Denying the Holocaust rightfully offends Jewish sensibilities.
We speak up, we do everything we can to make sure the world doesn’t forget the inhumanity of Nazi Germany and those who supported them. We mean it when we say the words never again.
All this is why Poland’s new “Holocaust Law,” which criminalizes statements that Poles were complicit with crimes committed during the Holocaust, has rightly outraged us. The law is an attempt to rewrite history. It amounts to Holocaust denial. Notwithstanding the new law, it is well documented that the Polish people committed genocidal acts. That fact cannot be wiped away.
Only days ago, our State Department issued a report that found “evidence that Poles persecuted the Jews as vigorously as did the Germans” during the Nazi occupation. Regardless of Poland’s new law, the evidence exists. We are here to bear witness to what occurred, and to use it as a reminder that genocide must be prevented at all costs
That is why we remain concerned, for example, about the Rohingya. The Rohingya Muslim community has existed in Myanmar (formerly Burma) for centuries and now has been subjected to ethnic cleansing for decades. Thousands of Rohingya have been murdered, burned to death, tortured, raped, and driven out of the country. In 2012, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting said the Rohingya have become one of the most oppressed ethnic groups in the world. Yet these past five years have seen no drop in Myanmar’s efforts to destroy them. And now, much like Poland’s efforts to eliminate evidence to its role in the Holocaust, Myanmar’s authorities are striving to erase any historical reminders of the Rohingya’s existence. Their military is currently bulldozing what’s left of the Rohingya villages in an effort to alter history. Myanmar’s actions simply add to an attempt to rewrite history just as the Poles are now retroactively seeking to do.
In 2016, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar‘s government, embraced the view that the Rohingya don’t exist. She cautioned the American ambassador against using the term Rohingya to describe Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim population. If the Rohingya don’t exist, how can there be refugee camps just outside Myanmar housing more than 650,000 people?
In part because of the Holocaust, in 1948the United Nations approved Article II of the Genocide Convention, describing genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” The Convention declared that people committing this crime shall be punished regardless of their status.
There’s a genocide going on in Myanmar, and the world largely remains silent. It has become all too common to watch mass killings from afar and say nothing. The genocide perpetrated by the Hutus on the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994 is another example. Close to one million people died there, and yet that tragedy was hardly a blip on the human radar screen. Currently there’s a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The population is being starved to death under daily bombing. We all know about Syria. The slaughter there for the last seven years is no different. Nor is that in South Sudan, where mass killings continue along ethnic lines.
The list goes on; it should do more than shock us.
In 2008, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, together with the American Academy of Diplomacy and the United States Institute of Peace, convened the Genocide Prevention Task Force. Co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, the task force offered practical recommendations on how to prevent genocide. It asserted that preventing genocide is an “achievable goal” and that progress begins with “leadership and political will.” It provided 34 recommendations and outlined a comprehensive approach when responding to “genocidal situations” as they arise.
So the will and effort do exist, but the goal has yet to be accomplished. What can we do to stop genocide, this ethnic cleansing that continues to happen in our world? How can we, the Jewish people, help the Rohingya or the innocent civilians in Syria and Yemen? Their situation is heartbreaking. They are rejected by the countries they call home, but they are unwanted by the countries where they seek refuge. They are impoverished and stateless. They tell stories of continuous horror. In Myanmar’s case, the government says those stories are false and distorted. They deny they even exist. In Syria and Yemen, their governments deflect blame onto others.
Never again can never be thought of as being solely about the Jewish people, or that we have been the only targets of genocide and yes, extinction. Rather, never again needs to be about all mass genocide, no matter who the victims. Never again requires a Jewish response whenever there are genocidal efforts, regardless of who, what, where, when, and why.
We, as Jews, must reconcile ourselves to the paradigm of never again and move it forward. We cannot be outraged about an anti-Semitic law passed by the Polish government and yet remain silent about what’s happening to the Rohingya or innocent civilians in Syria, Yemen or anywhere else.
We must speak up. We must, once more, say never again.
Jason Shames is the CEO and executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and Vered Adoni is a lawyer who lives in Bergen County.