The Jewish Federation of Howard County will hold a virtual Yom Hashoah Commemoration event on April 8, featuring as its guest speaker Steven Luckert, the senior program curator at the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
The event will be hosted and emceed by Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde from the Oseh Shalom Synagogue in Laurel. Jacobs-Velde explained how he’d felt “very aware this year of seeing different warning signs in our own country, of the escalation of hateful rhetoric and propaganda.”
As such, a principal theme of the event will be on how the lessons of the Holocaust can help to prevent future atrocities from taking place, Jacobs-Velde explained. “[Luckert] is going to be talking about some of the warning signs that happen leading up to genocide and atrocities, and what we can learn and the different kinds of factors that can create a climate that’s conducive to mass violence,” he said.
A former member of Temple Isaiah, Luckert began with the museum in 1994. “I came to the museum shortly after it opened, as a historian, and it soon proved to be the most rewarding job that I ever had,” Luckert said. “I mean the number of survivors that volunteer, and still volunteer, at the museum has always been an inspiration to me. These people have always maintained a great sense of humanity in spite of what happened to them in their lives. And that for me has been a very rewarding experience.”
Luckert has been involved in Holocaust events in Howard County for 10 years or more, he said, including previous Yom Hashoah programs. The Jewish Federation reached out to him to participate in their Yom Hashoah program for this year. During the event, he plans to focus his comments on what “Never Again” means in the year 2021.
“That is picking up on the idea that we must never forget, and that we have to work toward preventing future mass atrocities and genocide,” Luckert said. “And how we can look to the past to try to understand how such crimes transpire.”
Luckert explained that certain warning signs tend to appear prior to such atrocities, specifically how certain types of speech often precede mass violence. This includes speech that defames and dehumanizes specific groups, creating a toxic environment for them, or speech that encourages “a climate of indifference toward the fate of particular groups,” he said.
Luckert specifically pointed to the atrocities committed in Bosnia and Rwanda during the 1990s, noting how the Tutsi ethnic group would be referred to as insects, vermin or cockroaches. More recently, Luckert noted the situation in Myanmar, with Buddhist monks using such language against the Rohingya, arguing this type of speech “helps prepare the ground for mass killing.”
On a more hopeful note, Luckert noted that human rights activists are already employing specific strategies to counter this type of dangerous speech. “Speech aiming to incite violence has been countered by people that have challenged that message. And so that this kind of use of counter speech becomes very important in trying to de-escalate a situation and prevent violence.”