Yom Hashoah: Lessons for South Africa

The regional branches of the Board are currently organising the annual Yom Hashoah ceremonies in their respective centres around the country. Perhaps more than any other date on the Jewish communal calendar, Yom Hashoah is the day that brings together Jews from across the spectrum, from the strictly Orthodox to the fully secular and all those in between. As we know, merely to have been born Jewish in Nazi-occupied Europe was a death sentence, with even those who had converted to Christianity being targeted for extermination. On Yom Hashoah, we demonstrate that we are one people, committed to helping, supporting and safe-guarding one another wherever we might be and regardless of belief or affiliation.  

In addition to the local Jewish communities, the ceremonies will be attended by a range of political and religious leaders, diplomats and members of the media. In part, representatives of the wider society attend as a gesture of solidarity with the Jewish community on this sombre occasion, but it is today widely recognised that the significance of Yom Hashoah for the country as a whole goes further than that. On Yom Hashoah, we remember the six million Jewish victims of Nazi tyranny, as well as the millions of other innocent men, women and children who died at the hands of that regime. Just as importantly, we remember the ideology of racial, religious and ethnic hatred that ultimately led to these murders. The death camps were the culmination, not the starting point, of the Holocaust. What began as hateful rhetoric against the Jewish people paved the way to legal discrimination, seizure of property, expulsion and eventually systematic mass murder.

The lesson that all South Africans must take to heart is that words lead to action. In the past, and even in our own times, we have seen how verbal incitement to hatred, whether based on race, ethnicity, nationality or even political affiliation, has led to lethal acts of violence in this country.

The upsurge of racism and racist incitement in the social media at the beginning of this year shocked the country into a belated realization of the threat that racism continues to pose to our society, even 22 years after the democratic transition. At Yom Hashoah, we are likewise reminded of the dangers of allowing racial hatred to run wild and of the responsibility of every one of us to take a firm stand against it wherever it surfaces.    

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