Wednesday, May 7, 2014

But what do we do the day after Yom ha Shoah ?

Last month Jewish communities around the world paused to remember the victims of the Holocaust, a unique and uniquely horrifying genocide which was not only an assault on the Jewish people, but on fundamental values of respect for human life, freedom of religion and democratic principles. When we honor the memory of those who fell victim to the monstrosity of Nazism we not only make sure that those who were murdered are not forgotten, but we remind ourselves and our fellow citizens that we share a collective responsibility to remain vigilant and on guard against prejudice and hate.

Each year we go through these rituals, these sacred acts and actions of memory and commemoration, but do we truly confront the horror of a society consuming itself with hate, greed and violence ? We can look at the events of the Shoah from many different angles, through many lenses and in many different contexts, but at every scale the cruelty of the events which define this shameful period of human history defy description, let alone comprehension.

So what can we do ? We cannot turn away from the Holocaust and its attendant tide of despair, for doing so would not only dishonor the dead whose memories we seek to keep alive, but fail in our duty to remind the world that what happened 70 years should never happen again. So what do we do ? We go community centers and synagogues and memorials, we read aloud the names of the dead, we pray and reflect. Perhaps we hear a survivor share their story or light candles in memory of the dead. We come, really, to sit and to stand in silence with others - both an act of solidarity and compassion.

This is what happens at Yom Hashoah commemorations around the world, but what do we do the day after ? What do we do once the fullness, the emotion, the silence of the moment have passed ?

Then, I would argue, we have a responsibility to take these lessons and put them into action in the broader world - the Holocaust was unique, sui generis, a singular horror visited upon  the human race - but there are many other tragedies taking place in which civil society is destroying itself and taking innocent lives with it, in Syria a brutal civil war rages, in Nigeria more than 200 female students have been kidnapped by Islamic militants and in the Ukraine government forces are fighting Russian-speaking separatist militias, with plenty of innocent civilians caught in the middle. Holocaust Memorial Day is incredibly important and a lot of thought and time goes into commemorations - perhaps it's time we also imbued  the day after Yom HaShoah with significance as well.

 Maybe this day should be one for action on human rights, for supporting civil society and democracy, for shining a light on places where the principles, ideals and freedoms that 6 million Jews and millions of other people of good conscience died for  in the holocaust, are under siege once again. Perhaps in this space where so few adequate responses seem possible, this is one that might just make a difference.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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