If there is one Jewish-American who has done more than any other to ensure that the spirit of “Never Again” be made flesh, that the ethical lessons of the Holocaust be extended into today's world, it is Ruth Messinger.
“Never Again” often seems an increasingly silly expression. Again happened in Bosnia, and it happened in Rwanda. Did the Holocaust-pious West or the feckless international community move in any significant way to stop either genocide? As CEO of the American Jewish World Service, Messinger has tirelessly promoted international intervention in Darfur to end the genocide. “The expression ‘Never again’,” Messinger says, “cannot be reserved only for Jews.”
Messinger became CEO of AJWS in 1998, after two decades as a social worker and political activist. Since then, she has presided over AJWS’s transformation from a small Jewish charity to one of America’s most prominent, efficient, and respected overseas development organizations. Messinger’s relentless drive to honor the lofty ethical imperatives in our tradition—“tikkun olam,” “never again” and “pikuach nefesh” —both honors that tradition, and gives the rest of us a way to honor it: by contributing to AJWS.
Today, we are being tested yet again with Darfur. Darfur has neither the “oops-that-one-slipped-by-us” explosiveness of Rwanda, nor the Byzantine historical complexities or who-should-I-be-rooting-for confusions that initially complicated the international response to Bosnia. Darfur has unfolded slowly. We all know the perpetrators and the victims.
We saw this genocide coming, and then we saw it happen. And we continue to see it happen. For the most part, we do nothing. While Messinger’s AJWS has coordinated vast and hugely needed relief efforts in the region, the inadequate response of the Jewish community at large makes hard to utter “Never Again” without being met with snickering and eye-rolling.
So Messinger hasn’t had her car machine-gunned or office blown up, as has Hernando de Soto. She hasn’t been exiled from her country, as has Orhan Pamuk. You could argue, though, that as a child of privilege and a Radcliffe graduate, this native New Yorker could have employed her cultural capital to myriad lucrative and self-serving ends.
But the real source of her radicalism is her implicit indictment of the Jewish community. Messinger challenges the sacred sense we have of ourselves as eternal victims, a hated, perpetually violated people. The power, now, is with us. Are we any different from those who stood by while our grandparents’ generation was slaughtered?
The answer to that question will determine whether we’re hypocrites obsessed with a self-interested, ethnocentric Holocaust industry or whether we're serious about the ethical lessons we claim to have derived from the experience of Nazi genocide.
Stop the Darfur genocide or close down the Holocaust memorials—Messinger is holding us accountable.
Next page: Religious radical Katharine Jefferts Schori