Commit to Never Again


Photo: Mayor Ted Wheeler opened this year’s Unto Every Person There is a Name at Pioneer Courthouse Square May 2. Here in Portland – as in Jewish communities around the world – we gather to read the names of the men, women and children murdered by Nazi Germany and its European collaborators between 1933 and 1945. The list comprises names archived at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem. Members of the community – dignitaries, clergy and others –read these names out loud in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square.

 

“For years, I think a lot of survivors have had the feeling that times remind us of the 1930s. Unfortunately, I feel humanity hasn’t learned, that we are unable to learn. History repeats itself. We try to remember, we try to be smarter, we try, and that’s all we can do is keep on trying.”
~ Heidi Bohm, survivor of Birkenau

 

The phrase “Never Again” has long been linked to Holocaust commemoration. While some have traced the phrase to the Hebrew poet Isaac Lambdan’s 1926 poem Masada (“Never shall Masada fall again!”), its current use is more directly tied to the aftermath of the Holocaust. The first usage of Never Again is murky, but most likely began in postwar Israel. The phrase was used in secular kibbutzim in the late 1940s; it was used in a Swedish documentary on the Holocaust in 1961.

Interestingly, the phrase gained traction in large part due to Meir Kahane, the militant rabbi who popularized it in America when he created the Jewish Defense League in 1968 and used it as a title of his book in 1972. Sholom Comay, president of the American Jewish Committee when Kahane was assassinated in 1990, said, “Despite our considerable differences, Meir Kahane must always be remembered for the slogan Never Again, which for so many became the battle cry of post-Holocaust Jewry.”

Last Saturday we learned about the tragic shooting at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, six months after the tragedy in Pittsburgh. Our community came together on Monday night with nearly 400 people standing in solidarity against hate. For those unable to attend, here is a video of the entire 35-minute program.

That night we said Never Again!

On April 25, The New York Times published an anti-Semitic cartoon in its international edition showing a guide dog with the face of Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a Star of David on its collar, leading a blind Donald Trump wearing dark glasses and a black yarmulke.

Bret Stephens, opinion writer for The New York Times wrote, “An image that, in another age, might have been published in the pages of Der Stürmer. The Jew in the form of a dog. The small but wily Jew leading the dumb and trusting American. The hated Trump being Judaized with a skullcap. The nominal servant acting as the true master. The cartoon checked so many anti-Semitic boxes that the only thing missing was a dollar sign.”

An initial editor’s note acknowledged that the cartoon “included anti-Semitic tropes,” “was offensive,” and that “it was an error of judgment to publish it.” On Sunday, The Times issued an additional statement saying it was “deeply sorry” and that “significant changes” would be made in terms of internal processes and training. And yesterday, the paper announced it would take disciplinary measures against the production editor who approved the anti-Semitic cartoon and would “update its company’s unconscious bias training.”

And we thought Never Again.

This week, I was angered to learn that anti-vaccine activists held a rally in the Oregon State Capitol in opposition to the proposed bill that removes the ability of parents to decline required immunizations (i.e. measles) against preventable diseases for religious or philosophical reasons. They were wearing the yellow Star of David badge.

The Auschwitz Memorial and Museum in Poland responded, “Instrumentalizing the fate of Jews who were persecuted by hateful anti-Semitic ideology and murdered in extermination camps like Auschwitz with poisonous gas in order to argue against vaccination that saves human lives is a symptom of intellectual and moral degeneration.” 

We were disappointed that a letter to The Oregonian was not published. Judy Margles of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and myself asked for the letter to be included in Wednesday’s paper, in commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

And we think Never Again.

Wednesday evening our community came together to commemorate Yom HaShaoh. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but over 200 people across generations, including survivors and their descendants, were there to mark the important occasion.

One participant shared with me her memories of participating in such gatherings as a child. Her father and a fellow survivor would read Kaddish and intersperse the names of the death camps. As she was telling me, she visualized them being on the bima and hearing them sing. She said to me, “Sadly, so many survivors have passed away and now it is up to us.”

Never Again.

And on Thursday, we remembered those who perished in the Holocaust by reading their names aloud in Pioneer Square. The annual “Every Person has a Name” ceremony, named for a poem by Zelda Schneurson inspired by the atrocities of the Holocaust, was instituted in 1989 by then-Israel Knesset speaker Dov Shilansky, a Holocaust survivor and partisan fighter against the Nazis.

We stand publicly to say Never Again.

In 2018, American Jews experienced the third-highest number of overall anti-Semitic incidents since 1979, according to a report released Tuesday by the Anti-Defamation League. Anti-Semitic incidents in Canada also rose to a record high for the third consecutive year (16% increase over the previous year). These increases are fueled by social media with 80% coming from online platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

These studies say that anti-Semitism is on the rise, but perhaps it never really went away? It is now emerging back into the public light.

As Pittsburgh’s Rabbi Daniel Schiff said this week at Auschwitz, “The best response to anti-Semitism is to fully embrace our Judaism and Jewish life. This is the best way to frustrate the well-laid plans of anti-Semites. We can each undermine their plans by committing to become the finest Jews imaginable.”

Let us remain committed to Never Again.

Marc N. Blattner is the CEO and president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. This piece was his weekly Marc’s Remarks column emailed May 3.
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