On International Holocaust Day, which is being commemorated today, we are asked not just to remember. We are also asked to learn lessons from that dark period in history.
One lesson which tends to be emphasized in Israel and among world Jewry is that anti-Semitism is essentially a terminal moral disease of humanity and that Jews must never again rely solely on the kindness of others. They must instead take responsibility for their own destiny.
Much of Zionism’s moral force is derived from this “never again” imperative. Never again must the Jewish people allow itself to be in a state of powerlessness. This awareness of our potential vulnerability drives our perception of the Iranian threat and our apprehensions regarding a territorial compromise with the Palestinians.
There are ample examples to buttress this reading of history. Just this week in Italy, a country not known to be particularly anti-Semitic, there was a disturbing hate crime. Two boxes containing pigs’ heads were sent to conspicuously Jewish and Israeli venues. One was sent to the Israeli Embassy in Rome and another was sent to city’s synagogue.
The Rome incident is hardly isolated. Jews are feeling increasingly uncomfortable in Europe. A recently published survey conducted during 2012 by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency among 5,847 Jews living in Belgium, Britain, Germany, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, and Sweden found that large percentages (76%) thought anti-Semitism had increased either a lot or a little over the past five years; that 27% had witnessed other Jews being verbally insulted or harassed or physically attacked in the past 12 months; and a quarter were afraid to wear a kippa or attend a Jewish event or site which would publicly identify them as Jews.
Anti-Jewish sentiment is strong in the Middle East as well, including among Palestinians. Even high-ranking figures in the Palestinian Authority, with whom Israel is conducting peace negotiations, have made declarations that reveal either a total lack of understanding of the Holocaust or an intentional desire to distort its memory.
As Palestinian Media Watch has shown, school history books and media sources regularly omit the fact that Jews were systematically murdered during World War II. Some Palestinian leaders have compared Israeli control over Palestinian populations on the West Bank to Nazi treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. Purposely ignoring the atrocities committed against the Jews during the Holocaust or belittling them are often calculated attempts to undermine the moral legitimacy of the Jewish state.
In addition to the “never again” imperative that relates specifically to Jews as victims, however, there is another “never again” lesson to be learned from the Holocaust.
All of humanity is obligated to recognize that mankind is capable of inconceivable acts of horror. We therefore all have a solemn duty to do everything in our power to prevent such acts of extreme violence from happening again. Jews, who know firsthand what it means to be on the receiving end of irrational and violent hatred, have a unique responsibility to prevent it from happening again.
Part of that moral legacy means joining forces with other minorities in Europe, such as Muslims and Roma, to fight prejudice there. Prof. Dina Porat, head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, noted that the Roma are particularly vulnerable, because they are unorganized and many are illiterate.
Another aspect of that legacy is to continue to take steps to bring about an equitable end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via a two-state solution. Doing so would ensure a strong Jewish majority, peace, and security for Israel. For Palestinians, a two-state solution would mean an end to Israeli control over their lives and the beginning of national self-determination.
On International Holocaust Day, we must keep in mind both “never again” imperatives – balancing one with the other without ever abandoning either. These are not mutually exclusive views. One recognizes the dangers to the Jewish people presented by the lethal obsession that is anti-Semitism. The other obligates us to temper this recognition with the moral obligation to fight injustice wherever it might manifest itself.