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Does ‘Never Again’ apply only to Jewish loss?




Lau said what is happening is unequivocally a holocaust. He stepped into contentious territory by using this term, which Jews regard as applying only to the Holocaust in the Second World War in which six million Jews died. He also implied Israel should be doing something to stop the carnage.

For South African Jews, Syria seems a far-away conflict they can do nothing about. And they have huge problems in their own country to deal with. Yet South African Jewry’s strong ties to Israel, which borders on Syria, adds weight to the issue. And the prolific use of the phrase “Never Again” in the context of Yom Hashoah, raises a moral imperative. 

In the planning of Yom Hashoah, it would be appropriate to mention Syria. It would not detract from memorialising Jewish Holocaust victims, but would indicate that the message is taken seriously.

A theme in Holocaust Remembrance Day is that the world’s nations did little to prevent European Jews’ mass murder, when they could have saved many. Everyone knows what is happening in Syria today, yet the world powers stand by and let it go on.

Half a million Syrian men, women and children have been killed and 11 million displaced, many becoming refugees seeking sanctuary in other countries.

Chemical weapons, such as the nerve gas sarin, have been used against civilians. In 2013, artillery shells containing sarin killed 700 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta; earlier this month Syrian air force planes launched it in bombs. Last December, a quarter of a million civilians were besieged in Aleppo by the Assad regime, with the slaughter of hundreds every day.

What could little Israel be expected to do, aside from treating wounded Syrian victims in Israeli hospitals, which it is doing? Its army is strong, but it is a tiny country with many enemies in a chaotic region.

Yet Rabbi Lau pleaded for action and former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin has said Israel could destroy Syrian aircraft used to drop barrel bombs, chlorine and sarin on civilians.

Israel would risk being sucked into the conflict. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview: “…Let the world take responsibility and act instead of talking.”

The term “Never Again” was intended to ensure that the world would not allow people – not only Jews – to be slaughtered by mass murderers.

It has failed, as shown by the Rwandan genocide and events in Bosnia and Darfur, among others. Now Syria. Former US President Barack Obama did not act in 2013 after Ghouta. Donald Trump will likely follow suit.

Lau has been criticised for his statements. But Holocaust centres worldwide attempt to make the Jewish experience a universal lesson. Johannesburg’s new Holocaust and Genocide Centre, pioneered by Tali Nates – whose father and uncle were on the famous “Schindler’s List” and were saved from the Nazis – stresses the importance of recognising and preventing genocide anywhere.

Yad Vashem chairman, Avner Shalev, said the international community must “end the human suffering [in Syria] and provide humanitarian aid to the victims”.

There is no easy answer to Israel’s and the Jews’ role in a world which is again allowing genocide. But the phrase “Never Again” would sound more authentic if it was applied to Syria. 

Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog


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