While the United Nations held a series of commemorative events in the past week marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day -- and marking also the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp -- the international community awoke today to yet another chilling and mocking reminder of the dangers of state-sanctioned cultures of hate that took us down the road to the Holocaust.
In an ominous speech earlier today, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reaffirmed Iran's commitment to acquire nuclear weapons, while speaking of Israel as a "cancerous tumour that must be excised and will be excised" from the Middle East. Khamenei voiced also his support for those "confronting the Zionist enemy," and "removing it from the face of the Earth."
The incendiary rhetoric is particularly chilling in light of Iran's nuclear weaponization program, which the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, in a report revealed yesterday, referred to as "the most significant, urgent threats of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation today."
Indeed, these chilling words invite us to revisit the as yet unlearned lessons of the Holocaust -- in particular, the universality of these lessons and their importance today not only as a horrific historical tragedy to be commemorated, but as witness and warning for the responsibilities to be acted upon.
Lesson 1 - The Responsibility to Remember
The first lesson is the imperative of remembrance itself -- what the French call "le devoir de memoir" -- the duty of memory. For as we remember the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, we have to understand that the mass murder of millions is not a matter of abstract statistics. For as we say at such moments of remembrance, unto each person there is a name -- unto each person there is an identity. Each person is a universe. As both the Talmud and Koran teach us, whoever saves a single life, it is as if he or she has saved an entire universe; just as whoever has killed a single person, it is as if they have destroyed an entire universe. And so the abiding imperative: that we are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other's destiny.
Lesson 2 - The Danger of State-Sanctioned Incitement to Hatred and Genocide: The Responsibility to Prevent
The enduring lesson of the Holocaust and the genocides that followed is that they occurred not simply because of the machinery of death, but because of a state-sanctioned ideology of hate. This teaching of contempt, this demonizing of the other -- this is where it all begins. As the Canadian Supreme Court recognized, in words echoed by the international criminal tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers -- it began with words. These, as the courts put it, are the chilling facts of history. These are the catastrophic effects of racism.
And we are witnessing yet again another state-sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide, whose epicentre is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran, which denies the Nazi Holocaust as it incites to a Middle Eastern one.
Let there be no mistake about it: Iran has already committed the crime of "direct and public incitement to genocide" prohibited under the Genocide Convention. Yet, as I write, not one State Party to the Genocide Convention has undertaken any of the mandated legal obligations under the Convention and international law to prevent and protect against this state-sanctioned incendiary hatred -- and to hold the perpetrators accountable.
As someone who was involved as Canadian Minister of Justice and Attorney General in the prosecution of Rwandan incitement, I can state (as I've testified before the Canadian Parliament and as others have also documented) that the aggregate of precursors of incitement in the Iranian case are as threatening as those in the Rwandan one, if not more so.
Lesson 3 - The Dangers of Silence, the Consequences of Indifference: The Duty to Act
Indeed, the genocide of European Jewry succeeded not only because of a culture of hate and an industry of death, but because of crimes of indifference and conspiracies of silence. And we have witnessed an appalling indifference and inaction in our own day which took us down the road to the unthinkable -- ethnic cleansing in the Balkans -- and to the unspeakable -- the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.
What makes these genocides so unspeakable is that they were preventable. No one can say that we did not know. We knew, but we did not act in Rwanda, just as we knew and did not act in Darfur, ignoring thereby the lessons of history, betraying the people of Rwanda and Darfur, and mocking the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.
And so, it is our responsibility to break down these walls of indifference, to shatter these conspiracies of silence, to stand up and be counted and not look around to see who else is standing before we make a decision to do so. In the world in which we live, there are few enough people prepared to stand, let alone be counted. Indifference always means coming down on the side of the victimizer, never on the side of the victim.
Simply put, indifference in the face of evil is acquiescence with evil itself -- it is complicity with evil.
Lesson 4: Combating Mass Atrocity and the Culture of Impunity: The Responsibility to Bring War Criminals to Justice
If the last century -- symbolized by the Holocaust -- was the age of atrocity, it was also the age of impunity. Few of the perpetrators were brought to justice; and so, just as there must be no sanctuary for hate and no refuge for bigotry, there must be no base or sanctuary for these enemies of humankind.
The Holocaust fundamentally challenged the foundations of civilization. The unprecedented character of the Holocaust will always hold universal meaning ... its magnitude ... must be forever seared in our collective memory ... together me must uphold the terrible truths of the Holocaust against those who deny it.
