How Never Again evolved from a Holocaust slogan to a universal call for [fill in the blank]

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 21: Students participate in a protest against gun violence February 21, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Hundreds of students from a number of Maryland and DC schools walked out of their classrooms and made a trip to the U.S. Capitol and the White House to call for gun legislation, one week after 17 were killed in the latest mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

By Emily Burack

(JTA) — After a gunman took the lives of 17 students and staff at their high school in Parkland, Florida, students there launched a national campaign to promote gun control. They called for a major protest in Washington, D.C., on March 24, and are encouraging similar protests and student walkouts across the country.

And they took a name for their campaign, #NeverAgain, that has long been linked to Holocaust commemoration.

Parkland junior Cameron Kasky is credited with coining the hashtag. A Twitter account for the movement, NeverAgainMSD, is described as “For survivors of the Stoneman Douglas Shooting, by survivors of the Stoneman Douglas Shooting.”

Some supporters of the students’ efforts are put off by their use of Never Again. Lily Herman, writing in Refinery29, said “it’s very uncomfortable to watch a term you’ve used to talk about your family and people’s own heritage and history be taken away overnight.”

Malka Goldberg, a digital communications specialist in Maryland, tweeted, “When I saw they’re using #NeverAgain for the campaign it bothered me, b/c many Jews strongly [associate] that phrase w/ the Holocaust specifically. For a second it felt like cultural appropriation, but I doubt the kids knew this or did it intentionally.”

Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, is unfazed by the students’ use of the phrase. While some may object to the phrase Never Again being reappropriated for gun control, it “does not mean that reaction is appropriate or reasonable,” she told JTA.

While some have traced the phrase to the Hebrew poet Isaac Lambdan’s 1926 poem “Masada” (“Never shall Masada fall again!”), its current use is more directly tied to the aftermath of the Holocaust. The first usage of Never Again is murky, but most likely began in postwar Israel. The phrase was used in secular kibbutzim there in the late 1940s; it was used in a Swedish documentary on the Holocaust in 1961.

But the phrase gained currency in English thanks in large part to Meir Kahane, the militant rabbi who popularized it in America when he created the Jewish Defense League in 1968 and used it as a title of a 1972 book-length manifesto. As the head of the American Jewish Committee, Sholom Comay said after Kahane’s assassination in November 1990, “Despite our considerable differences, Meir Kahane must always be remembered for the slogan Never Again, which for so many became the battle cry of post-Holocaust Jewry.”

For Kahane, Never Again was an implicitly violent call to arms and a rebuke of passivity and inactivity. The shame surrounding the alleged passivity of the Jews in the face of their destruction became a cornerstone of the JDL. As Kahane said, “the motto Never Again does not mean that ‘it’ [a holocaust] will never happen again. That would be nonsense. It means that if it happens again, it won’t happen in the same way. Last time, the Jews behaved like sheep.”

Kahane used Never Again to justify acts of terror in the name of fighting anti-Semitism. In the anthem of the Jewish Defense League, members recited, “To our slaughtered brethren and lonely widows: Never again will our people’s blood be shed by water, Never again will such things be heard in Judea.”

Later, however, Kahane’s violent call for action was adapted by American Jewish establishment groups and Holocaust commemoration institutions as a call for peace, tolerance and heeding the warning signs of genocide.

These days, when the phrase is used to invoke the Holocaust, it can be either particular or universal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tends toward the particular when he uses it to speak about the need for a strong Jewish state in the wake of the Holocaust.

“I promise, as head of the Jewish state, that never again will we allow the hand of evil to sever the life of our people and our state,” he said in a speech at the site of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp marking International Holocaust Memorial Day in 2010.

But Netanyahu has also used the phrase in its universal sense of preventing all genocides. After visiting a memorial to the victims of the Rwanda genocide in 2010, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, wrote in the guestbook, “We are deeply moved by the memorial to the victims of one history’s greatest crimes — and reminded of the haunting similarities to the genocide of our own people. Never again.”

Then-President Barack Obama also used the phrase in its universal sense in marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2011.

“We are reminded to remain ever-vigilant against the possibility of genocide, and to ensure that Never Again is not just a phrase but a principled cause,” he said in a statement. “And we resolve to stand up against prejudice, stereotyping, and violence – including the scourge of anti-Semitism – around the globe.”

That’s similar to how the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum uses the phrase. In choosing the name Never Again as the theme of its 2013 Days of Remembrance, its used the term as a call to study the genocide of the Jews in order to respond to the “warning signs” of genocides happening anywhere.

And Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and author who came to be associated with the phrase, also used it in the universal sense.

“‘Never again’ becomes more than a slogan: It’s a prayer, a promise, a vow …  never again the glorification of base, ugly, dark violence,” the Nobel  laureate wrote in 2012.

Never Again is a phrase that keeps on evolving. It was used in protests against the Muslim ban and in support of refugees, in remembrance of Japanese internment during World War II and recalling the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. And now the phrase is taking on yet another life: in the fight for gun control in America.

Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University who is presently a visiting scholar at the Center for Jewish History in New York, told JTA, “For [Kahane], Never Again was not ‘this will not happen again because we will have a country’ but ‘we Jews will never be complacent like we were during the war.’ That is, for Kahane, Never Again was a call to militancy as the only act of prevention. In Parkland it is a call for gun control. In a way, a call for anti-militancy.”

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