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Naomi Azrieli

 
A Reflection on “Indifference and the Fragility of Civilization”

By Penny Jones Square, May 6, 2013

 

[Editor's note: The following are the reflections of Penny Jones Square on the evening with Father Patrick Desbois and Lieutenant General, the Honourable Romeo Dallaire, held at Shaarey Zedek synagogue on May 2, 2013

Father Patrick Desbois is the president of the Yahad–In Unum Association and has devoted his life to confronting antisemitism and furthering Catholic-Jewish understanding. For over 10 years he has worked with United States Holocaust Memorial Museum staff in his journey to locate the mass graves of Jews who were killed in the Ukraine during the Holocaust. He is also recording testimonies from eyewitnesses and locating artifacts to help the historical preservation of the Ukraine’s former Jewish Community. These will become part of the Holocaust Museum’s permanent collection.

LGen The Hon. Roméo Dallaire (Ret) served with the Canadian Armed Forces for over 35 years. His book and Emmy award winning feature film, Shake Hands With The Devil, explores his experience as the Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda, which exposed the international community’s failure to stop the worst genocide of the late 20th century. As a champion of human rights, his activities include speaking engagements related to human rights and genocide, participation in the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Committee on Genocide Prevention, and leadership in a project to eliminate the use of child soldiers

The event was moderated by Naomi Azrieli, Moderator, Chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation since 2002, a charitable organization that supports a number of philanthropic projects which includes publishing the memoirs of Holocaust Survivors. She has also been active in academe, writing and lecturing in the past on the international political economy, European diplomacy in the 19th and 20th centuries, Soviet foreign policy during and just following World War II, and the origins of the Cold War.]

A Reflection on “Indifference and the Fragility of Civilization”

by Penny Jones Square

“We are active accomplices of anything that leaves us indifferent,” according to George Steiner. Steiner’s words would have been a fitting epigraph for the public dialogue between Father Patrick Desbois and Lieutenant General, the Honourable Romeo Dallaire, held at Shaarey Zedek synagogue on May 2, 2013.

The reality of our complicity, a complicity which we all bear by virtue of our failure to care about the suffering of others, of our ability “to sleep well,” as Father Desbois puts it, in the face of ongoing atrocities, was the central message of this difficult and disturbing conversation. It is a complicity which we ignore at our peril; as the horror of the Holocaust and of the Rwandan genocide make clear, civilization is indeed exceedingly fragile, our humanity extremely frail. Father Desbois and Romeo Dallaire each spoke with courage and honesty about the barbaric and brutal reality of evil that undeniably exists and is allowed to flourish by our indifference. However alarming their accounts of these examples of man’s inhumanity to man were, they themselves relieved the tendency to despair by their example.

Father Desbois’ dedication to documenting the “Shoah by Bullets,” memorializing the mass graves of the murdered victims of the Einsatzgruppen, and “reintegrating the victim into the story of humanity,” is driven by his belief that to fail this task “undermines all our values.” His overarching purpose is to remember the victims, not the killers, and to make certain we, too, do not forget the victims. Therefore, Father Desbois did not allow his audience not to feel as he described in graphic detail the unfeeling witnesses to the mass murder of the Jews in Eastern Europe, spectators of the massacres of thousands in a day by two “shooters” and three “pushers.” Because killing was legal, the witnesses “speak freely” of the unspeakable while they are unwilling to speak of stealing, which was not sanctioned. And because the genocide was authorized, there was no shortage of accomplices—as Father Desbois commented, “When you open the possibility to kill, you never miss workers.” The evil evident in this absolute failure of humanity, in this lack of compassion, arises from the failure to feel with the victim, and this is the result not only of the legalization of immorality; it is directly due to the eternal, endemic problem of antisemitism.

Therefore, in order not to forget the victim, Father Desbois cautioned us to name the disease of antisemitism; for, we must admit the disease if we are to fight it. “The problem is people sleep well.” And so, Father Desbois would not have us be optimists because then “we will dream”; what he asks of us is to be pessimistic in order to fight the temptation to indifference. For, as Romeo Dallaire also said, “inaction is an action; it is a decision,” one which Steiner rightly perceives makes us “active accomplices” of evil. And, as the moderator of this discussion, Naomi Azrieli, pointed out in her opening remarks: according to Elie Wiesel, “indifference is the epitome of evil.” Compassion is crucial to maintaining the ties that bind humanity as it alone allows us to see our commonality, and it alone enjoins us to ethical action.

LGen The Hon. Roméo Dallaire (Ret) served with the Canadian Armed Forces for over 35 years. His book and Emmy award winning feature film, Shake Hands With The Devil, explores his experience as the Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda, which exposed the international community’s failure to stop the worst genocide of the late 20th century. As a champion of human rights, his activities include speaking engagements related to human rights and genocide, participation in the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Committee on Genocide Prevention, and leadership in a project to eliminate the use of child soldiers.
 

 
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