Holocaust Remembrance Day: Jews, Israelis must protect human life - opinion

Our Jewish/Israeli people need new Moses-leadership courageously devoted to decency and the protection of human life in continuation of the finest values of Jewish religion and our basic tradition.

 ETHNIC UIGHUR men take part in a protest against China, in Istanbul earlier this month. (photo credit: DILARA SENKAYA/REUTERS)
ETHNIC UIGHUR men take part in a protest against China, in Istanbul earlier this month.
(photo credit: DILARA SENKAYA/REUTERS)

It is amazing that there is so much recognition of the Holocaust on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27.

All genocides are infinitely tragic and maddening. All genocides deserve remembrance and memorial. The late Israeli cabinet minister Yossi Sarid wrote with great wisdom that every “genocide” constitutes a “holocaust (shoah)” and that every “holocaust (shoah)” is a case of “genocide.” But, frighteningly and tragically, there are so many instances all through human history, including ongoing today, and who of us can bear the emotional demands of so much memorial?

Moreover, it is entirely natural that although many of us intellectually care quite a lot about every case of genocide, there are many instances in which our emotional responses are reserved or even not present – just like the news of deaths of relatives, friends and acquaintances in our individual lives touch us with varying degrees of emotion.

Yet the Holocaust has definitely broken through to take on a fundamental and archetypal meaning for humanity. Why? Clearly, our humanity is ready and desperately in need of awareness of this overwhelmingly destructive aspect of our species. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists places the time on the clock portending the destruction of life on earth at 100 seconds before midnight!

I believe that the Holocaust has “succeeded” resoundingly in finally showing us humans who and what we really are. For all that we are born “b’tzelem Elohim” or in the image of God, and indeed we are beautiful, brilliant, creative, loving and forever developing, we also are: cruel, heartless, sadistic, and indifferent to others, born killers, meaning there is a basic instinctive potential for eliminating others’ lives.

 The Berlin Holocaust Memorial, officially named the Monument to the Murdered Jews in Europe. (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS) The Berlin Holocaust Memorial, officially named the Monument to the Murdered Jews in Europe. (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A huge number of people participated in the Holocaust as leaders, executioners, accomplices, bystanders and innovative profiteers – whether of homes and lands or gaining chairs of university and medical school departments, and more.

“Ordinary people,” as historian Christopher Browning brilliantly showed in a study of a German police unit that was devoted to killing Jews, who were not really motivated to the task but were devoted to doing what they were told to do, available to be led blindly, passively, stupidly by instructions from leaders and societal institutions.

They were mindless robots hypnotized and “intoxicated” by orgiastic group processes where they would join in the wild dances around the “golden calf” of murder.

In one way or another, many of these elements are also clearly in play in others of the endless events of genocide by humanity – and that is true to the very moment, where so many different peoples such as Uighurs, Rohingya, Tutsi, Sudanese and Christians are being exterminated. But there was something dramatically special in the intensity of the configuration that sparked Man Genocider in the Holocaust, including the striking identities of the victims and their genocidal perpetrators.

Victims: the Jews were the earliest hero people of our civilization, known as carriers of the blessing of the Almighty God, who among other things charged them explicitly with the life-changing instruction, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and who as a people lived lives unlike most others without weapons or violence, absorbed in prayer and endless learning.

Perpetrators: the Germans were pillars of modernity, advanced in science, industry, and a cultural richness of philosophy, music and the arts, and now it became clear that even these wonderful expressions of the fineness of humanity could not stem the tide of the evil aspects of human nature that generate massive destruction of life.

So international recognition of the Holocaust is not only a specific honor extended to the Jewish victims, but a summary statement of man’s most true encounter with his own self to date. The challenge is to reshape the evolution of the human animal toward a clear-cut dominance of the creative lifesaving aspect of human nature.

However, there is also another very neglected question that arises: do the victims emerge from their hell not only with a command, Remember, and quite certainly with a command, Be Strong, but also with an explicit moral directive to care about and help other peoples who suffer genocidal fates? We Jews, the “merciful people” in our image of ourselves, have not done so. We come through in earthquakes, tsunamis and floods, and we contribute in many ways to medical advances and services for ill people, but basically we do not give a damn for the other victims of genocides in our world.

We have excuses. We need such and such for our own security. For example we need to be in a good relationship with Turkey, a strong Muslim neighbor, and we fear that recognizing its genocide of the Armenians will cost us its possible friendship; and we need and want to be in positive relations with China, with which we enjoy increasing lucrative trade, let alone our awareness that it is a menacingly growing world power, and we won’t take a chance on enraging it about its genocidal campaign against the Muslim Uighurs.

It sounds practical and maybe makes sense for self-protection, although many of us believe very differently that a firm ethical approach to foreign policy will pay off in far greater national strength and even greater international security. But then what can be said when the Knesset votes down a proposal by a thoughtful Knesset member to recognize the genocide of the Yazidis by ISIS? What about us Jews taking clear stands on behalf of Christian minorities who are being attacked and killed in a variety of countries. “We Jews, Israelis, don’t do genocides.”

There is still another very ugly side to the story, and that is that we profit from arms sales even to ongoing genociders! See the failed efforts of attorney Itay Mack and genocide scholar Yair Auron to get the courts to release government information on the sales. Recently a grassroots movement called Yanshuf has begun to emerge from the religious-Zionist community to campaign for ethical reviews of all arms sales.

For those who sincerely worry about our security and believe that our very legitimate needs to be safe justify our accommodation and subservience to the devil of mass murder of other people, the question should be put whether we understand how other peoples in this world did not respond or take chances on fighting back for us against the Nazi murderers.

Our Jewish/Israeli people need new Moses-leadership that is courageously devoted to decency and the protection of human life in continuation of the finest values of Jewish religion and our basic cultural tradition.

The author is director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem and recently published a book, Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide. He is past co-founder and past president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.