It is easy to despair this Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For too many, “Never Again” has become “Hopefully Soon,” even “Inshallah Tomorrow” – profaning religion to serve evil. Of course, not all Muslims are genocidal anti-Semites, but too many Islamists are proudly, unabashedly so, along with too many Palestinian activists, too many “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” Iranian leaders, too many European enablers. The Holocaust warns us to take hateful words seriously; bloodthirsty dreams can spawn bloody realities.
This Yom Hashoah, freshly dug graves in Europe and Israel testify to today’s epidemic of murderous anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Jews this year were slaughtered visiting a museum in Brussels, shopping for Shabbat in Paris, praying and commuting in Jerusalem. In a familiar inversion, many supposedly enlightened and religious voices not only refused to mourn, they blamed Jews for those deaths. Alas, some Jews swallow this poisonous idiocy and feel guilty.
True, Israel must take its share of responsibility for the Palestinian problem. Still, most crocodile tears shed for Palestinian suffering are more motivated by the desire for a modern, seemingly legitimate mask for Jew-hatred than any love for the Palestinians. For decades, the proof has been in the disproportionate, obsessive attacks on democratic Israel, with overheated comparisons to Nazism and apartheid while ignoring Palestinian terrorism and exterminationism. Now, note the silence surrounding the slaughter of Palestinians in Syria, particularly Islamic State’s mass starvation and beheadings in Yarmouk. Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hassan calls this “the shameful silence when Israel is not to blame.”
This Yom Hashoah, it is also too easy to compare European appeasement circa 1938 to American appeasement circa 2015, matching Neville Chamberlain’s Munich-inspired “peace for our time” to Barack Obama’s Lausanne-triggered “I’ve been very clear that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon on my watch.” Obama’s own words now prove he was too eager for a deal. Moreover he is wrong to claim that the choice was this flawed deal or war. The peaceful alternative to a nuclear Iran was more regime-crippling sanctions and a tougher deal. In Haaretz, sane analysts like Ari Shavit said Obama’s sales campaign “doesn’t set off one alarm bell, it sets off a thousand.” Yet even hearing the ayatollahs reiterate their “Death to America” chant won’t stop the Obama Appeasement Express.
Amid such hatred and weakness, it feels foolish to sit around a darkened room, listening to yet another Holocaust survivor’s story. Standing still during the siren is the opposite of what we should be doing. We need action not contemplation, anger not mourning. We must avert a future Holocaust, not regret the first one.
Precisely at this danger point, accept two other obligations. First, honor the millions murdered and those who survived by listening to them. Elie Wiesel teaches: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” That, frankly, is easy. Jews, Zionists, Israelis, democratic patriots, are good memorializers. We know how to bathe in memory, cherish our heroes, echo our past.
The second obligation is harder. Even in a world rife with injustice, teetering toward madness, learn to resist false analogies. It’s not 1938, because we have a flourishing Jewish state and a powerful Jewish army. It’s not 1938, because we have an engaged America not an isolationist America. It’s not 1938, because we live in a more civilized world.
Commemorating Yom Hashoah honestly also involves isolating the variables that made the Holocaust unique, not just generalizing the ones that make it seem imminent. Yes, beware violent words. But also beware sloppy comparisons. In his challenging and uplifting 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
, the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker provides nearly 800 hundred pages of good news, showing that our era, for all its faults, is the least violent, the least tumultuous, the most civilized, the most humanitarian epoch humans have ever enjoyed. The post-Nazi “Long Peace” has now been followed by the post-Soviet “New Peace.”
Especially in the West, our media-fueled outrage sometimes reflects a bratty perfectionism. Once, life genuinely was nasty, brutish and short; today, it’s mostly cushy, safe and long. As a result, we get particularly annoyed when things go wrong, when that pleasant baseline feels threatened.
Anger is legitimate when confronting injustice; just judge today’s chaos in context. In Jewish terms, the change from 1938 and 2015 is transformational. In spring, 1944, Nazi killers in Auschwitz gassed 6,000 Hungarian Jews a day. That means that the Nazis slaughtered more Jews in five days than the 25,000 Jews Arabs have murdered in a century of war and terrorism.
Today, most Jews live in free, safe, prosperous countries, with most living in Israel and the United States, two of the happiest experiments in productive, constructive, peaceful Jewish living in our 3,500-year history.
We need that context not to approve a contemptible surrender to Iran or to restrain our fury at even the slightest stirring of anti-Semitism. But that perspective highlights the true horrors our ancestors and elders endured. We also should appreciate all we have, cataloging all the good we got from our parents’ and grandparents’ sacrifices. And we should fight hard to guarantee that just like they made a better world for us, we leave our children an even better, safer, sounder world.
When you stand at attention this Yom Hashoah, don’t just remember the past also but think of an effective action plan, asking, “What am I doing to fight anti-Semitism today and to build a positive modern Zionism for the future?” When listening to survivors, find inspiration in their grit and ingenuity. And with zero tolerance for any intolerance that remains, let’s celebrate all the good in our lives, even at this sobering moment.The author is a professor of history at McGill University and is teaching this semester at Hebrew University’s Rothberg School. His eleventh book,
The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published in October.