Jan. 28, 2005
The voice of the voiceless

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

As world leaders, Jewish groups and survivors commemorated the Holocaust this week on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, one question seemed to be on everyone's lips: Has the world learned the lessons of the Nazi genocide against the Jews?

The signs around the globe, many suggested, are not good.

In Britain, Prince Harry showed up to an elitist costume party two weeks ago wearing a Nazi uniform, and his apology could not hide the fact that he simply does not get it. Neither, apparently, do his fellow countrymen: In a BBC poll last month, 45% of respondents said they had never even heard of Auschwitz.

An analogous yet unscientific poll conducted shortly afterward in Orlando, Florida had similarly bleak results: 63% of respondents did not know what Auschwitz-Birkenau was.

Perhaps more important, the last decade alone has seen at least three cases of attempted genocide, one of them still ongoing: the campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the 1990s; the 1994 Rwanda massacres; and the ongoing violence in the Darfur region of Sudan against black Africans. In his speech Monday at the UN General Assembly in New York, during a special session on the liberation of the camps, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel cited another horrible example for the post-Holocaust list: Cambodia of the 1970s and 80s.

It is a bleak record, and by all accounts the UN - the organization that in theory is charged with opposing such violence - has had little success in stopping the bloodshed.

Fortunately for the Jews, however, the last 60 years have been relatively genocide free - except, that is, in Israel, where Arab states for many decades tried their best to push the Jews who had returned to Zion into the sea. Today, Israel's place among the nations has become well established by dint of its military might, and even though terrorists continue to target Israeli citizens, few believe they imperil Israel's existence.

But in the diplomatic arena, Israel still faces constant assaults on its legitimacy, and these assaults have their greatest force in the world body that was established largely to ensure that no genocide like that perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews could ever again occur.

Moreover, it has become fashionable again in Europe to hate the Jews. A European Union poll last year showed that Europeans see Israel as the biggest threat to world peace. In Germany, a recent poll showed that 62% of those surveyed were "sick of all the harping on about German crimes against the Jews." And all around Europe, Jews again have become the targets of violent attacks.

Anecdotal evidence bears more bad news. Aside from a European political elite that pays public lip service to fighting the scourge of anti-Semitism - in the interests of good taste, to shore up Jewish constituencies and to satisfy the United States - most Europeans seem either indifferent to Jew-hatred or favorably dispensed toward it.

So what are the Jews to do?

If we continue to talk about the Holocaust, we risk being ignored - or, worse, resented - for being whiny and tiresome. If we stay silent, we will have given up the effort to ensure that no Holocaust ever again occurs - to the Jews or anybody else.

Clearly, Jews worldwide must continue to work to ensure Israel's strength and security so that Jews will always have a place of refuge.

On the diplomatic front, however, perhaps Israel and the Jews need to show and tell: to talk not only about the Holocaust, but also about other possible genocides around the world, and to act not only to protect Jews, but people threatened elsewhere around the globe.

That happened twice in December. After the tsunami in Southeast Asia, Israel and the Jews poured aid into the stricken countries, even those antipathetic toward Jews and the Jewish state. It helped the people there, it helped the Jews' image and it was the right thing to do.

Two weeks before that, Israel made another public gesture reflective of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust, and in so doing, followed the lead of a coalition of American Jewish groups: Israel sent $20,000 in aid to Sudan to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis there (US Jewish groups have been sending millions more).

Mohammed Yahya - a native of Darfur, and founder of a group called Representatives of the Massaleit Community in Exile, and the product of a Sudanese educational system that taught that Jews are the enemy - said he was astonished by the source of help.

"We realized that what we have been taught all our lives is a kind of a rumor," he said. "When we have been killed you are protecting us; when we are displaced, you are trying to save us; when our people are murdered and raped, you are there trying to help us."

"You are the voice of the voiceless," he went on. "We need to support each other and stand by you and support you forever."