Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month begins as conspiratorial, dehumanizing totalitarianism continues to rise around the world, bringing with it the threat and reality of more mass violence against specific groups, possibly even portents of genocides to come.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is of particular and urgent concern, but so too is the growing strength of autocracy around the world, from China to Burma, Syria to Yemen, Hungary to Turkey, Belarus to Guatemala.
The threat is even present in the United States, as white supremacist authoritarianism increasingly overtakes one of our two major political parties.
One of the great Jewish theologians of the 20th century was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany and resettled in the U.S.
He became a leading Jewish voice for social justice in the 1950’s and 1960’s and gave a speech in 1938 to a conference of Quakers in Frankfort, Germany called “The Meaning of this Hour.”
I happened upon this speech in the weeks following the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and I haven’t been able to put it out of my mind since.
By 1938, the threat posed by Nazi Germany was clear to many. The German takeover of Austria, like Heschel’s talk, took place in March of that year.
That fall, Heschel was arrested and deported to Poland. Fortunately, he was able to escape Poland before the Nazis invaded, and he eventually emigrated to the United States, where he lived for the rest of his life.
In “The Meaning of this Hour,” Heschel argued that the rise of the Nazis was the inevitable outcome of, in his words, a “spiritual disaster,” the result of a culture that “worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite.”
In this sense, Heschel said, people of conscience at the time were at least partly responsible for bringing the world to the edge of the abyss because they had failed to sufficiently fulfill their sacred obligation to fight relentlessly for “right, for justice, for goodness.”
Now, Heschel obviously did not believe that Jews and other people of conscience in Europe created antisemitism or supported the Nazis. God forbid.
Rather, Heschel argued that because the people of that era did not do enough to advance a world utterly inhospitable to Nazism, a world in which “God’s dream of salvation” had been fulfilled, they were partially responsible for its emergence and metastasization.
“Either we make [the world] an altar for God,” Heschel insisted, “or it is invaded by demons.”
Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month is an annual opportunity to learn from our past so we can notice horrors of the present and danger on the horizon.
As we mark the month this year, I invite us to consider what it would look like to embrace Heschel’s challenge to fill the empty and chaotic spaces of this world with godliness, giving evil less space to thrive and flourish.
One of Jewish history’s great sages, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, taught that the fate of the world depends on three virtues: justice, truth and peace.
Rabban Shimon argued that without the presence and proliferation of these three virtues, the world will remain broken. Only through them can the world be repaired and perfected.
If this month reminds us to fill the empty and chaotic spaces of this world with godliness, then the work before us is to advance justice, truth and peace.
A commitment to justice means fighting for a society in which all people are regarded and treated as equals.
This kind of justice doesn’t just happen. It requires our working to ensure that no person suffers want, that no person suffers discrimination, persecution or oppression, and that no person suffers from an unfair verdict or unjust incarceration.
A commitment to truth means fighting for truth to be exalted as the standard by which our arguments and debates are adjudicated.
Increasingly, we have come to embrace ideas and beliefs, principles and policies, for virtually every reason other than their proximity to truth. As a result, we confuse disinformation for fact and truth for propaganda.
We must heed the prescient warning of another genocide survivor, Hannah Arendt, who observed that when nothing is real, anything is possible, no matter how horrific. Redeeming our world therefore requires us to reorient ourselves so that our principal loyalty is to the truth, whatever it demands.
We can’t fix what we don’t face. Avoidance increases the likelihood that the ghosts of our past will continue to haunt or hurt us in the future. That starts with acknowledging contemporary genocides.
On March 22, the U.S. finally acknowledged that the atrocities the Burmese military committed against the Rohingya constitute genocide.
As a member of the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network, I have been part of a coalition that has for several years called on our government to take this step. But while I applaud this decision, I’m also mindful that the delay in American action enabled the Burmese military’s brutality to persist and spread and has signaled to autocrats everywhere that they can perpetrate crimes against humanity with impunity.
And, finally, perfecting our world requires a commitment to peace.
In Jewish tradition, peace is not an absence, it is a presence. The Hebrew term for peace is shalom, which is related to the word shleimut, meaning full or whole.
Shalom requires radical inclusion — we can’t be whole unless everybody is included — and harmony — it can’t be peaceful unless all the diverse peoples commit to getting along with one another.
Peace is possible only when diverse peoples feel a deep connection to, and responsibility for, each other, and when people of every belief and background embrace each other as siblings.
In the Jewish consciousness, peace especially demands that those in society with power and privilege work diligently to ensure the full inclusion of those on the margins.
And as with justice, peace doesn’t just happen. It requires us to advance and cultivate it. It’s not enough to desire peace. If we want it, we must be willing to work for it.
Jewish tradition reminds us that we perpetually face a choice: we are either advancing truth, justice and peace, or we are ceding ground to falsehood, oppression and violence.
We are either pursuing the good, or we are enabling evil. We either advance a world filled with godliness, or we permit ourselves to be overrun by the demonic.
As Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month begins, let us remember, now as much as ever, that there is no room for neutrality. Let us, as people of conscience, take our place on the frontlines of the fight for truth, justice, and peace around the world.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series this week calling attention to April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month.
Spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El, in Richmond, Virginia, and an American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellow. The views expressed in this article solely are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of his congregation.