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Really Meaning Never Again - Yom HaShoah Sermon 5777

Two friends are sitting in a pub late one evening and the championship basketball game comes on the television. They watch as the team scores a basket to go two points ahead with less than a second to go. The commentator declares: “The game’s over, there’s no way the other team can win now”.  
The friend leans across to his buddy and says “I’ll bet you ten dollars that they do win,” to which his friend replies: “I'll take that bet.”
Together they watch in stunned silence as they pass the ball, throw it and make three points from their own half of the court. 
Immediately the friend reaches for his wallet takes out ten dollars and gives it to his buddy who says “I can't take that. This is a repeat, I saw them make the shot earlier.”
But his friend says “No you have to take it. I also saw the game earlier but I didn't think they could do it again.” 
We watch some things happen and we can hardly believe our eyes, so much so that we watch them again and again and expect to see a different result. And yet we know that nothing will change and that unfortunately everything remains the same.
The quote often attributed to Albert Einstein is that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. This is not an approach that any of us advocate, instead, in our society we are constantly told to learn from our mistakes so that we can avoid repeating them. As a parent when Gabby does something accidentally the first time I am far more sympathetic than when she repeats the same action again and again and again.
Some lessons in life are easy to learn. When I failed to see the signs and got pulled over for doing a U-turn on Main Street I immediately learned a valuable and expensive lesson and have made sure never to repeat my driving indiscretion. But we know that it is not always easy to learn from our mistakes. I know that personally all too often I leave things until the last minute and then get stressed when doing them (I won’t tell you exactly when I was writing this sermon). And despite the best of intentions to get things done earlier all too often I fall into the same trap, repeat the same mistakes and receive the same results.
And what we do as individuals we also do communally in far wider contexts.
This Shabbat is the one closest to Yom HaShoah, the day when we in the Jewish community remember the Holocaust and that most dark of times in our people’s history. As our people emerged from the death camps of Europe a rallying cry began to spread as we collectively said: Never Again. According to Raul Hilberg, a historian of the Holocaust, the phrase “Never Again” first appeared on handmade signs that the inmates of Buchwald displayed in April, 1945, shortly after the camp had been liberated by US forces. In an interview in 2007, just before his death he suggested that perhaps it was “really the Communists who were behind it, but I am not sure.”
Whatever the origins of the phrase may actually have been, Never Again has become a rallying cry in response to the Holocaust. What is most important about these two words is that they were never intended to be limited to Never Again will there be a Holocaust against the Jews. The words Never Again were the rallying cry in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly passed the Genocide Convention to protect all peoples. They are the words that have been recited in the face of persecution, racism, discrimination and genocide against any group within society. It is a powerful call to action; the problem is that all too often these words fall on deaf ears and the words themselves are not enough.
As the famous Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote: “We know what a person thinks not when they tell us what they think, but by their actions.” As a Jewish community and as a world we are very good at saying Never again, but do our actions demonstrate that the commitment is real.
This week we discovered that the Allies knew about the Holocaust and the concentration camps much earlier than had previously been known. Newly accessed material from the United Nations – not seen for around 70 years – shows that as early as December 1942, the US, UK and Soviet governments were aware that at least two million Jews had been murdered and a further five million were at risk of being killed, and were preparing charges. Despite this, the Allied Powers did very little to try and rescue or provide sanctuary to those in mortal danger.
These revelations are made in the new book Human Rights after Hitler. It’s author Dan Plesch wrote of his access to the United Nations files: "The records overturn one of the most important accepted truths concerning the Holocaust: that, despite the heroic efforts of escapees from Nazi-occupied Europe, the allies never officially accepted the reality of the Holocaust and therefore never condemned it until the camps were liberated at the end of the war,"
In 1943 Viscount Crainborne, a minister in Winston Churchill’s war cabinet, said Jews should not be considered a special case, and that the British Empire was not able to admit any more. These words are that much more difficult to hear when accompanied by the new knowledge that at the time when Viscount Crainborne uttered them, he and the British Government were well aware of the mass extermination of Jews in Europe.
The British, the Americans, the Soviets, and many others knew what was happening in Nazi occupied Europe and they did next to nothing to save the Jews.
Today we unfortunately know about far too many atrocities which are taking place around the world and as we gather here together and remember Yom HaShoah how can we say never again when it unfortunately appears to be happening again and again and again. We watch from afar and we expect to see different results, but none emerge.
In seventy years when the history books are written about the war in Syria, about the global refugee crisis (larger today than at any time since World War Two) and when they talk about concentration camps for gay men in Chechnya – how will we be judged? What will they say about the statements we made and the actions, or lack of action that we took?
In 1967 George Steiner said the following words, wit: “Massacres are also going on right now, and, if I cannot comprehend how men in this room did not move in 1940 or 1941, I am not sure I can comprehend why I do not move now when certain things are going on in Asia, at the very moment when I’m speaking. This evening we’ll go to our friends, to our dinners, to our good sleep, while torture is going on and many human beings are being burned alive. And the great difference is this: it is at least conceivable that when the first news got through about Auschwitz — and there is some evidence on this — there was not actually in the minds of those who heard it the possibility of believing it; it seemed outside the categories of understanding. We who come after know that whatever the news is, it may be so. Whatever the massacre, the torture, the children being burned now in our name — it may be so. . .  I think it is our job as Jews, if anywhere in the world human beings are being burned alive, to ask ourselves: How can we sit still?”
It seems to me no coincidence that Yom HaShoah and the festival of Pesach come so closely together in the Jewish calendar. The central message of Pesach, which we celebrated just a week ago, is that we were slaves in Egypt.  We have personally experienced persecution and suffering, we bear those scars, we carry that memory with us and we behave and live our lives as people who were once slaves and who once suffered all of these terrible atrocities.  And the message of Yom HaShoah, coming so closely on its heels, is that thousands of years later our people were persecuted attacked and slaughtered again. 
Together the move from Pesach into Yom HaShoah is a call to action to learn the lessons from the past and to ensure that the words “Never Again” are always accompanied by action. Commemorating Yom HaShoah, while we remain silent about the refugee crisis across the globe, feels inappropriate to me. Speaking about the concentration camps in Europe while doing nothing about the concentration camps in Chechnya today feels like a betrayal of our memory. And standing here and saying “Never Again”, when we allow genocide to happen again and again and again is simply unacceptable.
George Santayana famously said: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We are a people of memory, we remember the past and as such we have an obligation to ensure that the rest of the world does not forget. And through this memory we must do all that we can to make sure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. In seventy years’ time books will be written about this period of American and Jewish and global history. What will they write about us about our words and about our actions?

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