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We immersed ourselves in the horror the best we could. We went to museums, watched films, read books, and listened with a mixture of befuddlement, anger and awe as survivors told us of crowded trains and lifted their sleeves to reveal the faded numbers on their forearms. And we uttered, possibly more often than the Sh’ma, “Never again. Never again.”
Sometimes it was traumatizing, but more often it was a source of comfort. “Never again” gave us an identity, a mode of being that was both noble and radical.
But the unspeakable kept happening, and it keeps happening. Two hundred girls ripped from their desks while trying to take exams. Claims they will be sold as wives — a more honest description would be sex slaves — by the leader of Boko Haram, the anti-Western, anti-female militant Islamist insurgency who kidnapped them.
We’re all good people. We want to help. So we tweet and post articles and express our outrage. #Bringbackourgirls. I do all this too, though through it all I keep wondering if I’m living up to the task given to me as a child: to fight for a world of “never again.”
There is room for some optimism here. A hope that in the age of social media, the world can no longer remain ignorant and leaders can no longer be held unaccountable for atrocities committed elsewhere. Internet activism does not always lead to change, but it does help educate people and that is a necessary first step.
This time we are not only discussing the kidnapped girls, but also the rising violence in Nigeria, the inadequately prepared soldiers who are supposed to fight off the militants, and even the issue of gender-based violence. If those girls are indeed sold, they will add to the over 2 million girls exploited in the commercial sex trade, and the 64 million girls married as child brides around the world. Us Jews could also take this occasion to revisit the presence of gender-based violence in the Holocaust, which was long ignored or denied by mainstream historians.
We’re also reminded of the importance of educating girls, which the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof says is the best way for fighting extremism. He explains that an increase in educated women helps curb birthrates, which leads to future stability, and also helps grow the economy by doubling the workforce. As we wait for the girls to be returned, the hope is that we will activate and renew our commitment to educating ourselves about these matters and then doing what we can to prevent this type of violence.
Though even with this hope there is still the fact that one more thread has been pulled in the fraying fabric of “never again.” For me, this might just be the moment in time when I reckon with the fact that I will continue to fight for justice, but no longer within this Holocaust context. The legacy remains; gone are the outsized expectations.
Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward.