January 27 marks the day that Auschwitz-Birkenau – the largest Nazi death camp was liberated. In November 2005, the United Nations passed a resolution to designate January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD) to honour the victims of the Holocaust – the genocide that resulted in the annihilation of 6 million Jews, 2 millions Gypsies and millions of others by the Nazi regime.
The UN resolution establishing IHRD urges every member nation of the UN to honour the memory of Holocaust victims and develop educational programs as part of an international resolve to help prevent future acts of genocide. The UN resolution also rejects denial of the Holocaust, and condemns discrimination and violence based on religion or ethnicity.
On this day and on every day, it is important to ask, has the world learnt the lessons from the Holocaust? And has the UN, which was established in part to prevent genocide (often defined as the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group), succeeded in this essential task?
The answer to these questions, of which we are all too aware, regrettably is in the negative. While the world has not witnessed a genocidal event on the scale of the Holocaust since WWII, there are tragically a long list of genocides in places including Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan, and today we see shocking atrocities taking place in Syria and elsewhere. The UN estimates that over 5000 Syrians have been killed since the Assad regime began its brutal crackdown in March 2011. An independent report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council in November 2011 found that the Assad regime’s authorities and members of its military and security forces have committed ‘gross and systematic violations of human rights’ that may amount to crimes against humanity. The report documents patterns of summary executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture including sexual violence as well as a violation of children’s rights. The UN has so far, been unable to stop the bloodshed, nor has the Arab League been successful.
In many cases, the world often appears to intervene when it is already too late. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently commented, that when faced with indifference to genocide, his people cannot be sure that the world will not behave the same way when faced with threats to destroy Israel. It does sometimes appear that the much of the world is largely indifferent to new threats against Israel and Jews. Iranian President Ahmadinejad threatens to ‘wipe Israel off the map’ and it is considered in many quarters to be just the rhetoric of a madman, despite the fact that a November 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency report provides compelling evidence that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad’s public denial of the Holocaust is also largely ignored or minimised, evidenced by the invitation to share his views at the UN’s anti-racism Durban conference.
Then there is Hamas, whose Charter calls for the elimination of Israel and Jews. Yet many commentators claim Hamas is moderating, while ignoring its Charter and the thousands of rockets that have been fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip. Indeed, Hamas continues to call for violent resistance against Israel, an official Hamas statement on December 27 dismissing the suggestion it would no longer use violence, by stating:
“We underline our adherence to our right to the struggle in all its forms, particularly the armed struggle, for the removal of the occupation. The way of resistance, jihad, and martyrdom for Allah has proved that it is the only way to forcefully attain our rights and the liberation of our land, Al-Quds [Jerusalem], and our holy places.”
Recently, the Jerusalem Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Hussein called on Muslims to kill Jews. Citing the hadith he said: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, servants of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him”. Yet such incitement receives little media attention.
The world should never be apathetic towards genocide or incitement to genocide – whether it is in Africa, Asia, the Middle East or elsewhere. As holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has famously said:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”
Jewish people do not need a special day to remember the Holocaust, because they remember it every day. But January 27 is important because it is a call for action, not just for Jews but for all peoples and nations, not only to remember the Holocaust but to ensure ‘never again’.
For other important discussion on this IHRD see:
- A video called “Why we remember”;
- The American Jewish Committee (AJC) produced a short film on the Nazi death camp, Belzec. More than 500,000 Jews were slaughtered there in less than a year. Only two Jews survived. The AJC also wrote a powerful statement in memory of the victims of the Shoah called “We remember”;
- Rabbi Abraham Cooper discusses contemporary issues of antisemitism in an article in the Huffington Post; and
- As Europe remembers the Holocaust, a poll finds that one in five young Germans has no idea that Auschwitz was a Nazi death camp.