Those two words have been associated with the Holocaust ever since the camps were discovered and the world was forced to witness what it had allowed to happen. They were the basis for the establishment of the state of Israel. In fact, many Israeli soldiers incorporate it into the vows they take upon their graduation.
But what is “Never again”? A warning? A guideline for governance? I believe it was intended as a promise, with two different proponents and two different audiences. The first group was the diaspora Jews and Israelis, with the promise that never again would they go quietly and without resistance to their deaths, singly or as a people. The second group was the post-Holocaust world, shamed by its inactions during the 30s as Hitler rose to power and began his systematic destruction of the Jews. It was a well-intentioned promise that the First World would never again look on as an entire population is targeted, discriminated against, rounded up, and ultimately murdered.
But that promise, by all countries (but especially the US in its desired role as world protector) has been repeatedly broken. Just ask the people of Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur and multiple other genocides that continue to happen during our ‘Never again’ watch. (In fact, Genocide Watch lists seven active genocides going on in June 2021.)
Why the inaction? One reason is cultural, bordering on racist; the second is political. Culturally, the Holocaust happened in one of the most civilized countries in the world. And it happened to people who looked a lot like the average post-WW II American. So, flush with our victory over the forces of evil, we made the ‘Never again’ promise. Though, in fairness, it should have read in full: “Never again will the civilized world let one of its countries target a population that we can empathize with.”
In the years after World War II, many Americans lost the stomach for assuming the role of ‘the world’s policeman’ or ‘the world’s benefactor’. As our problems mounted at home, our desire to insert ourselves—and our troops—into genocides in Africa and Asia. As a people, we have very little in common with these targets, and as a result very little empathy.
An example of this cultural separatism is the US response (however belatedly) to the genocide and atrocities involving the different factions of the former Yugoslavia. Unlike the Holocaust, which happened to a large degree away from the world’s eyes, the ethnic cleansing and camps were broadcast in real time by CNN. Unlike the post-Holocaust world, which could claim ignorance, the US and First World allies had no excuses, other than to blame it all on centuries-old infighting. And we all know now to involve ourselves in our neighbors’ domestic violence. Still, of all the post-Holocaust genocides, it’s telling that the only one that drew a response (which in its effectiveness only validated the belief that it should have happened much sooner) came in the region whose victims looked the most like us (and their Holocaust predecessors).
The second issue is a legal one involving both the term ‘genocide’ and laws surrounding it. The term was developed in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin as “the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group”. Once that term existed, the world had to react to it. The major response was the establishment of the Genocide Convention, which the US didn’t join until 1988. And there’s a reason for that hesitancy. Once ‘genocide’ has been identified and declared, the member states have an obligation to intervene. And, our stomach for military intervention has been on the steady decline since Vietnam (or perhaps Korea). One example of this last note: when I returned to teaching Holocaust and Genocide (at UC Santa Cruz, a notoriously liberal university), there were tables set up in the different quads with “US Out of Iraq” or “US Out of Afghanistan” or any number of political causes along those lines.
What my colleagues and I never saw—and we compared notes on this—was a single table that said: “US Into Darfur.”