Opinion: In defense of another voice against genocide

It was the British establishment at its finest. Six years ago, several hundred Holocaust survivors filed into the Palace of Westminster for the annual Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations. The day also marked the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Birkenau. Her Majesty the Queen, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, and members of Parliament and the House of Lords were in attendance. The London Philharmonic Orchestra provided the music, and BBC reported the proceedings. Earlier that day, the Holocaust survivors had sipped tea with the queen at St James’ Palace. And the person who organized this day of remembrance was a Muslim. 

Last week, Manhattan College appointed a Muslim woman, Mehnaz Afridi, as director of its renamed Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center. The appointment, coupled with the college’s decision to study other genocides and embrace an interfaith message, quickly drew fire from critics. An Islamic woman running a Holocaust program? they asked.

I’m no stranger to the question of who has the right to run a Holocaust center. As the son of a Methodist minister from rural Nottinghamshire, England, I was not the obvious founder of the U.K. Holocaust Centre. Nor was I the plain choice to be chairman of National Holocaust Memorial Day. Yet for a period of time, my colleagues and I — a Muslim and a Christian — led Britain’s day of remembrance.

Actually, it made and still makes perfect sense. The Holocaust was not the making of the Jewish community. Nazi anti-Semitism and its many Christian antecedents were the products of European civilization. The Holocaust is a heavy burden for the Jewish world, but it is not its responsibility. The onus to remember and then change things lies squarely with us all in equal measure.

Broadening Holocaust studies to include other genocides helps to make that possible; it does not need to dilute the specific experience. If we understand each other’s experiences, we can be present and speak for one another in a stronger way.

If there is one thing to be learned from the gradual exclusion of Jews over the many decades prior to the Holocaust, it is that we must take warning signs seriously and reach out to a wider audience prepared to act. The Jews of Europe were not looking for the Jewish world alone to speak out against the Nazis. They needed the whole world to raise its voice.

If we segregate suffering and persecution — insist that the Holocaust maintain its Jewish specificity — we are all in greater danger. That’s why teaching about genocide in its many manifestations — along with teaching tolerance and respect and reaching out to build a wider community of shared values — should be of a piece with teaching about the Holocaust. It was the absence of this knowledge and shared values that allowed the Holocaust to occur.

The USC Shoah Foundation Institute has the largest collection of Holocaust testimony in the world, but that’s not sufficient. It is also acquiring testimonies from Armenia, Rwanda, Cambodia and other genocides — different histories, same lessons, one humanity.

There are pitfalls to this approach to be on guard against. First, there is no continuum on which to rank human suffering. How do I know who suffers more, or less? Compassion should always precede comparison.

Second, elevating one travesty of history above others creates an obnoxious hierarchy, which does not do justice to the memory of the victims. If we nevertheless insist on making one people’s suffering more important than others, we are announcing our insecurity in the present — and closing doors to the current generation that we need open. 

This is a perilous time to be closing doors. There are still many in the Muslim world who wish for the eradication of Jews — in Israel and beyond. The Arab spring, while welcome, has opened the way for some hateful marginal voices to reach a wider audience. Their statements are not strictly a political threat against Israel. They are a genocidal threat against Jews.

My Muslim colleague in Britain found her role a difficult one.  Not everyone in the Jewish community welcomed her; some went out of their way to make it difficult for her.  Her own community did not always respect the choices she made. Today, she remains a friend of the Jewish community but no longer works in the field.

But if we are to succeed in our joint mission to ensure that “never again” has any meaning in the world, we need to encourage, support and ensure that more people like my former colleague and Afridi succeed. After all, we are all in this together, like it or not.