Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Never Again

I’ll be making my second visit to Israel next week and will once again visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s unforgettable memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

I gather that I might be testing the patience of some readers with my repeated references to Scalia Speaks, but forgive me that I can’t help but recall that one of the most powerful speeches in the collection is Justice Scalia’s reflection at the Days of Remembrance commemoration for victims of the Holocaust, held in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 1997. Here are some extensive excerpts:

I was profoundly honored to have been invited to speak at this annual ceremony in remembrance of those consumed in the Holocaust. But it is not, I must tell you, an easy assignment for a non-Jew to undertake. I am an outsider speaking to an ancient people about a tragedy of unimaginable proportions that is intensely personal to them….

More difficult still, I am not only not a Jew, but I am a Christian, and I know that the antisemitism of many of my uncomprehending co-religionists, over many centuries, helped set the stage for the mad tragedy that the National Socialists produced. I say uncomprehending co-religionists, not only because my religion teaches that it is wrong to hate anyone, but because it is particularly absurd for a Christian to hate the people of Israel. That is to hate one’s spiritual parents, and to sever one’s roots.…

The one message I want to convey today is that you will have missed the most frightening aspect of it all, if you do not appreciate that it happened in one of the most educated, most progressive, most cultured countries in the world.

The Germany of the late 1920s and early 1930s was a world leader in most fields of art, science and intellect. Berlin was a center of theater; with the assistance of the famous producer Max Reinhardt, playwrights and composers of the caliber of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill flourished. Berlin had three opera houses, and Germany as a whole no less than eighty. Every middle-sized city had its own orchestra. German poets and writers included Hermann Hesse, Stefan George, Leonhard Frank, Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. In architecture, Germany was the cutting edge, with Gropius and the Bauhaus school. It boasted painters like Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer. Musical composers like Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Paul Hindemith. Conductors like Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber and Wilhelm Furtwängler. And in science, of course, the Germans were preeminent….

It is the purpose of these annual Holocaust remembrances—as it is the purpose of the nearby Holocaust museum—not only to honor the memory of the six million Jews and three or four million other poor souls caught up in this 20th-century terror, but also, by keeping the memory of their tragedy painfully alive, to prevent its happening again. The latter can be achieved only by acknowledging, and passing on to our children, the existence of absolute, uncompromisable standards of human conduct. Mankind has traditionally derived such standards from religion; and the West has derived them from and through the Jews. Those absolute and uncompromisable standards of human conduct will not endure without an effort to make them endure, and it is to that enterprise that we rededicate ourselves today. They are in the Decalogue, and they are in the question put and answered by Micah: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

For those six million Jews to whom it was not done justly, who were shown no mercy, and for whom God and his laws were abandoned: may we remember their sufferings, and may they rest in peace.

Amen.

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