Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Never Again?

Yesterday (Sunday) was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. And as luck would have it, in my ongoing Holocaust curriculum with my seventh graders, we got to talk about the Milgram experiment, Obedience. Have a link: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 That's a 45-minute video © Milgrim about his experiment comprised mostly of footage from the experiment itself.

Milgrim designed this experiment partly as a reaction to the Eichmann trial, the 50th anniversary of which is this year. The Virginia Holocaust Museum had a film festival this weekend, playing these three films over three days: The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, Journey Into Life: Aftermath of A Childhood In Auschwitz, and The Man Who Scattered Eichmann's Ashes Into The Sea. I did not get to see any of these, and I'm disappointed by that. The VA Holocaust Museum always has fascinating stuff. The people who work there are all fantastic, honest, hard-working people. I adore them, and I strongly encourage people to visit the museum, as often as possible! I have been fortunate enough to receive several guided tours from the Museum's own Director of Education (once with my 7th graders), and their exhibits are generally speaking about half memorial/artifact display and half educational/interactive with applications and understandings beyond just remembering the past.

There is a movement within Holocaust museums at present to expand beyond just the European genocide of the Holocaust to include education and exhibits about all genocides, as well as programs to fight such injustices, or at the very least encourage being informed about them. When I visited Yad Vashem in Israel in 2008, our tour guide passionately spoke about his support for expanding the concept of Holocaust museums to include exhibits and education about genocides worldwide including the present day.

Tonight, my dad's synagogue held its annual Interfaith Holocaust Service. (I led two songs.) We had several presenters and speakers, including two Holocaust survivors. One of them, Alex, also gives tours sometimes at the VA Holocaust Museum, and he brought up the idea that these more recent and ongoing genocides make hollow the favored phrase of Jews worldwide regarding the Holocaust: "Never Again." Is it really Never Again? Did the world truly learn any lesson from the genocide during WWII? The Nazis imprisoned and killed Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, mentally handicapped, political opponents, etc. etc. The Jews were selected for mass extermination, an organized and chillingly orchestrated process that mainly occurred over the last few years of the war. But it all happened so long ago. A generation ago. I suppose I can see why governments can claim to be horrified but not lift a finger to help the women being systematically raped as a weapon of war in the Congo. What is going on there is horrifying to the extremity of my capacity to imagine, and it is happening RIGHT NOW. My intention is not to grandstand and guilt trip and make anyone reading this feel bad for not flying out to the Congo and single-handedly dealing justice to rapists. My point is that awareness is the first step in a long and painful process of achieving social justice, and I believe that one must spread awareness. Holocaust museums and exhibits, educational programs, news reports on current events and genocides, supporting lobbyists, supporting organizations who give aid or give voice to the helpless: that is a form of spreading awareness and taking action.

It is easy to sit back in your life and tell yourself that you'll start thinking about these things tomorrow, next week; that you care, of course you care, but that you're busy, that you have various more important tasks. And that's true. We should not sacrifice our own lives for others unless we truly feel called to it. I don't spend my every waking hour campaigning for those rape victims. But we should make time. More and more I come to believe that this world is one big neighborhood in the vastness of space. Safety issues aside, there is almost nowhere on Earth I could not travel if I had the proper equipment and supplies. That means that those women in the Congo are my neighbors. That the Bosnian Muslims killed in the 90s were my neighbors. That all people, everywhere, no matter their crimes or their vices or their hatreds are all my neighbors. That all those who have been victimized, who are hurt, who are suffering, who have been numbed to their own pains, are my neighbors.

It is easier to put off caring for those who suffer. It is hard, maybe the hardest thing a person can do, to offer legitimate and deeply-felt sympathy for someone who has been victimized. It forces you to acknowledge your own vulnerabilities, your own mortality. It fills you with vague apprehension, with guilt for not magically being able to help them when they "really" needed it, with fear that you have nothing useful to say, that there isn't anything you can do, that your involvement is pointless, that it's better for everyone if you just make a donation/take a flier/sign the petition/etc. and move on.

However, I believe that making the effort to face your fears, to confront your own mortality, to challenge your insecurities, to open yourself up to care, is a worthy cause in and of itself. Caring hurts. Yet that pain can ultimately be constructive. That pain leads us to break down the parts of ourselves which hurt others...and ourselves. That pain causes us to empathize with those we encounter in our lives. That pain encourages us to thwart our self-loathing tendencies. Opening our hearts to others necessitates opening our hearts to ourselves. It makes it harder to hang onto grudges, prejudices, us vs. them rhetoric, and any of a myriad of ways we have evolved as emotional creatures to cope with the overwhelming intensity of relating emotionally to others.

If you do nothing else in your lives to fight injustice and victimization I urge you to take time out of your lives to care. Have a good cry. Get mad and channel it into your workout. Bring up a relevant topic in a conversation with a family member, friend, or coworker. Express outrage, sadness, disgust, despair, frustration, discomfort. Post on facebook. Write in your blog. To express emotions is a healthy, human thing. It doesn't have to be all the time. Most of us, myself included, don't have the energy to feel so deeply and fully all the time. Judaism provides holidays and memorial days to facilitate thinking about these sort of different facets of social justice, relating to yourself and the world, coming to terms with your weaknesses and bettering yourself and the world. America has its own days to remind us of such things. It is up to us to make use of the opportunities for caring that we encounter. It is up to us to stop procrastinating. It is up to us to take a hollow claim and solidify it piece by piece into Never Again.


Related reading: The Line from Subnormality by W. Rowntree

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