April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Empathy and Memories Do Matter

(ed note. The author was once director of the foundation under discussion.)

Los Angeles—Dr. Rafael Medoff analyzes a speech the President gave at the 20th anniversary of the University of Southern California’s Visual History of the Shoah Foundation. At that event, which I attended, the President was given an award as an Ambassador for Humanity. The Visual History Foundation, as it is known colloquially, is a video archive that gathers, indexes, and makes available the testimonies of Holocaust survivors—and now, survivors of other genocides—for research and the production of film and educational  products.

Dr. Medoff interprets the President’s remarks (see page 26) to mean that it is impossible to stop genocide, because it can only be done “drop by drop,” and implies that the President’s words are meaningless.

It is good for the president of the U.S. to speak about genocide, even if he has an audience of one—the President of the United States. As any good preacher knows, you preach not only to others, but above all to yourself. President Obama may be all too well aware of the limitations of his power, and perhaps not enough aware of the powers that he does have—and the ability to wield that power—in the face of genocide.

In raising the issue of the girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram, Medoff chooses a clear example of how U.S. powers is indeed limited. Nigeria is a sovereign nation, with a president who refused to deal with the kidnappers or protecting the girls when he was forewarned (the police force is corrupted by Boko Haram); who swept the kidnapping under the rug for at least a week—and now that Israelis, Americans have sent advisors and troops there—is now refusing to a prisoner exchange for the girls.

Even with troops on the ground, the U.S., Israel or China have no immediate way of liberating the girls or of counteracting the forces that kidnapped them. However, as a world leader, Obama’s sense of human solidarity and his identification of his daughters as potential victims of such crimes should be welcomed as a first step in stopping the violence. Not as a last one. And the First Lady’s tweet went viral. History shows tweets lead to action—the Arab Spring being an apt example.

You can debate the meaning of “everything we can do” as opposed to calling in “military resources.” There may be no contradiction between the two statements if there is no immediate military solution. One may criticize the President for his reluctance to engage in military solutions but one must also empathize with that view. The American people are still wearily dealing with the consequences of the military misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan—the former entered into under the illusion that we were fighting to capture and destroy weapons of mass destruction. What is worse, we fought those wars with singular incompetence—leaving the war veterans of those actions in dire straits because Congress refuses to spend taxpayer dollars on helping those who literally laid their lives on the line for their country. As of March, 245,000 veterans have been waiting to receive their benefits, and they are dying while waiting. Can we afford more of the same?

The President did make a mistake in not bombing Syria after he said if they used gas he would bomb them. Now we are paying the price in the perception of American reluctance to use military force. As to the Congo, I think that the President should use his own frustration at the limitation of his powers to imaginatively use the power he does have to combat massive human rights violations—and, for the record, U.S. troops are already there.

Medoff then mocks the President for his empathy for the millions of victims of persecution around the world. It is important to remember that empathy is still better than a lack of empathy—and it may lead to action. Indifference never does. Yet Medoff accuses the President of having the same attitude as Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Holocaust: “If we can’t save everybody, then we shouldn’t save anybody.”

I have learned from Rafael Medoff and his mentor, Professor David Wyman, that one should not accept such a simplistic understanding of the Roosevelt Administration. Some felt that the war effort demonstrated the U.S. commitment and nothing should take away from the war effort. Some believed that there was nothing or precious little that could be done. And still others believed that there was time. FDR said to Jan Karski in a White House meeting: “We shall win the war and then we shall solve the refugee problem,” not quite knowing and/or not quite willing to face that by then it would be too late. We now know clearly that the Germans fought two wars: the world war and the racial war against the Jews. The Allies only fought one.

In his speech last week, Obama said something quite important to the Jewish community and recognized the uniqueness of the Holocaust. He would have been deeply criticized is he had somehow dealt with these other events without distinguishing them from the Holocaust. He would have been accused of demeaning the Holocaust. It seems that no matter what he says he will be criticized—such is the life of a President.

Medoff then accuses the President of leaving dictatorial tyrants in certain regimes—as in Darfur, where the Janjaweed gangs continue their genocidal raids. Yet there are occasions when leaving such leaders in power are the least worst of all other alternatives—and there are also times when it is not wise to advertise that the desired goal is regime change. He then mocks Obama, “who said we can ‘do our part’ to combat genocide by ‘keeping memories alive, by telling stories, by hearing those stories.’”

I am all for an activist approach to combatting genocide, I have dedicated my life to remembering the Holocaust and transmitting its narrative, legacy and implications. Yes, more than words are required, but that does not necessarily mean that we must engage in military action in each and every case. I wish the United Nations had an international force capable of dealing with instances where military action was required, but it has been paralyzed on many instances of genocide.

I think the President must consider all the tools in his tool box and should regard himself as more empowered by the powers he has and the use of his bully pulpit. We should congratulate him for what he said and hope that it inspires him to a more active response. But the way to get there is not to attack the very statements he made.

There are certain situations where you have to make a choice between the impossible and the horrific, between bad and even worse. What these occasions force the President to do is to engage, even rhetorically, with genocides throughout the world—and that is all for the good.

By Michael Berenbaum

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