January 29, 2019

JOHNS | Lessons from Yad Vashem

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Up the slope of Mount Herzl, in western Jerusalem, lies a 44-acre complex that is one of the world’s most moving testaments to the real life costs and consequences of totalitarianism. Yad Vashem, which I visited earlier this month as part of a small Cornell student delegation, is often described oversimplistically as Israel’s “Holocaust memorial.” Yad Vashem memorializes the millions of innocent lives lost to the Holocaust, but also those — Jews and non-Jews — who bravely resisted it.

One does not leave Yad Vashem without a deep recognition of what happens when the power of the absolute state is wedded to an ideology that denies the God-given, individual rights of man.

This past Sunday, the world appropriately commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, one of the most solemn international memorial days marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest concentration and death camp operated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Each International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we hear the phrase “Never Again.” Yet, sadly and frighteningly, we appear to be in the process of forgetting anyway.

According to a poll conducted last April by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, two-thirds of American millennials could not identify the name “Auschwitz,” and 22 percent hadn’t heard of the Holocaust at all. There is, nevertheless, some room for hope: 93 percent of respondents said all students should learn about the Holocaust in school, and a significant majority recognized the presence of anti-Semitism in the United States today.

This data seems to suggest that millennial Americans, while underinformed, recognize that there is an ongoing problem and understand that education is an important part of combating it. Considering these facts, our remembrances of the Holocaust, important as they are, cannot become platitudes — empty words in the era of social media activism. They must remain a meaningful and substantive commitment to opposing political totalitarianism and authoritarianism in all forms and from all sources. It must remain a declaration that signifies allegiance to human dignity and individual rights and liberties, not simply a historic tagline that fades with each passing year.

For Cornellians, home may be a good place to start. The campus has seen enough anti-Semitism just in the last few years to understand it is a problem here too. In 2017, repulsive posters were circulated throughout campus imploring students to “just say no to Jewish lies.” Last November, several swastikas were drawn across campus. Institutional response to events like these could certainly be improved. The Sun reported that some Jewish students were rightfully frustrated at other Cornellians “[treating] it as ‘hot gossip’ and [viewing] the [mandatory residence hall meetings] as a ‘waste of time.’”

Beyond Ithaca in our broader political culture, anti-Semitism continues to spread both at home and abroad. Keith Ellison, the attorney general of Minnesota and former deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, was a member of the fervently anti-Semitic Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, who has called Jews “satanic” among a slew of other insults and slurs. Ellison’s membership in this organization was a fact he denied and minimized repeatedly, even going so far as to defend Farrakhan, before ultimately admitting involvement and denouncing the group when he ran for Congress in 2006. This year’s Women’s March also rightfully received public criticism after it was discovered that the march’s co-chairs “asserted that Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people,” and refused to cut ties with Farrakhan when those connections were ultimately brought to light.

In the United Kingdom, the left-of-center Labour Party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn — who has referred to the anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends,” a stance he still refuses to renounce — “secretly suspended” 50 politicians from the Labour Party for anti-Semitic remarks in 2016. As in the U.S., the U.K.’s political leaders are indeed beginning to forget. As anti-Semitic incidents manifest throughout the West, there must be political repercussions for leaders who delay or refuse firm action against these incidents in their own ranks.

It is not just about attitudes; it is also about policy. The Holocaust-inspired phrase “Never Again” is just rhetoric if it is not a statement of opposition to individuals like Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in 2001 defined “the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to erase Israel from the map of the region,” and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, who in 2005 noted that “if  [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” In this respect, “Never Again” is about putting ideas into action — stopping, for instance, Khamenei from developing a nuclear weapon and preventing Nasrallah from acting on his genocidal impulses.

But it also means opposing the legacy of tyranny that allows such evil to be put into practice. While no contemporary autocrats can be compared to Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, or Mao Zedong’s China, the legacy of totalitarianism continues through this and the last century. Though they do not match up to the brutal and indeed genocidal tactics of these three men and two evil ideologies, many governments of the world today are running the risk of mirroring their autocratic inclinations. Xi Jinping’s China, Ali Khamenei’s Iran, Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and other regimes have all chosen to systematically place the power of the absolute state above individual rights and political pluralism.

“Never Again,” on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, means remembering and talking about the past. But it also means applying those sentiments to our modern-day communities and political discourse. Ultimately, it is only a collective commitment to individual, legal and human rights that keeps totalitarian impulses at bay. Anything less is forgetting — and forgetting, as we are appropriately reminded in remembering the Holocaust, has dire contemporary ramifications.