Today was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day on the Jewish calendar. I was looking at my current profile picture on Facebook, which is of one side of the sign that I brought to a few protest rallies this winter.
The sign reads, “Never Again is Now.”
In this particular photo, I was carrying the sign at a rally and protest march that took place in Battery Park in Downtown Manhattan the Sunday after President Trump issued his first Muslim Ban executive order. I chose that particular message because to me, letting refugees into this country is personal. It’s personal because, as a people, we Jews have been refugees so many times. My own great-grandfather came to this country (snuck into this country) because he was fleeing persecution in Tsarist Russia.
A couple of weeks later, I brought this same sign to a rally run by HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS was founded to help Jewish immigrants and refugees who were fleeing persecution around the world. HIAS was helping large numbers of Jewish refugees as recently as the 1990’s, when Jews were finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Some of these Jewish families moved into my own community. Some of them were my age, and went to school with me. Jews of my own generation were refugees even if, to me, they were just new classmates.
Now, there are far fewer Jewish refugees in need of assistance, but HIAS chose not to close its doors. Instead, it changed its focus. One particular quote from HIAS CEO/President, Mark Hetfield, resonates with me: “Now we welcome refugees not because they’re Jewish, but because we’re Jewish.” Or, as the title of the Vox interview declares, “We used to take refugees because they were Jewish. Now we take them because we’re Jewish.”
Today, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, this message is especially important. In today’s political climate, both within the US and around the world, we can’t take “Never Again” for granted. We say these words, but we must also embody them.
There is still anti-Semitism in the world. I was shocked when, just this afternoon, I overheard the following exchange among a group of high school students at dismissal time:
Student 1: Don’t give her Jewish AIDS.
Student 2: Jewish AIDS?
Student 1: She’ll become obsessed with money.
I was stunned. I’d never heard anyone say anything like that before. I know that anti-Semitic incidents have been increasing lately, and maybe this afternoon was just one example.
But it’s not anti-Semitism that I’m worried about.
It’s all of the other groups out there facing far worse than some derogatory jokes and spray-painted swastikas. (Don’t get me wrong, these things are not okay. But most of the anti-Semitism I’m hearing about is verbal, or is damage to property, not violence toward Jews.)
It’s the Muslims whose mosques have been burned. It’s the Syrians who are fleeing for their lives and can’t find a country willing to accept them. It’s the gay people in Chechnya who are reportedly being arrested and even killed just for being gay.
If we want Never Again to be our reality, we can’t just say the words. We need to be vigilant, and we need to take action.
And we need to protect not only ourselves and our fellow Jews (for those of us who are Jewish), but also those who belong to other religions, ethnicities, nationalities, and any other group that is the target of hatred and discrimination. (For example, people with disabilities and people who are LGBTQ.)
We can’t say, “but they are terrorists.” People said that about us too, and Jews were turned away from entering the US, and sent back to die in concentration camps.
We can’t say, “It’s not our problem. We need to put our own country first.” Because the US said that about WWII, and that meant the war lasted longer than it might have, giving Hitler more time to murder innocent victims. We are residents of the US, but we are also residents of the planet Earth, and we can’t turn our backs just because the atrocities are happening in some other country.
We can’t say, “we remember”, then do nothing to stop these atrocities and others from happening again, right in front of us. We can’t turn away those in need. We can’t stay silent.
Speaking up can be hard. I admit, I didn’t speak up today when I overheard that conversation, and that was a small moment, an easy opportunity to attempt to change minds. Maybe next time, I’ll do better. I hope I will. I plan to.
And if speaking up is hard, taking action can be even harder. We have to find the time, the money, the guts.
It’s hard, but we have to do it.
As Jews, we have to do it because we know what it’s like to be on the other side, to be the threatened ones, to be the victims. We know what it’s like to call out for help and find so few who are willing to answer.
As people, we have to do it because no human deserves to be persecuted simply because of the color of their skin, the religion they belong to, the gender of the person they fall in love with. No human deserves to die because of the location of their home or the language they speak. Every person on this planet deserves the right to live their lives in peace and with dignity.
We have to be vigilant, speak up and take action. We have to make our voices heard, and we have to come together to help those groups who are being persecuted. We have to take action, because otherwise, there will be another Holocaust, another genocide, another generation raised in the shadow of so much hatred. Never again will become Again and Again, and that’s just not an acceptable outcome.