the Feb. 14 mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., began using “Never Again” as a hashtag to push for more restrictions on gun ownership after the tragedy. The phrase has now taken on a new meaning in current popular culture. Hogg’s advocacy—along with his status as a survivor of an atrocious crime, and his predilection for vulgar rhetoric and immature threats directed at those with opposing views—has made him something of a celebrity. He’s now planning on making the most of his 15 minutes of fame by writing a book titled Never Again: A New Generation Draws the Line.
That has upset many people who see the phrase as having becoming the intellectual property of those who care about preserving the memory of the Holocaust. Among their number is Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein, a child of Holocaust survivors, who said Hogg is “co-opting and politicizing” something that ought to be used only when referencing the Shoah.
Is he right?
The short answer must be no. These two English words don’t belong to anyone. It may be unimaginable and perhaps painful to Jews who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War that the language could be associated with any cause other than Holocaust remembrance and Jewish survival. But the passage of time probably makes something like this inevitable.
To acknowledge that a 17-year-old has the right to use “Never Again” differently than it has been employed in the past doesn’t necessarily make it an example of insensitivity. As with any cause rooted in an emotional response to tragedy, sensitivity isn’t Hogg’s priority. But he can’t be prevented from speaking as he likes, and those who are offended will have to get over it.
Nevertheless, the irony of his appropriation shouldn’t be lost on us. It also should make us think about the way we think about the Holocaust as the ranks of the survivors grow fewer with each passing year.
Though the overwhelming majority of American Jews eventually rejected him as a divisive and even despised figure, it was Rabbi Meir Kahane of Brooklyn, N.Y., who largely popularized “Never Again,” which became universal watchwords for the imperative for Jewish survival. Long before he moved to Israel and became the leader of a movement dedicated to evicting all Arabs from the country, Kahane was known as the leader of the Jewish Defense League, also based in Brooklyn. Though its employment of violence and, in at least one instance, terrorism, ultimately served to discredit it, the JDL was embraced by some young Jews a half-century ago because it represented a desire to end a tradition of Jewish powerlessness.
The group also became the shock troops of the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the years before the cause became generally accepted. Most of all, Kahane embodied a desire to draw conclusions from the Holocaust, rather than merely mourn it. His belief in Jewish self-defense was rooted in the logic behind the meaning of those words, and though few Americans would today embrace his “Every Jew a .22” slogan, it resonated with some who burned with a desire to reject the passivity of previous generations.
That “Never Again” could be transformed from a justification for the acquisition of and use of firearms to a phrase associated with the attempt to ban weapons is deeply ironic. But it also should make us wonder about whether our understandings of the concepts of Jewish powerlessness and empowerment have changed since Kahane helped turn those two words into a semi-sacred Jewish slogan.
It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone appropriating “Never Again” the way Hogg has done 30 or 40 years ago. But while Holocaust education has become ubiquitous, new generations have also emerged that no longer remember it in a personal way. Few can also recall the fear Jews felt in May 1967 as the Arab world threatened a second Holocaust as it prepared to launch a war of extermination against Israel. (And, for the record, that was before the Jewish state’s acquiring of the West Bank and Jerusalem was put forward as an excuse for the conflict.) Nor do many seem to remember the lonely early years of the struggle for freedom for Soviet Jewry, when the fall of an anti-Semitic Communist empire seemed pure fantasy.
Today’s young Jews grew up in an era when Israel has become a regional superpower with a First World “startup nation” economy. To all too many, the particular Jewish lessons of “Never Again”—let alone a reason for individuals to arm themselves—remain alien concepts.
But while the world has changed, it would be foolish to forget why those words initially held such power. The spirit of “Never Again” made possible the movements that sprang to the defense of Israel and helped free Soviet Jews. Though some of us may think our tradition’s universalist values provide more security than self-defense, the history of the 20th century argues otherwise. It teaches us that should the Jewish people ever again be at the mercy of their enemies in the way they were during the Holocaust, the results would be the same.
Although we can’t prevent its appropriation for a different cause, it’s still necessary for us to hold onto the truths that “Never Again” represented. Jewish survival depends on the power of memory and the ability to draw conclusions from the past that ensure that “never again” will Jews be defenseless. As long as we do so, it won’t matter what words are used for hashtags or book titles.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.