FOCUS ON FAMILY: We often say, `Never again,’ but what does that really mean? “What happened to the boy?” asks my son Jeremy, 11.
“Look at his arm,” adds Gabe, 13. “And his sister’s arms, too.”
We’re looking at a photograph of two children in Sierra Leone that appeared in The New York Times.
The boy, perhaps 6, displays a right arm chopped off at the shoulder. The girl, around 14, cradles her brother with arms hacked off below the elbow.
“That’s so horrible,” says Danny, 9, in disbelief.
More than a half-century ago, in disbelief, after the brutal annihilation of 6 million Jews during World War II, we said, “Never again.” And yet this photograph disturbingly proves that atrocities continue to be committed against innocent people.
In fact, according to the Coalition for an International Criminal Court, more than 14 million civilians have died in war-related incidents since the end of the Holocaust.
In Sierra Leone, where a brutal civil war has raged since 1991, an estimated 10,000 men, women and children have been mutilated by a rebel force, the Revolutionary United Front, and forced to live without hands, arms, legs, noses or ears. Another 20,000 have been murdered.
Unfortunately, Sierra Leone is not unique. Grave human rights abuses – – including murder, torture, sexual slavery, starvation and the use of child soldiers — abound around the world. Among the most egregious examples:
In Cambodia, under the regime of Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979, more than 1 million people were killed by the Communist Khmer Rouge by means of starvation, slave labor and execution.
In Rwanda, during a three-month period in 1994, at least 500,000 people, mainly members of the Tutsi tribe, were massacred, primarily with clubs and machetes.
In Bosnia, tens of thousands of Muslim civilians were killed between 1992 and 1995 by Serbs under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic.
“So what do we mean when we say, `Never again’?” asks my son Zack, 17.
Perhaps, as former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced on a visit last September to the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin, we mean that “never will” Jews “leave ourselves without the means to defend our life or be at the mercy of other people.”
Or do we mean that never again will we allow any nation or people to be systematically tortured and killed by another group? Do we mean that never again will we ignore the biblical injunction, expressed in Leviticus 19:16, that forbids us to “stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor?”
On Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year begins at sunset on April 18, we vow never to forget the Jewish men, women and children who perished in the Holocaust.
But how can we authentically honor their lives, how can we profess to adhere to Jewish values and ethical obligations, when we look at photos of emaciated and dying people? At photos of women and young girls who have been raped and forced into sexual slavery? At photos every bit as horrific as those taken during the Holocaust?
Are we Jews isolationists? Do we, like the United States government, act only when our vital interests are at risk — like President Bush, who said during the campaign that he didn’t think American troops should be deployed “in nations outside our strategic zone?”
Are we suffering from compassion burnout, so inured to photos and stories of violence, starvation and torture that they no longer have the power to shock us or incite us to action?
Or have we given up — convinced that, as the Talmud tells us, “Wolves kill sheep. That is the way of the world?” Convinced that neither the power of the United States government nor European governments, neither the United Nations nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, could halt the persecutions.
Yes, it’s crucial to remember the Holocaust.
But rather than build it into a exploitative industry, rather than continue to use it as a measure of our Jewish identity, and rather than spend our resources trying to extract reparations from companies more than a generation removed from the crimes, wouldn’t we better serve the memories of those who died by raising our voices against today’s injustices?
Wouldn’t we better serve their memories by supporting organizations that provide humanitarian aid, political advocacy and economic development? By writing letters, as my son Gabe did, to Sierra Leone’s ambassador to the United States, protesting the use of child soldiers and other abuses? By supporting the future International Criminal Court, which — once ratified by 60 countries — will investigate and try individuals accused of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide?
On Yom Hashoah, the Conservative movement asks us to light a yellow memorial candle and recite a prayer, part of which reads, “May the memory of their lives inspire us to hallow our own lives and live meaningful Jewish lives.”
What could be more meaningful than trying to alleviate the anguish and agony, the victimization and voicelessness of people who are unnecessarily and brutally suffering today?
As Rabbi Hillel said, “if I am only for myself, then what am I?”
He added, “If not now, when?”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.