Monday, April 22, 2024

Lessons from the Shoah


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By Deepa Majumdar

This article is dedicated to the Rohingya people – victims of an ongoing genocide. Jan 27, 2024 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. Indeed, the horrors of the Shoah should never be forgotten. This does not mean there were no other genocides in the twentieth-century. If anything, this blood-stained century was – despite its remarkable scientific, technological, and economic progress – peppered with genocides. Moreover, genocides have continued into the twenty-first century.

Tragically, the list is long – from Myanmar’s ongoing genocide against the Rohingya, and the Islamic State’s genocide against the Yazhidis – to Darfur, DRC, Rwanda, Bosnia, Bangladesh, etc. – all the way to the Shoah itself. Nor is it the case that the Shoah was the first genocide the world has ever seen. But it was unique, as is every genocide. In the end, what matter are not just the numbers killed, or the scale of cruelties, but the unfathomable, identity-based hatred itself. If the Shoah was unique in the chilling efficiency and brutality of its extermination techniques, then its victims were exemplary in their courage. The helplessness of the European Jews and others (the Sinti-Roma peoples, Slavs, homosexuals, etc.), their forced meekness, unimaginable courage, and unbearable agony – with children torn apart from parents sent to gas chambers – all this should haunt the world, so we strengthen our resolve to expunge genocides forever from human history. The Shoah should make us ever vigilant against mass hatred – especially identity-based xenophobia.

 The Shoah should inspire Christians world-wide to expunge theological forms of antisemitism that have plagued western Christian thinking since the days of early Christianity. Christian antisemitism is a theologically defended prejudice that has led to concrete acts of antisemitism (pogroms, etc.). Only a historian would know if these acts led to the Shoah. Especially reprehensible is this central belief known as the Jewish deicide – that people of the Jewish faith are, to this day, collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. While some Christian denominations (like the Catholic church) have repudiated this belief, not all have.

The Shoah has lessons also for Meghalaya and Assam. Kristallnacht (1938) should be a warning to all who wage pogroms against Dkhars, destroying their homes, businesses, and places of worship – killing them with random cruelty. The Shoah should remind the Assamese to never ever repeat the horrors of the 1983 Nellie massacre against helpless Bengalis. It should remind Assamese leaders to avoid hate-laden epithets (like “Miya”) against Bengali Muslims.

 Finally, the Shoah should make us utterly vigilant before the dangers of Hindu fascism against religious minorities (especially Muslims and Christians), and the politically downtrodden (especially Dalits). If the European Jew, who had no choice but to walk meekly into Hitler’s gas chambers, has made Israel what it is today – a state willing to go to any length to protect itself – then Hindu extremists might try and use the same argument to justify their fascism – saying it is in self-defense. They might justify themselves saying that centuries of invasions and oppression have converted the mild, into the militant Hindu, who does not hesitate to engage in ruthless violence. This includes India’s extra-judicial murders in foreign nations and violent domestic acts in defense of a Hindu utopia. While it is true that India needs strong defense – because it is flanked by two formidable neighbors (China and Pakistan) – should Hindutva draw inspiration from Zionism, and RAW from Israel’s Mossad? According to The American Prospect (Jan 18, 2015), “India’s embrace of Israel … attests to how Israel has become a model for repressive governments and far-right movements worldwide, including in Italy, Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines and the United States.”

 Instead, the Shoah should inspire in us a wake-up call that strengthens our resolve against Hindu fascism. Groups like Bajrang Dal and others should destroy complacency in moderate practicing Hindus. More than non-Hindus, moderate Hindu practitioners should protest Hindutva’s distortions of their great religion. The Shoah should inspire an uproar of protest against Hindu extremists, like Pooja Shakun Pandey (a senior member of the Hindu Mahasabha), who said (in Dec 2021), “If 100 of us become soldiers and are prepared to kill 2 million (Muslims), then we will win … protect India, and make it a Hindu nation.” The Shoah should make us shudder at the 2015 words of Sadhvi Deva Thakur (at that time, a senior member of the same group) to reporters – that Christians and Muslims should undergo forced sterilization, in order to control their population growth.

Human genocide and theriocide, or the mass killing of animals, are related. Often, victims of genocide are first dehumanized – by being compared to animals – before they are killed en masse. Indeed, Israeli leaders have called Palestinians human and inhuman animals. In the state of nature, animals can be very cruel to each other. But they never kill with the intelligent zeal unique to humans. Thus, Aristotle was right when he said that man when separated from law and justice, is the worst of all animals – but the best, when perfected.

In the context of the current tragedy unfolding in Gaza – the indomitable courage of the Jewish people during the Shoah, and thereafter, should inspire us to make careful distinctions between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, on the one hand – and between the Jewish people and the state of Israel, on the other. It should also inspire us to distinguish between Islamophobia and legitimate critiques of extremist Islamist organizations, like Hamas, ISIS, etc.

The world should be horrified that the state of Israel, in its Zionist zeal, appears to have learnt no lessons from the Shoah. Otherwise, it could not engage in a hi-tech war that is killing unarmed Palestinian women and children with impunity. Given their gung-ho warmongering against the Palestinian people, Zionist state actors in Israel appear to have forgotten the horrors of the Shoah. Conversely, Hamas’ dastardly cruelty in its Oct 7th, 2023, surprise attack on Israeli communities and military bases – although on a far smaller scale, and in that sense, not quite comparable with the Shoah – should be a stark reminder that antisemitism still kills. Tragically, some elderly Israelis have had to face both the Shoah and Hamas’ attack.

Article II of the Genocide Convention defines genocide as a “crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part.” Given this definition, technically, Israel’s current actions in Gaza may not qualify as a genocide. However, this should not, in any way whatsoever, lessen Netanyahu’s culpability and hypocrisy, or that of his warmongering supporters. The fact that he has cited the Old Testament to justify his war is a testament to his hypocrisy. The fact that they are willing to perpetrate violence on unarmed “alien others,” notwithstanding memories of helpless unarmed Jewish Europeans killed during the Holocaust – the fact that collective memories of the Shoah have not deterred them from engaging in collective sadism against unarmed people – all this testifies to their hypocrisy. That Israel’s Gaza war may not qualify technically as a genocide, should have no repercussions for the immediacy of the Gazan crisis. In no way whatsoever does it lessen the sufferings of the Palestinian people (in Gaza and the West Bank). At the same time, Palestinian suffering (now and in the past) can never justify the cruelty of Hamas, or of holocaust deniers and antisemites in the Arab world.

Does Israel’s current hi-tech war count as self-defense? Was the 1948 Palestinian Nakba an echo of the 1941-1945 Shoah? Is Netanyahu an equivalent of Hitler? Ordinary people will always ask such questions. But they do not have the expertise to answer them. Only historians can attempt to address such questions. The rest of us should use Holocaust Day to purge ourselves of all identity based hatred, so we can begin the journey towards virtuous cosmopolitanism – a state of harmony that synthesizes myriad differences.


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