They are easy to miss. They are displayed way above eye level in a corridor that one passes through from one exhibit to another. Interactive booths with seats line the walls, attracting everyone’s attention down instead of up. Perhaps the designers of the United States Holocaust Museum planned it this way to make a point about how easy it is to ignore the “writing on the wall.”
In this case, the writing literally on the walls are the front pages of newspapers from the 1930s and 40s reporting on Hitler’s plans to exterminate the Jewish people. What these newspapers tell us is that the Holocaust was not inevitable. It happened not because Hitler was a maniac; not because German culture was authoritarian; not because centuries of Christian anti-Judaism gave power to Hitler’s anti-Semitic claims. The Holocaust happened because otherwise good people and the nations they lived in let it happen.
Will they let it happen again?
That is the specter raised by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent statement that Israel should be wiped off the map. He clearly has the will and the motive, and may soon have the physical nuclear capability to make his threat real.
His statement is the most recent reminder of the special role Jews play in the world.
It used to be that when miners descended into the earth to dig, they took with them a canary. If the canary died, they knew that they had to get out of there because the air had turned deadly.
We Jews are the canaries of the world. In a society in which Jews are attacked, no one is safe.
The killing machine the Nazis created to destroy the Jewish people killed not only six million Jews but millions of others. The terrorists who hijacked the planes that flew into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and crashed in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11 were the heirs of those who first hijacked planes to take Jewish hostages. If Iran talks with impunity about wiping one country off the map, no country is safe.
Speaker of the Swedish Parliament Bjorn von Sydow understood this when he said: “I am willing to defend the right of Israel to exist as strongly as I defend the rights of my own country to exist.” While Ahmadinejad’s statement has been condemned by Western leaders, only Sweden responded unequivocally by cutting all bilateral contact with the Iranian parliament. If anything is to be learned from the Holocaust, other nations will follow Sweden’s lead and go even further to impose sanctions and isolation.
What about us? It’s not exactly a privilege to be the canary of the world. As an Israeli congregant once quipped, “For this we were chosen? Let God choose someone else!”
To be fair, we are not the only people to suffer as the world sits idly by. Rwanda and, currently, Darfur ( www.savedafur.org) are just two of the recent genocides to come to mind. However, Jewish history is among the most marked by such recurring atrocities.
I am not sure why God chose us, the Jews, for this particular purpose, as canary of the world. Perhaps it is the burden of being custodians of the special message which is Torah: that human equality, the rule of law, the limits of power, and the dignity of every individual are not idle dreams but concrete, achievable goals for which we are to consistently strive. Being the canary for us is not a state of being the victim. Being the canary of the world comes with a moral responsibility to be the conscience of the world as well.
The newspapers on the walls of the Holocaust Museum remind us that it is all too easy, when reading bad news, to simply turn the page. Our job, as Jews, is to make sure no one turns the page, not just for us, but for all who are the targets of unmitigated hatred.
The newspapers also remind us that such hatred spreads to envelope the world when left unchecked. That is why it is not just for Israel’s sake that America and other nations should sanction and isolate Iran. It is for all our sakes.