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(photo credit: AP [file])
President Barack Obama will deliver the keynote address at today's Holocaust Remembrance ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. The theme for this year's ceremony is "Never Again: What You Do Matters." The theme emphasizes individual responsibility.
In what he says about this theme at the ceremony, and in what he does about it afterward, Obama shouldn't only remember the terrible past. In urgent response to the outrageously belligerent statements about the Holocaust and about Israel made on Monday by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, he should speak also about what could be an even more terrible future.
Too often, the vow of "never again" has been a rhetorical utterance that, when we make it in speeches, costs us little and makes us feel better - but that, when we have the chance of putting it into practice, we shamefully ignore, especially when not ignoring it imposes on us personal or national costs. At tomorrow's ceremony, Obama should dedicate himself to making sure that, under his leadership, that vow will become effective national policy. On this crucial matter of individual responsibility, President Obama should - both as an individual and as president - lead the country and the world by example.
Until now, Holocaust remembrance has been about the past: the systematic murder by Nazi Germany of six million European Jews between 1939 and 1945. Suddenly, Holocaust remembrance is also about the future. It's about the threatened murder by Iran of nearly six million Israeli Jews. And, even worse, it's about the potential murder of many millions more. The meaning of "never again" has never been as clear, as urgent or as universal.
IN 1939, Adolf Hitler issued his "prophecy" that the Jews would be exterminated. And now Ahmadinejad, even as he races to build nuclear weapons, denies that the Holocaust ever happened and threatens the elimination of Israel. In his speech Monday at the UN's "anti-racism" conference in Geneva, he called the Holocaust an "ambiguous and dubious question" and a "pretext of Jewish sufferings."
Hitler justified his animus against the Jews by accusing them of manipulating international finance and world governments. And Ahmadinejad, in his speech on Monday, justified his animus against Israel, as he'd done before, by hurling the same accusations against "the Zionists."
Ahmadinejad also argued that it's "Zionists" - by which term he means Jews - who manipulate governments and nations. "It is time," he said, that "the ideal of Zionism, which is the paragon of racism, be broken." The seriousness of this threat by the bellicose leader of a country clearly rushing to amass nuclear weapons, and utterly committed to the elimination of Israel, can hardly be exaggerated.
The fact that the US and eight other nations had already decided to boycott the conference, and the fact that, in the midst of Ahmadinejad's vitriolic, Holocaust-denying and Israel-threatening speech, several dozen European diplomats walked out, won't slow his march toward nuclear weapons. Nor will it diminish the chance that he will actually use them. He's been chastised before, and it hasn't stopped him. Nor has Obama's hope to "reach out" to Iran induced Ahmadinejad to calm his bellicose rhetoric or stop spinning his centrifuges. This bellicose rhetoric, like the bellicose rhetoric of murderous leaders six and seven decades ago, sustains and justifies the rush to violence. Ahmadinejad is a man obsessed and determined, as are others in the Iranian leadership, and is fast on his way to building the instruments of mass death.
Clearly the deadly past has become a frightening portent of a deadly future. And the Obama administration's readiness to drop the demand that Iran suspend its nuclear program while negotiating about it could guarantee that, as the talks proceed, the centrifuges will continue to spin, the warheads will be made, the rockets will be poised, and Iran will be ready to strike.
So, at this crucial time of Holocaust remembrance, the past is threatening to become prologue. In Israel, sorrow is being joined by fear. And "never again," at least for Israelis, has become a grim and concrete vow.
TOO MUCH is at stake - not only for Israel and its Jews but also for America and the world. A nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel could kill many times six million, both Israelis and Iranians. And before any exchange - even if Iran only uses its nuclear weapons for blackmail - other nuclear powers, fearful of Iran's thrust toward regional hegemony, will emerge in the region. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and several others will amass their own arsenals. At least the Cold War, horrible as it was in potential, could be controlled. The world created by a nuclear Iran could never be controlled. And the nuclear-tipped rockets shot off by those countries could reach well beyond the Middle East into Europe and elsewhere.
In addressing the theme of "never again" in the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday, President Obama should acknowledge not only the concrete danger of the "again" but also his personal responsibility, as an individual and as the most powerful leader in the world, to avert it. He should explain clearly why talking to Iran is necessary. But he should also explain, as the nuclear clock ticks on, what he wants to accomplish - and what he'd do if, after a reasonable effort, it becomes apparent that Iran is only using the talks as a tactical maneuver to buy the little time still needed to build nuclear weapons.
Options are available, including very sharp and targeted sanctions against elements in the Iranian regime, that have a chance of at least slowing, and even preventing, Iranian weaponization. Mr. Obama should make it clear that he's ready to pursue those options, and any others he thinks might work and would be compatible with world peace, and to lead America's European and other allies in doing so. And, given the urgency, he should make clear that he will do so well before Iran's ticking nuclear clock strikes twelve.
President Obama owes that to the victims of the last Holocaust. And he owes it to the potential victims, far greater in number, of the next.
The writer is a former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at George Washington University and a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Baltimore Sun.