I’m not going to waste words here on why Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s revolting remarks on Israel and the Holocaust are both patently false and deeply offensive, and to its credit the world community has largely stepped in to say the same. But, as a friend of mine remarked, “He may be crazy but he’s no joke.” I think there is a lot of wisdom in that comment.
From a geo-political standpoint, we know that Iran is resuming its nuclear program in defiance of U.N. orders, and it certainly appears like the goal is to develop a nuclear weapon. As if that weren’t enough cause for grave concern, his regime is contributing to instability in the Middle East by actively meddling in Iraqi politics and promoting the Sunni-led insurgency in Southern Iraq.
“He may be crazy but he’s no joke”: It’s important to remember that many threats are allowed to take root precisely because no one took them seriously enough to deal with them when it was still possible to contain them (Hitler making hate speeches in beer halls in Munich comes to mind. More ominously, Hitler invading Poland also comes to mind.)
But dismissing Ahmadinejad is dangerous to the world on more than a geo-political level. It is also dangerous on a moral level. For when remarks viciously denying the Holocaust go unchecked, our common humanity is diminished as we turn away from or ignore those darker impulses of humanity that can give rise to genocide and the inconceivable mistreatment of fellow human beings. These impulses are not ancient history, or even 60-year-old history. They are being tragically played out today in Darfur, as they were in Rwanda, as they were in Bosnia, as they were in Cambodia, as they were…. The list is far too long for us to deny the very real evil people can do to one another, and failing to confront Holocaust deniers does exactly that: by failing to stand up for human suffering and against the large-scale bloodshed of innocent millions, we desensitize ourselves to similar atrocities when they take place around us. It is not only the Holocaust survivors themselves who are violated as their reality is denied; it is all of us.
The symbol of evil in Jewish thought is the nation of Amalek, which attacked the Israelites from behind in cowardly fashion as they left Egypt, according to the Book of Exodus. In response, we are commanded to destroy Amalek wherever we may encounter him. But the manner in which we are to do this is uniquely Jewish: We are to remember. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we are enjoined: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.” (25:17-19)
In other words, our weapon in the face of evil is memory. It is a powerful weapon, because it is the opposite of that more comfortable and familiar impulse to look away, to ignore, to forget, to deny. In being called to remember, Jews–and all people–are called on not merely to passively recall, but to remember through action, to take a stand against those evils being perpetrated in our own time until we can all finally say together in one voice, “Never Again.”