The Political Implications of “Never Again”
If, the argument goes, the world’s great powers, first and foremost of course the United States, in collaboration with the UN system and with global civil society, would act decisively and in a timely way, we could actually enforce the moral standards supposedly agreed upon in the aftermath of the Holocaust. If they do not, of course, then “never again” will never mean much more than it has meant since 1945 — which, essentially, is “Never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.” – David Rieff
The essay from which the above is drawn sets out to demonstrate the inadequacies and naïveté of much contemporary pontificating about responses to genocide (and what might be called “genocide-like events”). Although the mantra “Never Again” has been the underpinning of rhetoric on genocide for the past sixty-five years, “The stark fact is that ‘never again’ has never been a political priority for either the United States or the so-called international community.” The problem, as Rieff points out, is that “ought” and “can” are, in the case of human rights and genocide, frequently not in alignment.
What Rieff doesn’t delve into, but what stuck in my mind throughout his article, is the persistence of “Never Again” and the Holocaust as a rhetorical and—if we’re frank—theoretical basis for human rights advocacy, even (especially?) when flawed. The Save Darfur movement at my alma mater was, as one student joked, the only thing capable of bringing together Jews and anti-Zionists. (Part of its leadership was, indeed, also active in Israel advocacy, while another portion helped to establish our very own chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.) I bring this up merely to point out that “Never Again” is something heard and taken seriously by a broad spectrum of people: the religious hear it; the secular hear it; Jews hear it; the very few people I have known personally whose anti-Zionism bordered on genuine Antisemitism heard it, too. “Never Again” is something universally compelling—something, it would seem, heard, in some form or other, near-universally.
What this points toward is the existence of a moral imperative emanating from the novum of the Shoah, what might otherwise be termed, with Emil Fackenheim, the “Commanding Voice of Auschwitz.”* That is to say, “Never Again” is deemed not merely the “lesson” we learned from Auschwitz, but that which we are compelled to do, having learned the lesson of Auschwitz. The problem is, of course, that “Never Again” is not a rigorously examined imperative but a popular slogan too often understood to be what it is not.
Reading “Never Again” as the moral imperative stemming from the Shoah leaves us with three alternatives, none of them appealing. The first, noting this dichotomy between what ought to be done and what can be done, holds that there is no possibility of actual response: that is, that Auschwitz changed/changes nothing—even though such an imperative is necessary in its wake. That is, alternative one takes us in the direction of meaninglessness, or at least moral meaninglessness: life and the necessary are not themselves impossible, but that the good or moral life is impossible.
The second is of an imperative that is effectively meaningless: that we are compelled to think good thoughts and support “right” causes. This is not, in fact, so different than the preceding, except in its refusal to acknowledge the disparity between ought and can. This alternative’s adamant lack of self-awareness is, as well, what distinguishes it from the third. Thinking good thoughts and supporting right causes: what I mean by this is two-fold: both the inane rhetoric of otherwise capable thinkers and bureaucrats, convinced that if only we pass more laws and issue more statements, no one will dare transgress them (these are Rieff’s specific targets), and the adolescent waste of resources by (well-meaning) college students. This latter is what brings us, as important to the cause of human rights, events that might as well be titled, “Kegs and/or Jello-Shots to Save Darfur.” Alcohol, as you may have heard, increases the ability think good thoughts with sufficient force to push them across an ocean.
Finally, then, there is a third, which believes that the distance between ought and can is capable of being bridged, and accepts that this requires the use of (frequently massive) force. That is, “Never Again” compels one not toward activism or non-governmental action, but toward particular political agenda(s): liberal interventionism and the so-called variant promoted by registered Republicans, neoconservatism.
Yet, in two of the most considered philosophical/theological reflections on whatever imperative may emerge from Auschwitz, those of Yitz Greenberg and Emil Fackenheim, we see no mention of political agenda or foreign policy. Greenberg insists upon re-establishing human dignity; Fackenheim on his idea of Tikkun (not to be confused with the droll tikkun olam of Saturday sermons), and has sharp words for the “Never Again” crowd in particular. The imperative falls primarily upon the individual, not society; where it does fall upon community, both Greenberg and Fackenheim are adamant that the communities affected are Jewish and Christian, broadly construed.
The flaw of “Never Again” is its inherently political nature. Even when not tied to transient political agendas, it demands political action. Any imperative from the Shoah, no matter the wording, would seem, however, to be an ethical, rather than political imperative. This has all been a long way of saying, then that no specific foreign policy agenda—liberal interventionism and neoconservatism included—is made necessary by the existence of an Auschwitz.
*The revised iteration of his more famous “614th Commandment” to give Hitler “no posthumous victories”—a phrase nearly as ambiguous as “Never Again,” its near-synonym. The revised “Commanding Voice” argument is far more compelling, though I’m not going to try to re-demonstrate his logic; I’d only butcher it working off the top of my head. Anyway, the point being, if you’re bearing with me through this rather large dose of angsty postmodern Judaism, that there is a sense that something must be done in its wake—“Never Again” as a vaguely perceived and flawed understanding of this.