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What Does It Mean to Remember the Holocaust?

In Jewish communities around the world as well as in city halls, state houses and in Washington, people will gather today to remember the Holocaust, as is the custom on Yom HaShoah. This Holocaust Remembrance Day will produce vast amounts of rhetoric urging us to not let the six million victims of the Nazis and their collaborators be forgotten. There will be calls, as there are every year, for vigilance against hatred and intolerance of all kinds seeking to extract a universal message from this specific tragedy. All of this will be well intentioned and much of it will be both heartfelt and appropriate. But the terrible question hanging over all these proceedings remains the same one that should nag at the hearts and the consciences of many of those assembled every year. It is whether the institutionalization of Holocaust remembrance in the last generation has accomplished much other than reinforcing the anodyne conclusion that the Nazis were terrible and that the sufferings of their victims was awful.

To pose this query is not to question the magnitude of the achievement of a generation of survivors, scholars and activists who have worked hard for the past few decades to create museums, programs and a vast body of literature that ought to ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten. As a result of their efforts, there is little chance that the Shoah will become a mere footnote to World War II or that it will be submerged in the vacuous collective memory of the world as just one more instance of inhumanity. But we need to place that achievement in perspective. In the past two decades there have not only been numerous instances of other genocidal atrocities, be it in Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur, but an alarming rise of anti-Semitism in the world. There is a need for us to ask just how much the world has learned from the Holocaust, or whether it has learned anything at all. Even more to the point, with threats of genocide being uttered by the leaders of Iran in just the last month against Israel and with a growth in the number of those willing to join or justify hateful campaigns aimed at destroying the Jewish state, understanding the lessons of history now requires a lot more than the lip service that will be paid to the Holocaust today.

It needs to be stated in as succinct a manner as possible that an ocean of tears cried today or any other day about what happened from 1933 to 1945 will not save a single soul from a similar fate if all we’re willing to do is to talk about the past. Historical remembrance is intrinsically worthwhile. But if we are to give any real meaning to our attempts to embed these events in the consciousness of the world, it cannot be done outside of the context of the ongoing campaign to continue a murderous assault on the Jewish people.

What must be understood on this day, as on every other day of the year, is that sympathy for the six million is meaningless, even counter-productive, if it is not accompanied by a resolve to resist those who threaten the lives and the right to self-determination of the six million Jews who live in Israel today. The phrase “never again,” is a mere cliché if it is not attached to a commitment that Iran will not be allowed to have a nuclear program that threatens Israel’s existence as well as the security of the entire world. Rhetoric about the million Jewish children slaughtered by Hitler’s minions is useless if it is not connected to a promise to fight back against boycott campaigns that are part of the economic war on the life of the Jewish state.

We must note that many of those who are indifferent to the existential threat that Iran poses to Jewish life or who claim that singling out Israel and Zionism for discriminatory treatment is not anti-Semitic, can be found among the ranks of those who annually wax eloquent about the injustice of the Holocaust. Dead Jews, especially those long dead in a conflict that is not seen as directly connected to the current one in the Middle East, are quite popular. It is those still living and who wish to defend their lives and their state that are not so well loved.

That is why what is needed more than ever is a realization that those who will today commemorate the Holocaust without a mention of Iran or an affirmation of the need to fight against the new variant of anti-Semitism, in which Israel and Zionism have become the substitutes for the word “Jew,” are not honoring the memory of the six million. Nor are they making atrocities less likely to happen in the future. Absent that affirmation to stand up for the living and for those who will follow, the sorrow that will be aired today is both hypocritical and meaningless. We must remember–but with a purpose.