This week, with the death of one of our own, American Jews can no longer claim ignorance of the atrocities taking place in North Korea. Monday, June 19, saw the tragic loss of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year -old college student from Ohio, dead at the hands of the North Korean government, guilty of the “crime” of stealing a poster from his hotel room at the conclusion of a tourism tour in the Communist nation. After spending 17 months in captivity, he was returned to the United States in a comatose state; he died from his injuries days later.
The phrase “Never Again” has become synonymous with Holocaust education. After the deaths of 6 million at the hands of Adolf Hitler and his executioners, the Western world has declared that we cannot and will not stand silent in the face of mass death again. In 1979, President Carter said, “Out of our memory… of the Holocaust we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world… fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide.”
In the decades since the Holocaust, it’s clear that “Never Again” is little more than rhetoric. Almost every decade has seen at least one genocide or mass death incident: Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda. In the years since the gas chambers of Auschwitz closed, humanity has witnessed the longest-running human rights catastrophe in human history. We have chosen to remain silent.
Thanks to Google Earth and its dedicated users across the world, we have identified exactly where the North Korean regime operates death camps. At least one camp is the size of the city of Los Angeles. North Korean citizens aren’t subjected to brutality juts at home; they are shipped overseas to countries across the world to perform slave labor, with the proceeds of their work going directly to their home government.
While the regime spends millions on dozens of homes and luxuries for the ruling Kim family and for water parks for the elites, and funnels the proceeds of its illegal drug and counterfeiting operations into its nuclear program, average North Koreans are starving in the streets. While the North Korean government keeps a wrap on its activities, the international community knows enough to confirm that its ruling family is among the most brutal; it is a country among the most hellish in human history. While the United Nations time and again commits to set its aim on Israel, little notice is paid to the continuous human rights violations in the “Hermit Kingdom.”
With the silence of the international community, who will speak for the voiceless trapped inside North Korea? Despite how readily available the information is about the brutality of the North Korean regime, few Americans appear aware of the unspeakable evils happening right under our noses. More than most, the Jewish community has been active and outspoken about human rights violations across the world, and, more than most, it is up to us to speak out.
Remember the Darfur campaign posters outside hundreds of American synagogues? On its website about the genocide, USCJ wrote:
Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, I am God. (Lev. 19:16) As Jews, we are commanded not to look on indifferently when our neighbor’s life is in danger. Rashi comments on this verse: “… do not witness his death, when you were able to save his life!” This is our imperative as Jews in regard to the genocide in Darfur.
In the White House statement on Warmbier, President Trump said, “Otto’s fate deepens my Administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency.”
The death of a naive college student from the Midwest should prove a powerful wake-up call to all Americans about the sheer brutality still being perpetrated in 2017. It should deepen our determination to speak out against atrocities like those taking place in North Korea. It wasn’t just Warmbier who was naive; we were, too. But we have no excuse to remain that way any longer. Warmbier could have been one of our sons, brothers or friends. He was active in his campus Hillel, and was an alumnus of a Birthright trip to Israel. We may never know the horrors his last days brought, but we owe it to him to ensure that his death serves a purpose, even if that purpose is opening our eyes to what was right in front of us.
Bethany Mandel is a Forward columnist. Follow her on Twitter, @bethanyshondark