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“Never Again” Means Stopping Genocide Today, Not Just Remembering

From: Adam LeBor To: Shmuel Rosner Dear Shmuel, Thanks for your perceptive letter, and I think you are right to move the debate along to explore Jewish responsibility for stopping genocide, if indeed Jews have such a responsibility. But before … Read More

By / June 26, 2008

From: Adam LeBor

To: Shmuel Rosner

Dear Shmuel,

Thanks for your perceptive letter, and I think you are right to move the debate along to explore Jewish responsibility for stopping genocide, if indeed Jews have such a responsibility. But before we go there, let me share with you the latest news from the United Nations, which only confirms my increasing belief that the organization is in a terminal political decline.

Each year the General Assembly, which opens in September, elects a president and twenty-one vice-presidents. The General Assembly is dominated by the G77 group, non-aligned states from the developing world, including many Arab and Islamic nations, which accounts for its obsession with Israel, but let's leave that for the moment. The 2008 President of the General Assembly is Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, of Nicaragua. Señor d'Escoto Brockmann, a Catholic priest, is a former Sandinista foreign minister. He does not much like the United States and swiftly condemned what he called acts of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, so familiar.

Now comes the list of twenty one vice-presidents. Vice-President of the General Assembly is mainly an honorary position, but still counts for something in the carefully delineated diplomatic hierarchy of the United Nations. The VPs include Egypt, Russia and Afghanistan, as well as the United States and the United Kingdom. And Burma. Yes, Burma. Cyclone-ravaged Burma, which is ruled by a junta so paranoid and downright evil that it deliberately obstructed the flow of UN aid to its own citizens. Burma, which promised Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that aid would flow freely after his visit, and then immediately reneged on that promise. Burma, whose intransigence forced the World Food Programme, the UN's food agency, to suspend further supplies while the junta simply confiscated its aid and equipment. Burma, which obstructed and delayed visas for UN aid workers. Apart perhaps from North Korea, no other UN government has shown such contempt, even murderous disregard for its own citizens. No matter, for in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the UN General Assembly, Burma's anti-western credentials make it an honored member.

And this same moral blindness has shaped the United Nations' response to Darfur. I was amazed and depressed to learn, while researching Complicity with Evil, how much reflexive anti-Westernism still shapes international diplomacy there. Colonialism in Africa and Asia ended decades ago, but still shapes the mentality of governments from Jakarta to Algiers. Sudan's greatest defenders at the United Nations are the Arab, Islamic and African blocs, and of course, China, which buys Sudan's oil and so keeps the government in power and funds the genocide. Time and time again, since the crisis in Darfur erupted in spring 2003, Sudan's allies have blocked or watered down attempts by the United States, Britain and France to exert diplomatic pressure on Sudan. (It's fascinating to compare the response of the Arab and Islamic countries at the UN to Bosnia and Darfur. They pressed the West hard to intervene in Bosnia, where Bosnian Muslims were being killed by Serb and Croat Christians. They now try and stymie any attempts to intervene, even diplomatically, where black Muslims are being killed by their own Muslim government.)

So, to a large extent, as you rightly say, it has been left to Darfur lobbying groups, which have a substantial Jewish presence, to take the lead. You ask if Jews have a special responsibility over Darfur? In absolute terms, no. Darfur is the world's responsibility, a moral incumbency no more or less on Jews than anyone else. But perhaps that is mere sophistry. You write that we should feel proud that: "Jews, who suffered the most from genocide feel compelled to raise their voices against such actions in every part of the world. They feel they have the moral authority, and the obligation to do so. And they do." I absolutely agree. While objectively speaking, Jews do not have a special responsibility to combat genocide, they believe they do, and act on it, which should indeed make us proud. (Although it's notable that in my homeland of Britain, Darfur has never become a hot-button issue, neither among Jews nor the wider population.)

I thought your second point was especially interesting: that American Jews got tired of investing all their political capital in supporting Israel. Especially, in my opinion, when it has become impossible to justify Israel's actions in the Occupied Territories, and the endless, creeping wave of settlements and annexations. It seems to me, Shmuel, that you are right, that there is a drift, even a movement away from the Israel-right-or-wrong school of thought and towards a more independent position, which can only be healthy in the long run. But here's an idea: maybe Jews support the 'Save Darfur' campaigns for another reason, so that they can argue that however bad things are in Palestine, they are nowhere near as bad as what is happening in Darfur. Which is true.

You ask what happens when the preservation of Israel contradicts stopping genocide.
I don't see a contradiction here, at least in today's world. Such a dilemma, thankfully, has not arisen. But I do think, that Israel, whose coming into existence was to some extent accelerated by the Holocaust, has a special responsibility to act humanely and with compassion towards refugees. I am critical of the way, for example, that foreign dignitaries are taken to Yad Vashem by Israeli government ministers. It's good that Yad Vashem exists, but it should be independent of politics. These visits seem to me an almost cynical attempt to draw a historical continuum between the Holocaust and the need to support Israeli government policies. And considering Israel's patchy record in dealing with refugees from a current genocide, Darfur, such visits could even be distasteful. Consider the Prevention of Infiltration Act, which has already passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset.

It allows the expulsion of refugees without judicial process, and seven year prison sentences for refugees from Sudan. It even allows for 'hot returns,' meaning that Israeli soldiers would force the refugees back over the border into Egypt, to face imprisonment or execution. Israeli soldiers have repeatedly witnessed and testified to how Egyptian troops deal with fleeing Sudanese: they shoot them.

Shmuel, we've covered a lot of ground in this enjoyable and thoughtful exchange, despite its depressing subject matter. But I leave you with this thought about Jews and Genocide. The Holocaust was the determining event in modern Jewish history, and has greatly shaped Israeli identity. But if 'Never Again' means anything, it means not just memorialising the six million, but also trying to stop present day genocides, or at least helping their victims. And that's true in Jerusalem as much as Washington DC.

Yours,

Adam

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