Ever Again?

The recent discovery of atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine is shocking, but also not shocking. We have seen all too often that the worst angels of our nature emerge in military conflict, and civilians pay the price. It has happened in Europe and the Middle East and Asia and the Americas, it has happened in the distant past and in the 21st Century.

After the Holocaust, we aspired to “Never Again,” though some debate if that means never again to the Jewish people or never again to anyone. If the goal was never again to anyone, humanity has definitely failed. The deaths of thousands to millions in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Yemen, Syria, the Rohinga in Myanmar and the Uyghurs in China….does the definitional line between intentional genocide and mass violent death of civilians matter to the dead and the bereaved? For all of our technological sophistication and internet connectedness, the eternal question of Genesis – “am I my brother’s keeper” – echoes hauntingly.

Given this repeated evidence all over the world, one could easily despair of our higher humanist and humanitarian ideals. Perhaps civilization is but a thin masquerade covering our innate brutality, the last century of international “progress” is an illusion, and our only hope is brute force to protect ourselves. The fact that we are shocked to see such devastation in Europe reveals our bias, since it is the same strategy Russia has pursued in Syria, and before that in Chechnya. And the civil war in Yemen, a bloody proxy war for Iran and Saudi Arabia, goes on whether we pay attention or not. We have said “never again,” but given the realities of human nature, we are chagrined to confess it might be more like “ever again.”

Or the truth is in fact the opposite – we are shocked by these human-made disasters because our expectations, our values have changed. The violence of past generations was worse and more endemic to society than we experience today, even if we have cellphone video. And the answer to new outrages is not to become calloused and indifferent; our outrage is all the more needed today. If we recognize our bias, we must learn to pay more attention to other corners of the world than our own; we need to remind ourselves that the partner to “never again” was “never forget.” While some (myself included) feared that Ukraine in February 2022 was a repeat of Poland in September 1939, united international reactions to the invasion seem to have changed the situation by early April.

There will still be more suffering, more death and destruction before the guns fall silent. And there will be still more time until the full picture of this human-authored tragedy comes to light. If we believe that human power is the only conscious power that can work for good in the universe, then we must steel ourselves to use that power to the best of our ability. Not only to cure disease or recover from earthquakes, but also to give us courage and strength to fight against human evil. If we humans can destroy, we can also comfort, and we can rebuild.

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About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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