On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, We Must Ask More of the World

The 27th of January marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day, dedicated to the memories of the victims of the Holocaust, was designated as such by the United Nations in 2005, 60 years after the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russian Army. It is a day where the world remembers how it liberated those in the camp from a literal hell on earth—death industrialized, and at least in theory, made a promise to the huddled masses that they would always find protection were the forces of evil again to rise. This, it would seem, was an important step in the evolution of humankind’s ability to see itself in the other; a beacon of hope in a century of otherwise profound darkness. Progress; however, is never guaranteed.

On the 75th anniversary of Liberation, I found myself asking, “Has the world lived up to its promise? Have we remembered the victims? Have we prevented subsequent genocides? Have we punished their perpetrators, or has ‘Never Again’ become little more than a shallow talking point?”

If the past seven decades have shown us anything, it is that the world has not been true to its word. Since the end of World War II, the international community has largely failed to prevent genocide. The millions of souls lost in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Iraq, and Syria serve as a testament to a profound promise broken. In an article for The Conversation, Rachel Burns argues that perhaps the most salient aspect of the UN Convention on Genocide’s legacy is its inability to prevent genocide or punish its perpetrators.

Equally as troublesome are the rising rates of Holocaust denial coupled, expectedly, with a pandemic rise in antisemitism. 75 years after the Holocaust, the world is relapsing. Jews have again become prominent targets in the streets of New York, Paris, and Jerusalem. Progress is never guaranteed.

Given the state of the world, this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day is more important than ever and yet, seems stained by this broken promise. International pledges to bolster Holocaust education efforts and conferences in honor of the victims seem, at best, ceremonial and at worst, political doublespeak. How can the international community move past platitudes and actualize its promises? One insight may be found in the message of Yom HaShoah, Israel’s official Holocaust Remembrance Day.

On the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan, Israel, together with Jewish communities around the world, will observe Yom HaShoah, enshrined in Israeli Law in 1959 as a solemn day of commemoration, reflection, and education. The date was chosen in honor of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, led by the 23-year old Mordecai Anielewicz, a member of the Zionist Youth Movement, Hashomer Hatzair. The uprising would go on to become one of the most well-known acts of Jewish resistance in history.

To my mind, the decision to recognize an ultimately unsuccessful struggle for liberation as its official day of commemoration day is emblematic of how fundamental action is to the Israeli worldview. Jewish liberation, argues the Israeli, is in the hands of Jews. The right to self-determination extends beyond physical borders, reaching those in need, wherever they may be found. This is the promise of Israel and it is one that has largely been kept.

In Entebbe, the Israeli army conducted one of the most daring rescues in modern military history and saved 102 of 106 hostages taken precisely because they were Jewish. In Ethiopia, nearly all of a community that had been disconnected from the rest of the Jewish world for centuries was rescued from persecution and death. Israel provided sanctuary, albeit an imperfect one, to an overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern and North African Jews that fled or were forced out of their homes throughout the 20th century.

From this we learn that when confronted with evil, inaction is impermissible. For the world, this means it is incumbent upon us to intercede in the face of tyrants and fundamentally evil ideologies.

This requires us to define moral boundaries and set clear limits on the types of behaviors we will tolerate at the international level. This is easier said than done, but consensus on a universal code of ethics is not required to better cooperate as an international community on matters of genocidal proportions. Our responsibility to our fellow human beings to try will always outweigh the potential costs of action.