October 14, 2019

We dare not murder memories of genocide

Amnesia of the past foreshadows amnesia of the future. Forget yesterday's tragedy and the threat to tomorrow is denied. Forget the first genocide of the 20th century — the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 — and the memory and atrocities of the first genocide of the 21st century in Darfur turn invisible, and the world response is muted.

The Polish Jewish jurist, Raphael Lempkin, who coined the term “genocide,” defined it in large part by what happened to the Armenians in 1915. Armenia was the cautionary record of a mass murder of a people, which tragically and shamelessly the world has and continues to repress.

Amnesia is a sickness and feigned amnesia is a blasphemy. To choose to forget what happened to the martyrs is an insult to their memory and a danger to our children. As the philosopher Cicero sagely observed, “Not to know what happened to you before you were born is to remain forever a child.”

Infantilizing ourselves and our progeny is dangerous, and silence is lethal. We dare not murder memory.

The Hebrew term for remember (zachor) appears 169 times in the Bible. Memory is a sacred mandate. Jewish World Watch, founded almost three years ago and comprised of over 50 synagogues of every denomination throughout Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Orange counties, was formed to use its energies to make people aware of and stop genocide. Its initial focus has been on the ongoing genocide of the persecuted people of Darfur.

It continues its work in Darfur and Chad by building and supporting medical clinics; creating water wells; sending solar cookers for women intimidated, branded, tortured and raped by the Janjaweed in the fields where they have to forage for scraps of firewood to cook; providing educational materials to children desperate for any sense of normalcy, and a social worker dedicated to providing grief counseling to a population where every single family has lost at least one of its members.

No two dyings are the same. No two holocausts are the same. Darfur is not Rwanda; the killing fields of Cambodia are not the crematoria of the Nazi death camps.

Every genocide is singular. But a kinship of suffering unites us all. To play the shameless game of “one-downsmanship” is an invidious sport. My blood is not redder than yours, my suffering not more painful than yours. Hatred consumes us all indiscriminately.

We have enough tears to shed for others. Our tear ducts are not dried up. Our hearts are not so small that they cannot beat for and with another.

We join together to remember and to bind each other's wounds. In memory, we together raise our collective conscience and act out our resolve. “Never again” will we allow the threat of genocide to terrorize any nation, religion or ethnic community. Together we demonstrate our solidarity and mutual support.

On Friday, April 27, at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino, Jewish World Watch will honor Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, a joint service of memory, including Armenian and Jewish choirs, liturgy, song and reflection. Prior to the 8:15 p.m. service, an Armenian Sabbath dinner will be served at 6 p.m. (by reservation only).

Harold M Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and founder of Jewish World Watch.