Is the Nigerian Schoolgirls Kidnapping Just Another 'Never Again' Moment?

Does the Latest Atrocity Dent a Cherished Slogan?

Bring Them Back: An image of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.
NBC News
Bring Them Back: An image of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.

By Elissa Strauss

Published May 14, 2014, issue of May 23, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

I was 14, maybe 15, the first time I visited the then recently-opened Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. My classmates and I awaited our turn to receive our individual photo passport cards, each featuring the face and the name of a child who experienced the Holocaust. As we moved through the museum we would be able to periodically check in on our child, our teacher told us, and then at the end we would learn whether they survived.

I can’t remember my child’s name or provenance, only that she was around the same age as me and she survived. I felt relief, even a sense of hope, and then it all quickly transformed to guilt. I was there to observe the horror and destruction, to bear witness to what happens when evil has access to power. She may have lived, but the story here was mass murder, and that is what I had to remember. The instructions were clear: Never forget so this never happens again.

“Never again” never happened. Well at least not in its wider application beyond Jews. As Samantha Power wrote about in her book “A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide,” more than one U.S. president uttered these very words on Holocaust remembrance days, and then failed to see them through.

While the gut-wrenching recent kidnappings of the schoolgirls in Nigeria don’t constitute genocide, they serve as yet another example of the disappointing fallibility of “never again.”

Still, those words continue to echo through the minds of those of us raised in an era of institutionalized yet casual Holocaust remembrance. (I say casual because the Shoah was far enough in the past to have already been transformed into a source of sepia-toned lessons. Time had softened the sting felt by the previous generation — the children of survivors — by the time it reached us.)

Our purpose, we were told, was not to help heal wounds, but to be the custodians of the legacy, a legacy built on our vow to each other and ourselves that this had to be the suffering to end all sufferings. We had to do this by first making sense of what happened, and then making sure it never happened again.

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.