Never Again: Our Responsibility from WW II into the 21st Century
Genocide happens all too often. Several examples of it have happened in my lifetime, usually ignored, allowed to happen through neutrality or even complicity by the world. Did you know that Pat Robertson was buddies with the dictator Charles Taylor, the instigator of genocidal civil wars in both Sierra Leone and Liberia? Among Taylor's American supporters is Pat Robertson. From Wikipedia:
According to a 2 June 1999, article in The Virginian-Pilot, Taylor had extensive business dealings with televangelist Pat Robertson. According to the article, Taylor gave Robertson (who also had business dealings with dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire) the rights to mine for diamonds in Liberia's mineral-rich countryside. According to two Operation Blessing pilots who reported this incident to the state of Virginia for investigation in 1994, Robertson used his Operation Blessing planes to haul diamond-mining equipment to Robertson's mines in Liberia, despite the fact that Robertson was telling his 700 Club viewers that the planes were sending relief supplies to the victims of the genocide in Rwanda. The subsequent investigation by the state of Virginia concluded that Robertson diverted his ministry's donations to the Liberian diamond-mining operation, but Attorney General of Virginia Mark Earley blocked any potential prosecution against Robertson.
I should note, Mark Earley is a Republican. Yet another example of corrupt Republican greed and disrespect for the law. Earley ran for Governor of Virginia, but thankfully this man who was willing to shelter possible war crimes, lost to Democrat Mark Warner.
Pat Robertson participated indirectly in genocidal events, and yet right here in American he has been let off the hook. Shameful.
The first step towards genocide is to define your target as less than human. The dehumanization of perfectly normal and nice human beings is the first step to exterminating those perfectly normal and nice human beings. This is a common motif in all of human history. We Americans are not immune to it. Americans did it regarding blacks and Native Americans. Japanese have done it regarding Koreans and Chinese. And, of course, many have done it regarding the Jews.
Look here in America where the right wing extremists are referring to immigrants and minorities in derogatory terms and widely circulate racist videos and jokes and articles. These right wing extremists may not have genocide on their mind, but they are taking the first steps down that path with their racist references to Obama and their hatred and threats towards immigrants and their talking of race wars.
If we believe in Never Again, then we must speak out when those first steps are taken, even if those first steps are merely tentative ones. Sometimes those first steps are not truly leading directly to genocide, but it makes it all the more easy for a nation to turn a blind eye towards genocide elsewhere. This is another lesson of WW II and America's refusal to help Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. The most famous case of anti-immigrant racism in the US allowing genocide to progress unhindered is the case of the German ship the St. Louis carrying some 900 Jewish refugees. The ship, whose story is told in the book Voyage of the Damned, was refused entry by Cuba and the US. In the end, Britain, France, Holland and Belgium accepted them...mere months before WW II. Many of those refugees, because they were denied asylum in the New World, wound up in concentration camps anyway.
We must recognize the role America played in refusing to help the Jews because of racism WITHIN America. This passage from Voyage of the Damned reminds me all too much of anti-immigrant hysteria in America today and even the worst of the rhetoric of the right wing Teabaggers:
The decision to bar the refugees reflected widespread feeling in the United States toward immigrants. By June 1939, with some 30 million unemployed, opposition came from labor leaders, who claimed that work markets were being depressed by foreigners willing to accept minimum wages. Among the unemployed, as in the rest of the country, there existed a xenophobia which made the United States not so much a melting pot for racial and religious differences but rather a pit for racial and religious antagonisms. On the edge of this cauldron perched the 100% Americanm determined to return the nation to Anglo-Saxon purity. Despite having descended from immigrant stock, they now regarded themselves as native Americans, and were determined to exclude anyone of doubtful origins.
By 1939, the refugees of Europe had fallen into that category. While the average American decried Nazi policies, he was equally opposed to offering its victims a home. For some organizations, like the notorious [KKK], which claimed a membership of 4.5 million "white, make, persons, native-born gentile citizens of the United States of America," the European refugee posed a greater threat than the Negro. Imperial Wizard Hiram E. Evans explained: "The Negro is not a menace to Americanism in the sense that the Jew or Roman Catholic is a menace." Increasingly, those two groups were to bear the brunt of the Klan's sectarian violence.
Such demagogues [editor's note: These were the "shock-jocks" of the time] as the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin found willing response among the millions who saw refugees like those on the St. Louis as a further threat to the "purity" of the United States.
Racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia in America was a contributing factor to our shameful inaction regarding Jewish refugees, and we condemned many to death because of our own irrational fears and prejudices.
"Never Again" requires that we shed much of that racism and xenophobia. This is something the United States is refusing to do right now. The hate-filled laws passed by Arizona do very little to actually address the reasons for illegal immigration (driven mainly by a strong labor demand by Americans) but rather are aimed at inspiring hatred of immigrants in whites and fear in Hispanics (citizens and immigrants, legal or not). Those who support the Arizona laws may themselves by horrified by genocide, but their laws are the kind of laws that history shows us create an atmosphere that tolerates genocide. That was a lesson of WW II that we are forgetting.
In 1986, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Elie Wiesel's entire life was defined by the Holocaust. It is thus been his life's work to remind us of what happened of our duty to take Never Again to heart. His Nobel Acceptance Speech is a very important one, and should be read by everyone. I want to quote a segment of it which says better than I can the importance of remembering and of working towards Never Again:
...I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.
And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
Of course, since I am a Jew profoundly rooted in my peoples' memory and tradition, my first response is to Jewish fears, Jewish needs, Jewish crises. For I belong to a traumatized generation, one that experienced the abandonment and solitude of our people. It would be unnatural for me not to make Jewish priorities my own: Israel, Soviet Jewry, Jews in Arab lands ... But there are others as important to me. Apartheid is, in my view, as abhorrent as anti-Semitism. To me, Andrei Sakharov's isolation is as much of a disgrace as Josef Biegun's imprisonment. As is the denial of Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa's right to dissent. And Nelson Mandela's interminable imprisonment.
There is so much injustice and suffering crying out for our attention: victims of hunger, of racism, and political persecution, writers and poets, prisoners in so many lands governed by the Left and by the Right. Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. And then, too, there are the Palestinians to whose plight I am sensitive but whose methods I deplore. Violence and terrorism are not the answer. Something must be done about their suffering, and soon. I trust Israel, for I have faith in the Jewish people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from her horizons, and there will be peace in and around the Holy Land.
Right now we bridge the gap from one of history's most traumatic experiences, WW II, and the future. Denial and forgetting are a massive danger, and would help future genocides happen without hindrance. We are seeing a rise in intolerance, right wing fanaticism and xenophobia worldwide. We have learned that genocides can and do still occur. As we bridge the gap from WW II to the future, we have to consciously consider what we can do to make that bridge effective.
I write these little reminders that a handful of people read. I donate from time to time to Jewish World Watch to help refugees fleeing from modern genocides. I buy the occasional yummy food that helps bring peace to troubled areas. And other small, very small actions. Most of us can only do small actions, but as long as we act, we contribute to a better future, one where, even if Never Again is not actually achieved, at least genocide will be rarer, more opposed and harder to hide.