The Fragility of Freedom on Holocaust Memorial Day 2024

On Holocaust Memorial Day, Michael Raff, Trustee at MRN, reflects on his Jewish heritage and the meaning of ‘never again’ at a time of ongoing genocide in Palestine.

I write this post in advance of Holocaust Memorial Day. I come from a Jewish family, and although I do not myself identify as Jewish, I deeply value my heritage. My ancestors fled to New York from pogroms in Poland. I have fond memories as a young boy of Shabbat dinners on visits to family in Montreal, where I developed a particular taste for matzah ball soup which exists to this day. I remember being called a “filthy Jew” on the playground when I was 11 years old. I learned about the horrors of the Holocaust at school, and the imperative of ensuring that the mass killing of people, for no reason other than who they are, never be allowed to happen again. Holocaust Memorial Day has always served as an opportunity for reflection, and this year feels particularly poignant.

Following atrocious attacks by Hamas’ military wing on 7th October 2023, Israel launched a brutal, ongoing assault on Gaza. At the time of writing, over 25,000 Palestinians have been killed – any arguments of ‘self-defence’ on the part of the State of Israel have, in the eyes of experts, long been devoid of credibility, as it becomes increasingly clear that Israel continues to purposefully target civilians. Israel is currently defending itself against charges of genocide, brought by South Africa in the International Court of Justice. On Friday, the court ruled that Israel’s acts plausibly constitute acts of genocide and granted provisional measures to prevent irreparable harm to the people of Palestine.

Reflections on Israel

This Holocaust Memorial Day, it becomes necessary to reflect on the meaning of ‘Never again’. This obligation feels particularly stark for the people of Israel that support the massacre in Gaza. Many believe that Israel is entitled to do whatever it takes to ensure its security, no matter the cost. To others, it has always been obvious that the safety of the Israeli people can never be secured through the persecution and subjugation of Palestinians.

Before October 7, people in Gaza lived under an inhumane blockade, with no hope for the future. In the West Bank, settlement building (accepted by the international community as illegal under international law) has continued to expand, eating up Palestinian land. Armed settlers, with the support of the occupying military, attack Palestinians, even burning entire communities to the ground. Many children are detained without trial, others are summarily executed. Numerous respected human rights organisations have released extensive legal analyses concluding that Israel is committing the crime against humanity of apartheid. This conclusion was re-iterated by countless respected figures within Israel.

Violence no doubt breeds further violence. The feeling of safety and security desperately sought by the people of Israel is so clearly dependent on recognition that the occupation, and the escalating violence and humiliation this entails for Palestinians, simply cannot continue. Only then can the first steps be taken on the long road to peace. Holocaust Memorial Day seems as good a day as any to reflect on this reality.

Reflections closer to home

For us in the West, Holocaust Memorial Day also invokes important reflections. As Israel has decimated Gaza, the international community has remained silent at best, and offered active encouragement at worst. The sheer proud and open extent of our complicity has been a source of shock and horror for millions who grew up under the impression that the mass, intentional killing of innocent civilians was not something that the Western international community would tolerate.

The destruction of Gaza is by no means the only mass atrocity committed since the Holocaust. 2024 marks the 30-year anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Millions were killed or displaced in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, tens of thousands continue to die in conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Sudan.

The contrast between our reaction to these atrocities with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine betrays an extremely bleak reality: that our respect for international law, and our outrage at the mass killing of people, is very much dependent on who the victims of these crimes are. If they are White, we have proven ourselves quite capable of acting, not least in the form of safe routes of passage for the protection of people displaced in these conflicts. Where the victims are racialised people, and there is no political advantage in doing so, we have time and again shown ourselves willing to turn a blind eye. The long shadow of our racist, colonial history continues to keep us in the dark.

This Holocaust Memorial Day can hopefully serve as a catalyst to remind us that our freedom is fragile. International rules and norms, many of which were put in place following the atrocity of the Holocaust, only work when they are applied equally to everybody. In particular, the mass, indiscriminate killing of people on the basis of who they are, can never be justified.

I wish everyone a peaceful and reflective Holocaust Memorial Day, and only hope that we can work towards a future where ‘Never again’ represents a global promise from humanity, rather than an empty slogan subject to political expediency.

Further reading

Amnesty International – Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians

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