Today is Yom Ha'Shoah, the day on which the international Jewish community commemorates the destruction of 6,000,000 Jews, and virtually the entire, 900-year-old culture of European Jewry, by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It is a somber day, obviously; commemorative ceremonies will include testimonies from witnesses and survivors, candlelighting ceremonies, readings, reflective music and prayer, including the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
One of the watchwords that came out of this terrible experience for contemporary Jews is, Never again. Now, exactly what is meant by “never again” depends in large part on who is saying it: to some, it refers specifically to the Jewish people, and means that a powerful Israel will never again allow Jews around the world to be helpless victims of cruel regimes.
Others, though, take a more universal message from the phrase: never again will we allow an entire people to be destroyed by a more powerful group. This is the impetus behind Jewish communal involvement in the war in Bosnia some years ago, or recent activities on behalf of the people of Darfur, in the Sudan. When it comes to conflicts such as these, the most powerful term in the Jewish lexicon is genocide. If something is defined as a genocide, you can be sure that Jewish organizations large and small, local and national, will be in the lead in attempting to find solutions, and failing that, to protecting the people who have fallen victim to these conflicts.
It so happens that Yom Ha'Shoah often falls in close proximity to Earth Day, and this has led me to think about whether the term “never again” can be applied to the environmental challenges the world is facing. After all, we are in a period of rapid climatological changes, which are expected to have serious repercussions for people around the world. These will include the destruction of coastline communities due to rising sea levels; the loss of access to fresh water caused by the melting of glacial water sources; increased desertification and loss of agricultural capacity due to changing rainfall patters; what are called “disease vector shifts,” where diseases move into areas that are less accustomed to them and therefore less able to deal with them, and more. The US' national security leadership is concerned about greater numbers of what are called climate refugees – masses of people who will need to move across countries and continents simply to find the resources they need to survive.
The thing is, you see, that we're the ones causing all of this. You, and me, and everyone we know – by our profligate use of fossil fuels – coal for electricity, oil for transportation and everything else we use oil for, gas for heating. Plane travel. Industrial agriculture. Our modern lifestyle is already causing and will continue to cause increasing hardship for people all over the world, people who have neither the responsibility for the problem nor the resources to deal with it.
And for some reason, or for some number of reasons, we seem to have more or less decided not to do anything about it. We'd rather close our eyes and ears to the problem than take the steps that would address it, if those steps would inconvenience us.
The UN defines genocide as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” Perhaps you'll be relieved to know that's I don't think that's what we're doing. It's not deliberate, and it's not aimed at at any specific group of people. Is there such a thing as manslaughter, or of criminally negligent homicide - of whole populations? Because that, we are doing.
Perhaps the term “never again” isn't the right one. After all, what we are seeing and will see in terms of climate change has not happened before in human history. But the idea behind never again – the idea that the lesson of the Holocaust is that it is our human responsibility to protect the weak and powerless, that if they are destroyed it is our collective human responsibility – that surely applies.
Let's hope that in years to come we are not lighting candles and singing somber songs and saying kaddish for for the earth and its peoples that we ourselves have helped to destroy. Let's instead begin to take the actions that can stop this process for happening. Let's not have to say never again, again.