On the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust
New York, 27 January 2009
Madame Deputy Secretary-General,
Sisters and Brothers All,
I warmly welcome all of you to the United Nations, where in 2005 the General Assembly adopted its resolution on Holocaust Remembrance that brings us together today.
The theme of our solemn commemoration today, “remembrance and education”, highlights both our personal and shared recollection of the victims and our work to prevent all acts of genocide, today and in the future. We are honoured to have very special guests with us today to provide testimony, as victims and eyewitnesses. We remember that the term “genocide” was coined by the Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin as the world struggled to find the words to capture the scope of the crimes that were coming to light. But as our direct links to the Nazi holocaust fade, we must step up our efforts to educate new generations as to the contemporary relevance of that horrendous experience and give meaning to the cry of “Never again!”.
To accomplish these goals, we need to move beyond our statements of grief and memory, however powerfully felt, and work to develop new ways of thinking about the Holocaust, about genocide, about the apparently bottomless capacity for peoples’ cruelty to each other. That capacity is shared by all of us. At their core, all genocides, all holocausts, start with the alienation, demonization and the marginalization of the “Other” – those citizens of another religion, another race, ethnicity, another set of political ideas, or another sexual orientation than our own.
The Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust took place in what was perceived to be one of the most sophisticated societies on Earth. It was not simply a horrific set of murderous events; it began with policies and campaigns that reflected a way of thinking about Others. It was a propaganda campaign that aimed to convince ordinary Germans, Poles, and so many others that their problems were a consequence of the presence of the Others in their countries – Roma, communists, gays and lesbians, and most of all Jews. Its logic led inexorably to the norm that the Others could be vilified, dispossessed, walled into crowded ghettos, arrested, tortured and ultimately killed with absolute impunity.
If we are serious about “Never Again” and serious about preventing other genocides, and any future Holocaust, we must educate our youth about the values that virtually every religious and ethical tradition share in common: the fact that we are all Brothers and Sisters and must demand respect for the “Others” who live amongst “us”. We must indeed go beyond remembrance, to embrace a struggle against intolerance and for relationships that replace “us and them” with “we and ours”.
We celebrate with the people of the United States their great milestone in the longstanding struggle against racism. The election of an African-American president represents a collective determination to overcome the deeply ingrained fears and contempt for the Other that are at the roots of racism. Let us build on this inspiring example and press for such breakthroughs in other societies wracked by animosity and hatred and the demonization of others, whether in poverty-ravaged nations or privileged, educated societies that acquiesce to crimes against humanity.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, let us reflect on these possibilities. Let us go beyond remembrance and work together for more victories over racism, ethnic and religious intolerance and anti-Semitism. This work begins with us – in our families, our communities, at the national and the global levels. Let us remember and learn about the crimes of the past in order to prevent them today and in the future.