Ukraine, Russia and the unbearable lightness of “Never Again”

Yehuda Kurtzer

By Yehuda Kurtzer

After decades of fearing that we would forget the horrors of our recent past, I am beginning to fear the opposite possibility: that we Jews remember our history too well but feel powerless to learn from it.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine invites analogies to our traumatic past. History begs us to learn from what came before. These analogies with the past are never perfect. Seeing analogies between the past and the present does not mean that we think that everything that happened in the past would be identical to everything that happens in the present.

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However, for comparisons to be useful, they do not need to be exact. It is enough for us as Jews to see a familiarity in the past and a resemblance in the present. We do this to activate our sense of responsibility, to ask if we’ve seen this plot point before, to understand how we’re supposed to act in the story to change the inevitability of the outcome. We become different people when we remember because the past merges with the present and indicates the choices we might make.

But now: what if we remember well, but can’t act on it? Will Jewish memory become a prison of our impotence?

I grew up believing that appeasement was just a rung above fascist tyranny itself, and sometimes perhaps worse: peacemakers replace responsibility with naivety and facilitate demonic evil even when they know better. The Western narrative juxtaposes Churchill the hero with Chamberlain the villain; the philosopher Avishai Margalit uses Chamberlain as the archetype of the “rotten compromise”, to make concessions that make people skeptical of the morality of compromise. I know that the sanctions regime imposed on Putin’s Russia and its oligarchs is the toughest in history, and yet I wonder: what is the threshold of appeasement, and will we know if we have it? crossed?

We are still debating FDR’s decision not to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz. It was a viable option, and we know that because Jewish leaders pleaded with American officials to consider it, and they decided not to consider it. None of us have any idea if such a bombing operation would have succeeded, let alone if it would have dented the Final Solution. But our memory of history makes us wonder if he could have, and it makes us furiously study the current invasion, looking for opportunities for a similar intervention.

At the same time, we worry that we will only know what actions we should have taken long ago, and that our children will study those actions with the same helplessness that gnaws at us when we read FDR’s decisions.

My great-grandparents came to America long before World War II. But I have read and feel chastened by the fact that America turned away Jewish refugees during the war. I am in shock to see the largest and fastest refugee crisis unfolding before us and to see our country failing to participate proportionately – given our size and economic power – in the absorption efforts and resettlement. Why do we have a museum celebrating American wartime intervention, like we do at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and why do we have such a profound educational apparatus aimed at helping Americans understand how not to be a bystander , if not for times like this?
It’s not hard to imagine the museum that will one day mark this unfolding atrocity.

Our insistence on memory – and the belief that it will change things – never quite works. This is because the invocation of memory can be trivial, and because it can separate us.

“Never again” is everywhere now – Meir Kahane’s call for Jewish self-defense has become a rallying cry to prevent genocide, a banner to fight immigration detention, a slogan for schools and control of weapons. And whatever we wanted the legacy of the Holocaust to be, we by no means succeeded. American presidents have spoken these words with seriousness even as they failed to intervene, or intervened too late, to stop the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria and elsewhere. If the fear was oblivion, it was unfounded. But remembering and acting on memory is something else entirely. The legacy of our past accuses us when we cannot transport the former into the latter.

I did not expect – even looking at the politics of memory apart from the inheritance of memory for opposing political ends – that we would go from the fear of forgetting to the fear that accompanies memory. The past is watching us now, revisiting us every day in the news cycle, and I’m afraid. It is not because we have forgotten it, but precisely because we remember it and do not know how to take it into account.

Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and host of the Identity/Crisis podcast.

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