Digest of terms

holocaust

Ironically this English word derives from biblical Hebrew usage for the burning up in sacrifice, and intended to have a positive connotation. Yet from twentieth century usage referring to the systematic destruction of European Jews by the Nazi regime (1939-45), whether by shooting or in the gas chambers, the burning connotation is entirely negative. In Jewish discourse the term Shoah (calamity) is preferred. The scale of the atrocity involving the wilful extermination of some six million men, women and children is so horrific as to become almost unbelievable. That it happened is historically verified beyond all reasonable doubt.

Human capacity to carry out such events makes it vital that they are given direct attention in any serious approach to moral education. The German people (along with followers of Pol Pot in Cambodia, Spanish conquistadors in Peru, Turkish treatment of Armenians at the time of the First World War, European settlers with Australian Aborigines or American Indians, and any others who have engaged in wholesale slaughter) were as any other human beings. In certain settings, we are evidently capable of monstrous actions. Psychologists demonstrate that when put under pressure and threat, very ordinary individuals will act with great brutality - protection of perceived self-interest, often in obedience to authority, lubricates and motivates the will.

This transition is more easily made when the drip of cultural tradition or the full blast of propaganda effectively dehumanises the other persons. In Germany the overt propaganda certainly came from Hitler and his associates, but the cultural signals against the Jews had already been layered in through centuries of Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic liturgy and teaching that warned against intermarriage, sharing a table, giving a 'proper job' to Jews or even people of Jewish descent (anti-Semitism). In order to counter any such tendencies, all belief systems deserve to be scrutinised not only on their own terms but also according to criteria from traditions of natural law and human rights.

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