Anthony Cleary: The cost of historical amnesia

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A bystander surveys the damage done to a Jewish store following the anti-Jewish riots of Kristallnacht in Berlin, November 1938. Photo: Karl H Halmann

Learn from the past to stop anti-semitism and hate

As a teacher of history, I often reminded my students of the adage, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Regrettably, the seemingly cyclical nature of history points to an ignorance of it, and suggests that the lessons of the past have been short-lived. This is not a blissful ignorance, for more often than not it represents blindness to humanity’s inevitable struggle between good and evil.

Throughout history, events have challenged the very foundations upon which civilisation rests, and begged the question of what it means to be human. Senseless violence and conflict has wreaked enormous suffering, and despite the promises of ‘never again’, the seeds of acrimony and hatred are often passed on to succeeding generations.

“despite the promises of ‘never again’, the seeds of acrimony and hatred are often passed on”

In recent years, we have once again witnessed the insidious rise of antisemitism. Disturbingly, this has manifested itself in a variety of forms –especially in Western liberal democracies. It has influenced the policies of governments and political parties, the media’s reporting on the State of Israel, and people’s perceptions of and interactions with Jewish people.

While the discredited theory of ‘Holocaust denial’ has long been discarded by most, there remains a macabre obsession with Nazism and the Third Reich and a dilution of the Final Solution. Some propagate a surreal version of history which airbrushes the reality: the Holocaust was the brutal, deliberate and systematic mass murder of six million people.

Today, and not for the first time in history, Jewish people are vilified through malicious and false stereotypes. They are depicted as oppressors, and agitators of political unrest in the Middle East.

Remembering Holocaust is ‘a duty’

For the greater part, there is an absence of objective reporting. Instead, both mainstream and social media have been used to depict Israel as a pariah state and stigmatise all Jewish people no matter where they live in the world.

The complex political situation of the Middle East has exposed cultural and religious fault lines, which have been exploited by some to denigrate the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. During the recent 15-day Israel-Palestinian conflict, outbreaks of sporadic violence occurred in different parts of the world. Jewish businesses and synagogues were vandalised, and people were randomly attacked.

The perpetrators of the violence did not conceal their activities under the cover of darkness. Instead, their activities were in broad daylight, in gangs, and in very public areas – including Times Square (New York) in the middle of the day.

Disturbingly, a crowd of onlookers recorded one of the attacks for social media rather than intervening to halt the violent assault.

Did we learn nothing from history?

Hate crimes are not a new phenomenon…we should not be passive bystanders

Hate crimes are not a new phenomenon.  Rather, they point to the complexity of human nature and reinforce the moral fragility of all societies. All too sadly, civility and decency can quickly give way to the darker side of our natures. This was of course exemplified in the moral abyss of the Third Reich.

The passage of time should not mean that we distance ourselves from the enormity of these past events or confine them to the annals of history. Rather, we should learn from them and heed the warnings they provide.

In these and in all circumstances, we should not be passive bystanders – people who observe injustice and suffering and who do nothing. This merely reinforces the view of philosopher Edmund Burke, who warned, “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Not all bystanders do nothing of course. In the darkness of the Shoah, the heroism of clergy, religious and everyday men and women who became known as the Righteous Among Nations was in sharp contrast to the inaction and indifference of many. At a time of great moral decay they displayed enormous courage. They were and remain a great light, beacons of hope, revealing humanity’s capacity for goodness.

We must learn from and imitate their example.

In studying and remembering the past, we know that no words will ever fully express the suffering of the victims, challenge the inaction of bystanders or adequately condemn the actions of the perpetrators. Importantly, the lessons we learn can enable us to fully develop ourselves and to be of true service to others and society.

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