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Remembering the Holocaust

Wednesday, 23 January, 2013 01:40:57 PM

January 27 is designated as the International Day of Commemoration by the United Nations in 2005 to honour the victims of the Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews during the Second World War by the Nazi regime of Germany. Discourse over Israel's conflicted relationship with the Palestinians, often overshadows the calamity of Holocaust and generally passes off as a news story about an ordinary event, more so if you are a journalist, and is forgotten by the next day.

Sometime in 2012, I decided to visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, which marked its 20th year last year. As I arrived, Dan Napolitano, the director of Teacher Education and Special Programs at the museum, handed me an identification card of Walther Hamann, a German pastry-maker who lived through the Holocaust. Reminding that the significance of the Holocaust should not be lost in discussing numbers, Napolitano emphasized, "It is important to remember how one person was murdered six million times."

In the 1930s, there were over nine million Jews in Europe, of which six million were murdered in the Holocaust. The population of Jews out of 67 million Germans was only about half a million, a small number which did not prevent genocide from being committed. "One is too many if you are a racist," Napolitano remarked as he spoke about the need for defending freedom for all and not to forget that Adolf Hitler came to power legally.

As he talked about the museum's message for the entire humanity, images of killings from India and Pakistan kept coming to my mind. I was reminded of how nearly 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were massacred in India's Gujarat state in 2002 while the state's police and government led by chief minister Narendra Modi, a nationalist Hindu leader who too like Hitler came to power through elections, looked the other way. Images flashed through my mind of armed members of Pakistani terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi pulling out passengers from buses in Gilgit, checking their identity cards to verify that they are Shi'ites and shooting them to death for not being Sunni, a sectarian ideology shared by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. As Napolitano explained how Hitler's racist policies led to 250,000 Jews, roughly fifty percent of the Jewish population, leaving Germany from 1933 through 1938, I was reminded how minority Hindus are leaving Pakistan for India as part of a pattern today.

In a village in northern India, where I grew up and studied at a madrassa, I did not hear about Israel, though it was the name of my grandfather's cousin. I do not remember having been taught anything negative about Jews, but it remains unclear at what stage of my early years in Islamic studies I acquired negative connotations about Jews so that in my later years as an adult it would become difficult for me to utter "Jews," forcing me to substitute it with "Jewish people." In contemporary era, negative ideas about Jews, or for that matter about Shi'ite and Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, are also acquired through Facebook and other social networking sites, and not just through religious education at Islamic seminaries.

Negative ideas coalesce into bigotries, giving birth to ideologies that justify the killings of entire communities in the name of religion, ethnicity or race. Anti-Semitism, one such ideology which is defined as prejudice against or hatred of Jews, is found among many communities. Democracies may not be perfect systems of governance, but they are, along with an alert population, the best defense against such and other bigotries. "Whenever we are voting in a democracy," Napolitano reminded, "we must ensure that we are voting for everyone."

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