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Tuesday, 25 January, 2000, 16:51 GMT
Why have a National Holocaust day?
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks:
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks: "A brave idea"
By Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks

The proposal for a National Holocaust Day has met with mixed reactions. It should not have done. It is a brave idea that has been misunderstood.

The Holocaust was a defining event in history. There were other chapters of Jewish tragedy. Nor have Jews been the only victims of hate.

There have been, before and since, other attempted genocides. Over the last hundred years, human blood has been shed on a horrendous scale.

Holocaust 'unique'

Yet the Holocaust is unique. It was exceptional in the scientific precision with which it was carried out.

It was unprecedented in the sheer scale on which it was conceived. But what made it different from other mass murders was that it served no interest.

The Holocaust was evil for evil's sake

Emil Fackenheim, theologian
At the height of the slaughter, the Nazis diverted trains from the Russian front to transport victims to the extermination camps.

As Emil Fackenheim once put it, the Holocaust was evil for evil's sake.

As a result, it has significance for more than Jews. As Jews we will always remember it in a special way.

The victims were, literally or metaphorically, members of our family. Ours is a private and personal grief. For this, we have a day known in Hebrew as Yom Hashoah.

A National Holocaust Day has nothing to do with this. It does not add to it. It does not detract from it. There will always be a special need for Jews to remember as Jews.

However, the Holocaust was also about humanity. One of the great writers about the Holocaust, the late Primo Levi, entitled his memoirs of Auschwitz, If This Is A Man. In so doing he delivered one of the most powerful challenges to emerge from the nightmare.

Nazism denied humanity of Jews

The Jews of Europe did not ask to be treated as Jews. They simply sought to be treated like human beings.

That is what Nazism denied. The Jews, they taught, were vermin, lice, parasites. They were less than human. They could be eliminated without compassion. Killing them was an act of purification.

Even to say such things, let alone to know that they were believed and acted on, is to tremble. But so it was.

There are two kinds of blasphemy. There is blasphemy against God. However, there is also blasphemy against the image of God that is mankind.

Not for nothing does the Hebrew bible begin with the momentous statement that every human individual, every person, carries within him or her the image of the Creator of life.

The most transfiguring truth Judaism ever taught the world was the sanctity of human existence. That is what was blasphemed against in the Holocaust.

So the Holocaust must be remembered, not only by Jews, but by everyone. That is what a National Holocaust Day is about.

'A day of universal reflection'
Steven Spielberg: supports National Holocaust Day in Britain
Steven Spielberg: Supports National Holocaust Day in Britain
It is not an act of Jewish remembrance but a day of universal reflection on what it is to be human. To which the answer is: to be human is to recognise the humanity of others, of those who are not like me, who do not live as I live or believe as I believe but who carry within them the mark of their Creator. Those who are not in my image are none the less in God's image.

That is the vast proposition with which the Torah begins, and without it there cannot be a world of justice to the human condition.

Last year I met Steven Spielberg, who has done more than most to bring the Holocaust to public awareness.

He told me that the greatest move taken in the United States to combat racism was the creation of Martin Luther King Day. The result was that schools throughout the United States dedicated their teaching at that time to the ongoing struggle against prejudice.

He was categorical in his support for a National Holocaust Day in Britain. It would, he said, be the single most effective act any of us could do to ensure that the teaching of tolerance had a focus and permanent place in the school curriculum.

It is one of the mysteries of Jewish life that events that have happened to a single small people have had a disproportionate impact on the moral imagination of mankind.

That is true of the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Though we alone are commanded to remember, every day, the going out from Egypt, we have not been alone in sensing its significance.
Auschwitz concentration camp victims:
Victims of Auschwitz: "Never again"
So too did Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Jefferson, and the blacks of America who sang "Let my people go." This event and the Passover festival that commemorates it, has inspired many people in their fight for freedom.

So too will the Holocaust. As Jews, we will always carry in our hearts a candle of remembrance for those who died. But we will not, nor may we, be alone in reflecting on its significance.

Wherever people are persecuted for their race, their faith, their difference, the post-Holocaust imperative - "Never Again" - must be heard.

That is why a National Holocaust Day is necessary and deserves our support, as human beings caring passionately for the future of mankind.


Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth

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