Before the serious policy disagreements on the Iran nuclear agreement and the inaction in Syria that would come between me and Samantha Power, America’s former ambassador to the UN, I remember studying with her at the White House the words of last week’s Torah reading in Leviticus 19: “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
This biblical exhortation is arguably the only one contained in any ancient creed forcing the powerful to protect the lives of the vulnerable, even if means risking life and limb. It is the ultimate source for R2P, or Responsibility to Protect, the modern political doctrine that would force great powers to intervene in the face of genocide. Whereas the Christian Bible says to turn the other cheek and love your enemies, the Jewish Bible forces us to fight evil.
On May 21, our organization, The World Values Network, held its fifth annual Champions of Jewish Values Awards Gala, at New York City’s Cipriani. For an organization like ours, which is committed to commemorating past genocides and preventing those of the future, the past year has been one of the most crucial and meaningful in recent memory.
Just a month after our last gala, on July 2, 2016, the twenty-sixth of the Hebrew month of Sivan, the world would bear the loss of its chief moral authority, Elie Wiesel, the man whom president Barack Obama called “the conscience of the world.” One of the most respected men on earth, Wiesel’s very name has come to bear the weight of all of the most fundamental values of the Jewish people: those of faith and of struggle, of strength and of pride, of righteous indignation and of the courage to forgive. He was, and remains, an eternal beacon of wisdom for us and our children and an essential element in the moral bedrock of the world.
Elie’s absence was felt most with the disintegration of Aleppo, Syria in December of last year. As barrel bombs fell on children, there was no voice that could shame the Western powers into taking action. Indeed, the government of the United States passed a United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlements, while failing to pass single resolution condemning the mass murder in Syria.
Our dinner this year was dedicated to the memory of Prof. Wiesel, commemorating his incredible life’s work. It was held exactly 11 Hebrew months after his death, which, according to Jewish tradition, is the last day on which we recite the Kaddish prayer for the deceased. Wiesel’s only son, Elisha, who attended with his mother, Marion, as the evening’s keynote speaker, recited the prayer.
We chose the date of the gala to coincide with the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor’s last Kaddish as a poignant reminder of the everlasting memory Reb Eliezer, as I affectionately called him, lent the six million victims of the Germans who had no Kaddish said for them.
Last month I visited Auschwitz as part of the March of the Living. Elisha spoke beautifully there to 12,000 Jewish youth from around the world about this father’s legacy and what it means for us today. He spoke of the Jewish community standing against gay men and women being slaughtered in Muslim lands and the need for America to take in refugees from Syria. It was a courageous and unforgettable speech wherein Elisha continued his father’s defining virtue of speaking truth to power.
The Trump administration gained tremendous moral authority when it punished Assad for using chemical weapons in Syria. It can gain so much more by welcoming refugees from war-ravaged nations, especially Syria, even amid our legitimate need to keep America safe.
Reb Eliezer dedicated his life to commemorating the victims of mankind’s greatest crime, ensuring that it never be lost to the public consciousness.
Unlike many survivors, who could not bear to face the horrors of their past, in his writing of Night Wiesel decided to relive every horrid moment of his years in Auschwitz so that the world might know what befell the Jews of Europe, captured as it was from his own perspective.
However, his life was not dedicated only to memory, but to action, too. Publishing over 40 books in his lifetime, Wiesel’s works and ideas would launch him to the global fore. Once he’d achieved such influence, he would commit himself to doing all he could to protect innocent life. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel would use his renown and influence to enshrine the memory of those for whom help never came and protect those for whom it still could.
It was Elie Wiesel who pushed president Carter to commission the US Holocaust Museum, admonished president Reagan for speaking at the cemetery in Bitburg that contained SS graves, who called upon president Clinton to protect those being slaughtered in Kosovo and the Balkans, and asked him the piercing question of why America did nothing while yet another genocide was taking place in Rwanda.
It is fitting therefore that at a night dedicated to the memory of history’s greatest witness to genocide, we hosted President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, whose courageous actions in 1994 ended the slaughter that saw nearly one million of his countrymen brutally hacked to death with machetes.
Which brings us to our world today.
In the past year, the world has watched the slaughter in Syria turn into what can be described as nothing short of genocide, as Hezbollah, Iran and Alawite militias have targeted Sunnis for destruction. In Bashar Assad’s December Aleppo offensive, his armies murdered at least a thousand civilians. The offensive brought the death toll of the six-year conflict horrifyingly close to the half-million mark. Then, just over a month ago, Assad took a note from the Nazis and once again employed poison gas against civilians.
I believe that every Jew must be committed to fighting genocide and the World Values Network is dedicated to international media campaigns highlighting the evils of mass murder. Whether it was our endless campaigning against the Iranian mullahs, who threaten Israel constantly with yet another genocide of the Jews, or our push for presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump to take action in Syria, defending the infinite value of every human life is at the top of our agenda. At our gala this year, though, we took things to a new level with the announcement, God willing, of a permanent Anti-Genocide Center.
With a fusion of aggressive lobbying, sweeping media campaigns and on-the-ground activities, the Anti-Genocide Center will work to ensure that the world hears the voices of those facing the horrifying prospect of wholesale slaughter. With headquarters in the world’s diplomatic capital in New York, the center will have satellite offices in both Jerusalem and Kigali, Rwanda, each focusing on peoples at risk in the Middle East and Africa, respectively.
The locale of these offices is key. This initiative will, God willing, bind together Jerusalem and Kigali in the mutual mission of ensuring that the horrors that befell our peoples never again be allowed to pass anywhere across the globe.
We also dedicated a Torah scroll to the memory of Elie Wiesel and the victims of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.
There could be no better time to recognize those who fight for Israel, with our Gala being held just two days before Yom Yerushalayim and the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Israel’s eternal capital.
Together, we can make the worlds “Never Again” mean exactly that.