Monday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Scrolling through social media, it was jarring to see the juxtaposition of images and ideas reflecting on that terrible history intermingled with the mundane and fantastical miscellany of everyday 21st-century life. This is the reality of our world: the grave realities of yesterday and today poking through the onslaught of witty memes, outrage over a vast range of real and imagined evils, cute kittens and the panorama of detritus and riches available to, and bombarding us, at every moment.
This is how it is. Even as we recommit ourselves to the promise of “never again,” still we carry on with our daily lives. Yet these realities are not, and should not be, disconnected from one another. The memory of the Holocaust and its victims, and the importance of listening to and learning from its survivors and its messages, are sacred obligations. But their lessons and meanings can and should be applied to the more commonplace events we experience. History is a prism through which we should view the present and the future.
Like the jarring extremes that can be found scrolling social media on Holocaust Remembrance Day, this collision of gravity and triviality is problematic. We recoil from inappropriate comparisons. Yet, in a world where legitimate causes struggle to be heard above the competing din, we often fall back on the most incendiary formulations, so every injustice becomes “fascism,” every leader we dislike a “Nazi.” This dilutes the seriousness of the history it invokes – and it also makes it more difficult to identify and draw attention to genuinely grave dangers, including literal fascism or fascist-adjacent ideas and actions emerging in Europe and closer to home.
The number of lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust are as innumerable as there are human behaviours. A relevant one for our time is the fragility of democracy and civil order. The actions of Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara (click here to read story) are examples of a dystopic situation where good people are driven to break laws and norms promulgated by evil forces. In situations where democracy and social order are upended, goodness is criminalized and malevolence is institutionalized.
Democracy is under threat in much of the world right now. Human nature is such that we take for granted once-unimaginable wonders – gadgets in our pockets containing the breadth of human knowledge, the perceived right of every individual to live free from fear of tyranny – almost as soon as we access them. We forget that democracy is barely two centuries old and that it is not only imperfect but tenuous. With extraordinary ease, individuals of various stripes have managed to smother or at least severely disfigure nascent democracies in Russia, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. A more established democracy in Turkey has been twisted away from its secularist, pluralist roots. The world’s largest democracy, India, is engaged in serious religious-based oppression.
In Israel, there are social forces and political parties pushing the extremes, as well. The Kahanist party, Otzma Yehudit, is aiming to again contest the March elections and has been rooting around the emerging electoral alliances for a slot. To his credit, Naftali Bennett, head of the New Right bloc and no raging moderate himself, rejects being in a tent with Otzma Yehudit and rightly warns other parties to steer clear.
And, in ways whose significance we may not yet be able to judge, the fabric of American democracy – checks and balances between branches of government – is being threatened. The president, indicted for attempting to extort our ally Ukraine to participate in political dirty tricks in exchange for desperately needed military funding to defend itself against the encroaching Russian military, seems destined to be exonerated by a Senate more concerned with party discipline than the rule of law, the constitution or human decency. If the probable outcome is realized, it will represent a blow to the grand ideals of the world’s oldest contemporary democracy.
Is raising this example itself a symptom of the problem we are discussing? Is it relevant and proper to discuss the American or Israeli situation in the same context as Russia, Poland or Hungary? Do we diminish the memory of the Holocaust by raising this topic in this perspective? Is it equally specious to assert that we won’t know, perhaps until it is too late, whether we should have been more or less vigilant when a man with little or no respect for norms of nicety or constitutionality ascended to the highest office in the democratic world?
This is the line we walk when we say “never again.” The magnitude of the history underpinning this promise is so enormous that we risk lessening it through invocation. Yet, if we isolate that history and its lessons, like good china saved only for the most special occasions, are we not conversely risking the very promise we undertake?