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Whose “Never Again”?

By Edgar M. Bronfman and Taylor Krauss After the Holocaust, the phrase "Never Again" became the determined vow, not only of the survivors themselves but also fellow Jews throughout the world. This vow, a profound assertion of self-protection, was passed … Read More

By / April 21, 2009

By Edgar M. Bronfman and Taylor Krauss

After the Holocaust, the phrase "Never Again" became the determined vow, not only of the survivors themselves but also fellow Jews throughout the world. This vow, a profound assertion of self-protection, was passed on to their children through efforts to educate them about the Holocaust and to document its history. Today, the phrase has been adopted by the world at large-particularly younger Jews-as a rallying cry to end all genocide. And even across the globe this April, millions of Rwandans sung along to a new gospel song called "Never Again," commissioned especially for the fifteenth commemoration of the Tutsi Genocide in 1994.

Among American Jews, there is an increasing generational rift in the way the phrase is used, a rift that the two of us noticed profoundly as we recently discussed the meaning of this phrase. One of us was born in 1929, coming of age when the atrocities of the Holocaust were at their most palpable and immediate. The other was a freshman in high school when the Hutu majority committed genocide against the Tutsi minority of Rwanda, awakening a broader, Jewish sense of responsibility for the global community.

Those who remember the first cry, "Never Again" for Jews, are reluctant to embrace the second, "Never Again" for all. Those who embrace the second feel less commitment to the vigilance on behalf of Jews that the first vow demands.

That Jews of an older generation guard the language of the Holocaust against use by others stems from fear for Jewish survival. The older generation of Jews, those who lived through the atrocities of the Holocaust, saw the world stand aside as Jews perished in concentration camps. They responded with the resolve to fight anti-Semitism worldwide and to ensure Jewish cultural continuity. But a tragedy of our Holocaust is that humanity has not absorbed the lesson its horrors should have taught. Asserting "Never Again" for all does not mean denying the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust. It means keeping its memory alive in the service of others.

Young American Jews have been active in the fight against genocide-recording survivor testimony in Rwanda, caring for survivors in Cambodia, raising awareness for Darfur. This generation seems unwilling to be aligned with an attitude that privileges Jewish suffering. Having grown up in a country where anti-Semitism is no longer a part of daily life, they are less concerned with the struggle for Jewish survival than with a search for joy and meaning in Judaism. They resist the call for self-protection, and instead focus on the Jewish value of justice and the pursuit of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. This confidence and openness should inspire hope for a newly vibrant Jewish life. But the embrace of the second "Never Again" has also come at the cost of the first. The younger generation tends to gloss over the real dangers that Jews face today, which include the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the threat to Israel from a nuclear Iran.

The sage Hillel asked, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?" One might imagine in these two questions a conversation between two generations of Jews. The first, the voice of painful history, argues that survival demands that we act in our own interest. The second probes questions of identity and responsibility. Who are we-as Jews and as human beings-if we look away from the suffering of others?

As two Jews who are passionately invested in the vitality of the Jewish people, our consciences require us to acknowledge the Jewish value of taking responsibility both for our own community and also for any community in need. Jews need to listen to one another, across the generational gap and the political spectrum, if we are to fulfill both promises. On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, amidst today’s international political turmoil, we should honor both meanings of "Never Again," aiming to unite the Jewish community and uphold a commitment to both promises. With the volatility and violence of today’s political climate, the line that completes Rabbi Hillel’s quote takes on a new urgency, "If not now, when?"

 


Taylor Krauss, an alumnus of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, is the founder of Voices of Rwanda, an organization dedicated to recording and preserving testimonies of Rwandans and to ensuring that their stories inform the world about genocide.

 

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