Two. Crucial. Words.
In the most common usage, a neologism is a term for a newly created word, term or phrase that has not necessarily been accepted into the common vernacular. A second, and more technical usage, comes from the mental health world and refers to the usage of a word or words that only have meaning to the person who uses them. While not uncommon or abnormal in children, it can be sometimes seen as a symptom of certain disorders in adults. Yet sometimes a neologism transcends those boundaries and takes on a meaning so potent that its very utterance has power.
Raphael Lemkin, born Rafal Lemkin in occupied Poland, joined Duke’s law faculty in 1941. In 1944 he wrote “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress.” This work was published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and included a particularly famous, horrifying and powerful new word: genocide. While he certainly didn’t invent the concept, Lemkin did give it a name and presented it as an offense against international law. To give a name to something often gives the impression that it is something that can be understood and controlled. And to an extent, this is true. Giving a name to the concept of genocide allows for a common frame of reference when dealing with an utterly monstrous idea, the deliberate attempt to exterminate people because of whom they are.
Yet as monstrous as this concept is, it’s far too easy to simply address it as something inhuman. Unfortunately, it is quite the opposite. Genocide is a concept that we have to recognize as being completely human. Expressions of such utter hatred and contempt for the humanity of people who are designated as “other” and therefore not deserving of the basic right to life is not something outside of the human experience. It is instead the ultimate expression of a very human evil. To designate people as not only deserving of but requiring extinction requires a conscious choice that only a human being can make. And it therefore requires a very human answer.
That answers begins with two crucial words: never again. “Never again” is the foundation stone of the response to genocide, recognition of the fact that human evil requires a very active human response. This response begins with the determination to never again allow human beings to ignore the very humanity of others, to never again allow our fellow human beings to be denied their right to life, to never again accept that this is something that “happens.” Genocide does not “happen,” there are always human minds and hands behind it—which means that human minds and hands are required to stop it.
While genocide is at its core unspeakably violent, violence is not the only response. Yes, evil must be fought, and at times that requires it be fought with all the force at our disposal. How much more preferable is it for all of us that we first reach a point where the use of force becomes unnecessary? That genocide becomes something consigned to the dustbin of history? “Never again” is the first step to making that happen.
This coming week we will be observing Genocide Awareness Week at Duke, including a 24-hour name reading of the victims of genocide from Sunday evening through Monday evening. Members of the Duke community will be coming together under the umbrella of the Coalition for Preserving Memory for the purpose of remembering humanity at its worst for the sake of inspiring humanity at its best. And “never again” begins that process. On Sunday evening, I will be reading the names of members of my family who were murdered in the Holocaust. If you have not yet signed up for a spot to read names, please join us in helping keep alive the memories of those whose murderers hoped would be forever destroyed. The simple act of preserving their names and memories is one more way of fighting the evil of those who would like to see others destroyed for no other reason than their own hatred.
Never again. Not for the victims of the Holocaust, Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia, Sudan or Bosnia. Please, take a moment to celebrate lives lived in defiance of death. Join us in starting to act, to educate, to plan, to ensure that genocide can never again occur. Never again, for anyone.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav