In a city of stale conventions and constantly staged protests, all aimed at gaining national exposure through the media, the gathering of Holocaust survivors here last week set an extraordinary example of genuine emotion and meaning. It also provided a stark contrast in the differing ways the Reagan administration shows its support, or lack of it, for the universal question of human rights abuses as grotesquely typified by the Holocaust.
To sit among the audience in the cavernous assembly hall at the new D.C. Convention Center was to witness many poignant scenes. What was being seen was too personal and intimate. It made an observer feel like an intruder. It made you want to avert your eyes.
Men and women slowly marched down the aisles, gazing into the audience as they silently held up hand-lettered signs bearing names of their concentration camp or home town. Occasionally another man or woman would stand and look intently at a sign, then, in a burst of emotion and shedding of tears, would embrace the person carrying it. They had found a personal link to their tragic past. These encounters, repeated throughout the convention center, were painful and stirring and moving beyond the capacity of mere words to convey.
The point here is not to attempt to recapture those scenes or retell the conversations that kept springing up, many of them so eloquent and, again, so personal. That has been done, and well, by the press. The point, now that it's over, is to address other questions, and criticisms, about the event.
Why, it is being asked, was the United States government officially commemorating the victims of the Holocaust and honoring the survivors not only in ceremonies here, but also around the country? Why is the government underwriting creation of the new Holocaust Memorial Museum that will be housed here? If a memorial to European victims of Nazi mass murder is in order, why not one to other oppressed groups who experienced mass extermination? Why not one to the Cambodians? Why not a memorial to groups closer to home? Why not one to black slaves imported into this country? Why not one to call public attention to atrocities suffered by American Indians?
These are all legitimate questions to which the Reagan administration provided compelling answers. President Reagan and Vice President Bush, in appearances before the gathering last week, matched the emotional moment with their own statements.
In his formal, written greeting to the survivors, the president said: "This gathering will heighten our awareness of the events that led to the Holocaust and serve to renew our commitment to a moral vision that will never permit such atrocities again." In his appearance before them, he reiterated that theme by saying: "Our most sacred task now is ensuring that this greatest of human tragedies, the Holocaust, never fades--that its lessons are not forgotten."
Bush, in his remarks formally setting aside two federal buildings to house the Holocaust Memorial Museum, was, if anything, more eloquent. "Never again in the history of man will we allow human rights to be so viciously abused," he said. And he struck exactly the right note when he said the museum "will show what can happen" just as "the Holocaust serves as a universal warning."
Together, they drew the essential lessons about the universality of the tragedy: the quintessential example of man's inhumanity to man. Would that their words were equally clear and forthright on a directly related question of human rights abuses, one springing out of the Holocaust experience itself. Sadly, they are not.
For 34 years, a treaty committing the United States to opposition to genocide has been pending before the Senate. Despite the backing of president after president and ratification by about 85 nations, it continues to languish in the Senate. Failure to ratify this treaty remains a stain on this country, one even more embarrassing in the context of the Holocaust observances in Washington last week and the official endorsement of them.
The treaty had its inception in the horrified international reaction to Nazi atrocities of World War II. Immediately after the war and liberation of the survivors from their concentration camps, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution declaring genocide a crime under international law. In June, 1949, President Truman submitted the treaty to the Senate, with a strong appeal that it be ratified. It immediately fell afoul of domestic politics of the rankest sort.
Specifically, the genocide treaty became trapped in the civil rights--U.S. vs. states--struggles that dominated the politics of the 1950s and early 1960s. It became a controversial example of internationalism and of the possibilities that its sanctions against human-rights abuses could be applied internally to incidents in this country, especially during the bloody civil rights confrontations that occurred in the Deep South.
Although those arguments no longer have any relevance in the America of the 1980s, the genocide treaty remains a fervent rallying cry among the far right-wing groups, such as the Liberty Lobby and John Birch Society. They continue to organize a militant campaign against the treaty, flooding Capitol Hill with literature and enlisting support of such politicians as Republican Sens. Jesse Helms and John P. East of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
The argument these senators and the far right make against the treaty is that it would be a sellout of the United States and a negation of the Bill of Rights.
Little more than a year ago, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles H. Percy (R.-Ill.) was saying publicly that he believed there were enough votes in the Senate then to ratify the treaty. Helms immediately vowed a filibuster. Even though the Foreign Relations Committee has reported the treaty favorably four times over the long decades, the treaty has reached the Senate floor only once. That time it was stymied by a filibuster.
Arguments against the treaty are patently phony. Basically, all the treaty would do is deny sanctuary and compel extradition of war criminals, such as the Nazis who committed Holocaust atrocities. And it would put the United States unequivocally on record as backing what it says it supports. Yet, with high irony, the greatest present stumbling block to ratification comes from the Reagan administration. Despite all of the fine words last week, the administration has been unwilling to confront the right wing squarely on this issue.
Which side is it really on? If it truly believes in one set of principles, as expressed so well by the president and vice president, how can it not put the weight of law and moral authority of the government strongly behind this treaty seeking to prevent future Holocausts