Rabbi Meir Kahane never copyrighted it, despite the fact that the leader of the Jewish Defense League popularized its use on the streets of Brooklyn. Nor did those who first used the words “Never Again” when referring to the murder of 6 million Jews in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust establish a permanent claim on this language.
For decades, these two words were associated only with the Shoah, symbolizing the determination to draw conclusions from history and never to allow the Jewish people to be left defenseless in the face of foes determined to destroy them.
But not anymore.
David Hogg, one of the teenage survivors of the Feb. 14 mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., began using “Never Again” as a hashtag to push for more restrictions on gun ownership after the tragedy. The phrase has now taken on a new meaning in current popular culture, which has upset people who see the phrase as the intellectual property of those who care about preserving the memory of the Holocaust. Among their number is ZOA President Morton Klein, a child of Shoah survivors, who said Hogg is “co-opting and politicizing” something that ought to be used only when referencing the Shoah.
Is he right? The short answer must be no, although the passage of time probably makes something like this inevitable.
The irony of Hogg’s appropriation shouldn’t be lost on us. It also should make us consider the way we think about the Holocaust as the ranks of the survivors grow fewer with each passing year.
Though the overwhelming majority of American Jews eventually rejected him as a divisive and even despised figure, long before Rabbi Kahane moved to Israel and became the leader of a movement dedicated to evicting all Arabs from the country, he was the leader of the Brooklyn-based Jewish Defense League. Though its employment of violence ultimately served to discredit it, the JDL was embraced by some young Jews a half-century ago because it represented a desire to end a tradition of Jewish powerlessness.
The group also became the shock troops of the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the years before the cause became generally accepted. Most of all, Rabbi Kahane embodied a desire to draw conclusions from the Holocaust, rather than merely mourn it. His belief in Jewish self-defense was rooted in the logic behind the meaning of those words, and though few Americans would today embrace his “Every Jew a .22” slogan, it resonated with some who burned with a desire to reject the passivity of previous generations.
That “Never Again” could be transformed from a justification for the acquisition of and use of firearms to a phrase associated with the attempt to ban weapons is deeply ironic. But it also should make us wonder about whether our understandings of the concepts of Jewish powerlessness and empowerment have changed since Rabbi Kahane helped turn those two words into a semi-sacred Jewish slogan.
It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone appropriating “Never Again” the way Hogg has done 30 or 40 years ago. But while Holocaust education has become ubiquitous, new generations have also emerged that no longer remember it in a personal way. Few can also recall the fear Jews felt in May 1967 as the Arab world threatened a second Holocaust as it prepared to launch a war of extermination against Israel. (And, for the record, that was before the Jewish state’s acquiring of the West Bank and Jerusalem was put forward as an excuse for the conflict.) Nor do many seem to remember the lonely early years of the struggle for freedom for Soviet Jewry, when the fall of an anti-Semitic Communist empire seemed pure fantasy.
Today’s young Jews grew up in an era when Israel has become a regional superpower with a First World “startup nation” economy. To all too many, the particular Jewish lessons of “Never Again”—let alone a reason for individuals to arm themselves—remain alien concepts.
Although we can’t prevent its appropriation for a different cause, it’s still necessary for us to hold onto the truths that “Never Again” represented.
Jewish survival depends on the power of memory and the ability to draw conclusions from the past that ensure that “never again” will Jews be defenseless. As long as we do so, it won’t matter what words are used for hashtags.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.