As we mark Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on April 8 for the 60th consecutive year — this somber day was first placed on the Jewish calendar in 1953, at the instigation of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion — we ask ourselves a deceptively simple question: Why do we still remember the 6 million Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust, along with millions of others?
There is no better day than Yom HaShoah to explore these issues. Unlike the various other Holocaust memorial days that take place during the year, most commonly on Jan. 27 (the United Nations–designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaShoah is an overtly Jewish occasion, launched by a Jewish state that came into existence only three years after World War II ended.
As with any genocide, the Holocaust provides us with an opportunity to consider both particular and universal lessons — and how they might be merged intelligently.
Let’s start with the particular: the state of the Jews and the manner in which that most toxic and persistent of hatreds, anti-Semitism, continues to impact us.
Two immediate, and on the surface contradictory, conclusions can be reached. On the one hand, the post-Holocaust era has been, relative to the broad sweep of Jewish history, something of a golden age. In the vast majority of states in which we live, Jews experience no legal discrimination, and the kind of violent, mass anti-Semitism that distinguished the Nazi period seems a historical relic.
There are approximately 13.5 million Jews in the world today, compared with 11 million in 1945 — a figure that underlines the failure of the Nazis to fulfill their plan of eliminating the Jewish people globally.
In the main, Jews are well-represented in the wealthier, more educated demographic of the world’s population. Most importantly, we have in the State of Israel a place under the sun and, as a consequence, the ability to defend ourselves against present and future enemies.
Now for the flip side. It is also true that anti-Semitic sentiment today is more widespread, and more socially acceptable, than at any other time since 1945.
Much of this hostility is couched in enmity toward Israel — but our enemies tell us that we are oversensitive, and that we label all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.
But comparing Israel to the Nazis, or arguing that the lesson of the Holocaust is that Jews should be 10 times more noble and pacific than everybody else, as these same enemies regularly do, isn’t criticism of Israeli policy. It’s anti-Semitism in a more slippery form.
Nor can we discount the prospect that state-sponsored anti-Semitism will return. Indeed, in several countries around the world, long-established Jewish populations are again considering emigration because their governments are either directly promoting anti-Semitism (as in Turkey and Venezuela) or collaborating with and encouraging anti-Semitic political parties (like the Jobbik party in Hungary.)
All these realities warn against complacency. It’s hard to get that point across to Jews today, particularly in the United States, where anti-Semitism never reached the lethal levels of Europe and the Muslim world, and in Israel, where anti-Semitism is regarded as more of a historical rather than contemporary matter.
That’s why an intelligent appraisal of current anti-Semitism is essential. Talk too much about the 1930s, and people rightly switch off. Equally, glibly declaring that we’ve never had it so good blinds us to festering problems in countries that most American Jews have never visited.
What about the universal lessons?
The world since 1945 has witnessed numerous genocides: East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971, Cambodia in the late 1970s, Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, Iraqi Kurdistan in the late 1980s, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and Darfur, western Sudan, North Korea and Syria in our own time (among other examples).
The persistence of genocide suggests, firstly, that it is a general phenomenon, and, secondly, that governments will rarely intervene to prevent it from taking place.
It’s at this point that we can merge the particular with the universal. The experience of the Holocaust, along with the undoubted influence Jews as a group enjoy, should motivate us to form alliances with those who are being persecuted and slaughtered now.
Many of these groups, such as the 25 million stateless Kurds, or the 100 million Christians living with varying degrees of oppression, cannot count on sustained media coverage of their plight. Only a handful of Western politicians can be relied on to pick up the cudgels on their behalf.
That’s why, if we are searching for a lesson for this Yom HaShoah, I would modestly propose that we extend our concept of what constitutes self-defense to embrace peoples who cannot do so effectively for themselves. It means hardcore political advocacy, energetically chasing down war criminals like Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir, and providing weapons and other aid to those exposed to the horrors of mass slaughter.
Above all, it means that when we say “never again,” we mean it.
Ben Cohen is an analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and the Middle East have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz and other publications.