Jan. 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established 17 years ago by the United Nations. Jewish communities tend to put more emphasis on Yom HaSho’ah [in April], in Hebrew “Holocaust Day,” which was inaugurated in 1951, just 6 years after the collapse of Nazi Germany and the liberation of their concentration and death camps spread across Europe.
Beyond being older, it may make sense for the Jewish community to have a unique day for commemorating the Holocaust, which includes its own religious elements. Yet, there may also be a value in an annual occasion dedicated to its recognition and education under the auspices of the nearly universal international organization of nations.
Being in February, and coming just two weeks after Martin Luther King Day, we Americans find ourselves in the midst of Black History Month. Our nation, even before its founding, has had a long, complicated, and far too often profoundly troubling history with those of African heritage. We continue to wrestle with the challenges caused by what is frequently referred to as America’s original sin.
Undoubtedly, there is real value in recognizing both the many, usually unappreciated, contributions of African Americans to our nation, as well as in understanding the historical reality and ongoing suffering caused by slavery and its aftermath, which has impacted not only the Black community, but whether we realize it or not, the United States as a whole.
At its best, times dedicated to remembering, highlighting, and better comprehending the suffering endured by any group, should help us not only to improve our understanding of them, but also to recognize and respond appropriately to all who suffer.
Alarming to me, especially since I perceive it to be on the rise, is the seeming need among some in the Jewish and Black communities to debate whose suffering has been the greatest. And this debate is shared by other communities, here and around the globe, who also have experienced too much suffering.
But, it is a pernicious and pointless exercise. It is impossible to settle definitively such an argument. Even worse, I find it perverse for anyone to want to win the battle for the greatest suffering.
Yet most disturbing to me is the accompanying implication of this absurd competition, which minimizes the suffering of another community if I can “prove” that my community has suffered more.
No one has a corner on the market of suffering. There is plenty of suffering here and around the world, now and in the past, and we should have sufficient compassion for all who suffer, without feeling the need to quantify the depths of someone’s pain before we will deign to accord them a morsel of sympathy.
It is true that different cases of suffering may require different approaches to attempt to alleviate them. It may even be true that in a world with finite resources, we may have to make hard choices about how and when to allocate the resources we do have. But, we should care about everyone’s suffering, whether or not we are always yet in a position to deal with it as we would like.
Let us never undermine the reality and genuineness of pain and suffering; whether our own or anyone else’s. We are all entitled to compassion and caring; and we should both give it and accept it freely.
The nature of humanity seems that one or another form of suffering will always be with us. Yet, let us also make it the nature of humanity that we always seek to combat suffering, to the best of our ability, wherever it exists.