The Declaration concluded :
We share a commitment to encourage the study of the Holocaust in all its dimensions... a commitment to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to honour those who stood against it... a commitment to throw light on the still obscured shadows of the Holocaust... a commitment to plant the seeds of a better future amidst the soil of a bitter past... a commitment... to remember the victims who perished, respect the survivors still with us, and reaffirm humanity's common aspiration for mutual understanding and justice.
Antisemitism: The Responsibility to Combat
If the Holocaust is the paradigm of radical evil -- defying comparison and comprehension -- and genocide is the crime of crimes, whose name we should even shudder to mention -- then antisemitism is the paradigm of the most ancient, enduring, and radical of hatreds -- and where the word paradigm is as sanitized as it is inadequate.
Let there be no mistake about it: Jews died in the Holocaust, but antisemitism did not die, and Jews continue to die because of antisemitism.
This raises the difficult of the yet-unanswered questions: Why? Why the Holocaust? Why the genocide? I don't purport to have an answer, but offer the following thought : Grounded in the works of Holocaust scholars such as Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Browning who stated that Nazism almost suceeded because of the internalized and institutionalized legacy of racism and an ingrained culture of racism and antisemitism. Indeed, it is this culture of racism, this eliminationist antisemitism anchored also in the theory and practice of racial hygiene that transferred "ordinary Germans," in Daniel Goldhagen's phrase, into "Hitler's willing executioners."
And if the critique be made as it is -- that if this be true of Germans, is it not true of others -- why single out the Germans? The answer must be that racism and antisemitism was not only German but European and beyond. It must be that ordinary men became willing executioners in the Baltics and Balkans, in Vichy France and Quisling's Norway -- that even Norway enacted Nuremberg Race Laws and deported its Jewish population to Auschwitz, for which the Norwegian government apologized this past week in its commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance.
And so, what must be realized -- and as history has taught us only too well -- that while it may begin with Jews, it doesn't end with Jews. The struggle against racism of any kind must, therefore, not be seen simply as a Jewish issue, but as a profound Justice issue of the first import.
The familiar words of the German Protestant theologian, Martin Niemöller, bear not only recall but action beyond today:
They first came for the Catholics, but I wasn't a Catholic so I did nothing. Then they came for the Communists, but I wasn't a Communist so I did nothing. Then they came for the trade unionists, but I wasn't a trade unionist so I did nothing. Then they came for the Jews, but I wasn't a Jew so I did nothing. Then they came for me, and there was nobody left.
Lesson 9: Raoul Wallenberg and the Courage to Resist
Finally, as Raoul Wallenberg demonstrated, it was possible to resist, to confront evil, and to prevail, and thereby transform history. Wallenberg -- a Swedish non-Jew who saved some 100,000 Jews during the Holocaust -- is most known for his granting of Shutzpasses -- diplomatic passes protecting their recipients.
This influenced other governments to follow his example and issue passports that saved thousands from the Nazis. He also established 32 safe houses protected by neutral legations, saving some 32,000 people through this initiative alone.
The problem was that there were too few Wallenbergs; indeed, as Elie Wiesel has reminded us, the world ignored and even hid the story of the true Wallenberg for years -- lest it embarrass us all -- lest it demonstrate that one can confront evil and prevail.
The lesson here is that each of us has an indispensable role to play in the indivisible struggle for human rights and human dignity. Each one can and does make a difference. If we ever get tired or fatigued -- burnt out -- then let us remember that this one Swedish non-Jew named Raoul Wallenberg saved more Jews in Hungary than did any government; that one Andrei Sakhorov, stood up against the whole Soviet system and prevailed; that one individual, Nelson Mandela, 28 years in a South African prison, nurtured the dream and emerged to bring about the dismantling of apartheid; that one courageous woman Aung San Suu Kyi has emerged from decades of house arrest and imprisonment to yet again lead the Burmese people in their struggle against repression.
The cliché, while somewhat banal, is also true: One person can - and indeed does - make a difference.
We should reaffirm today that never again will we be indifferent to racism and hate; that never again will we be silent in the face of evil; that never again will we ignore the plight of the vulnerable; that never again will we acquiesce in the face of mass atrocity and impunity. We will speak and we will act against racism, against hate, against antisemitism, against mass atrocity, against injustice -- and against the crime whose name we should shudder even to mention: genocide.
May International Holocaust Day be not only an act of remembrance, which it is, but a reminder to act, which it must be. And may these unlearned lessons of history begin to be acted upon in 2012. As Lord Tennyson put it: ''Tis not too late to seek a newer world."
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