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'Never Forget' Is Never Enough

We Jews Must Admit It: Today's Human Rights Abuses Are Just as Bad as What Happened in The Holocaust.

Seth Freedman

Rabbi Bayfield's piece Never Forget attracted several critical responses - among them this one, from Mexicola:

"Does anyone, honestly, believe that all of this looking backwards is benefiting anyone? It smacks of "wallowing". All we can do is keep telling the kids about these atrocities, keep showing them round museums which document them, but what else?

I'd have to agree with the "what else?" part of Mexicola's argument. As I wrote in my last piece, Zionist youth groups regularly take their charges to Poland for tours of the Nazi death camps - but, as I also explained, they do more than just "wallow" in the misery of 60 years ago: they learn from history's mistakes and come back to their home towns determined not to let racism, bigotry or prejudice blight their own particular worlds.

But that doesn't mean that there is not still plenty of Holocaust-wallowing out there. The following story happened to me recently, and left me disgusted with the status quo in some quarters of the Jewish community regarding the "untouchable" side of the Holocaust.

I went to Jerusalem's Museum on the Seam, where the exhibition on display, entitled Equal and Less Equal, explored the relationship between the exploited and the exploiters in the sphere of global labour. The art, by such luminaries as Santiago Sierra and Sebastiao Salgado, was extremely powerful and provocative, using video and photographs to evoke a sense of shame, guilt and horror every bit as powerful as a walk through the haunting corridors of Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust Museum).

In fact, that last sentence was exactly what I wrote in the review I wrote of the museum, which I sent to the 40 or so people who read my unpublished pieces. The review basically exhorted us, as Jews, to open our eyes to suffering around the world, not just to that of our own people - and to acknowledge that there are human rights abuses out there just as atrocious as what happened to the Jews in Europe.

I might as well have denied the Holocaust had ever happened, judging by all the abuse I got from a certain section of my readers. While most of them expressed agreement with the message I was trying to send out, a few middle-aged people (and I believe their age is important) went completely nuclear on me in their scathing attacks on the piece.

One told me that my article had compared Israelis to Nazis, just because I'd mentioned a video that showed browbeaten, dirt-poor Palestinian labourers as they traverse the Erez crossing on their way to work in Israel.

If you read the original piece, you'll see that I did no such thing - but, as a relative of mine succinctly put it, the Holocaust remains the "Blue Suede Shoes" of certain Jews: as in, "You can knock me down, step in my face, slander my name all over the place" ... but don't you dare go near the sacrosanct Holocaust and compare it with any other event in world history.

Another reader told me exactly that, in a hysterical whine: "You can't compare anything to Yad Vashem", she wailed upon reading the apparently offensive piece.

Well, I said, you can. To cut a long story a little bit shorter, we never looked close to agreeing on the main topic: namely, that the Holocaust is so untouchable, so unique - so "ours" - that nothing on this earth will ever come close to being worthy of compare. "Not even Bosnia, Cambodia or Rwanda?" I asked quietly. At which point I scored my only point of the match. "OK," she answered, "but not sex slavery or cheap labour."

"Why not?" I asked, causing her lips to go again. "Because," she asserted, "nothing's as bad as what went on in the camps: rape, torture, murder ..." "Hold on," I interjected. "What do you think happens to these girls in Tel Aviv brothels? Exactly the same thing. And there're thousands of them, too." She went mental - even suggesting that some of them come of their own volition and that they are not forced to work at gunpoint (which is just plain nonsense).

We could have gone on for hours, but she was missing my point. As I told her, my aim wasn't to cheapen the memory of the 6 million - quite the opposite, in fact: I was trying to honour them by showing that I had learned from the lessons of history and thus was not prepared to be doomed to repeat them.

There is a holocaust going on nowadays the world over, in all but name. Sex slaves, slave labour, forced segregation and caste systems: straight out of the camps, and as prevalent in today's screwed-up society as ever. Just because the Brazilian gold miner at least earns a few pennies for his toil, don't think that makes him any less a victim than a Jew forced to sew buttons on to SS uniforms. Just because a sex worker at Tel Aviv bus station looks well fed and pretty, don't think there ain't a pimp with a gun behind the bedroom door. And don't think the mental scars of the Auschwitz "good-time girls" ran any deeper than that of Natalya from Odessa, held against her will and constantly abused on the fourth floor of a Bauhaus block of flats.

It's not "our" exclusive preserve, the Holocaust. Yes, of course, we got well and truly done over, to a degree I can't even begin to comprehend. But that doesn't mean the evil in the rest of the world is not equally worthy of our attention.

And thus, while "never forget" is a worthy and worthwhile refrain, it rings a bit hollow if all we do is remember without taking the next step and actively confronting abuses, wherever in the world they flourish unchecked.

Seth Freedman is a freelance writer and journalist based in Jerusalem. He grew up in London and worked as a stockbroker in the City for six years, before moving to Israel. He writes for

© 2007 The Guardian

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