On Yom Hashoah we remember the great tragedy that we as a people and as a world faced during World War II over 60 years ago. But how do we use that memory today? To what end does that experience motivate our community? Surely one answer is that we as a people must be particularly attuned to atrocities committed around the world.
Yesterday the United Nations observed a Day of Remembrance for victims of the Rwandan genocide. This week marks the 19th anniversary of the beginning of a 100 day period during which hundreds of thousands of Rwandan men, women and children were murdered, and countless others forcibly displaced. Fifty years after the international community said ‘never again’ to the atrocities of the Holocaust, the world let the people of Rwanda down.
Speaking in 2004 Rabbi David Saperstein demanded surer action to atrocities in the future, “As a Jew and as a rabbi, I stand here today because, for thousands of years, the Jewish people have been among the quintessential victims of persecution and oppression simply because of who we are, because of what we believe. We waited for others to speak out, but too often we heard only silence. “
Rabbi Saperstein continued, “Having witnessed and experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, the world collectively cried, ‘Never Again!’ Never again would we stand idly by while human beings are slaughtered because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion. We are not powerless to stop the oppression of others; we have the power to speak out, to act, to intervene, to ensure that genocidal activities stop now.”
Steps are being taken to learn from these experiences and seek better ways to prevent and respond to atrocities around the world. In 2012 President Obama unveiled the Atrocities Prevention Board, an interagency board to ensure that genocide prevention is a top priority in U.S. foreign policy. A warlord responsible for mass violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo had his first day in court at the Hague last month. We owe it to the memory of the Holocaust and the memory of Rwanda to strengthen and support these important advances.