The History of Never Again

The phrase “Never Again” has reentered our lexicon. In the recent weeks, we have heard “Never Again” can genocide occur on our watch. “Never Again” should we stand idle in the face of cruel injustice. Never Again, Never Again, Never Again…

The comparison— between the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany being turned away from American borders and persecuted Muslims seeking refuge in America— seems to be there and it is easy to fall prey to the rhetorical allure of those four syllables.

Never Again is used as a hashtag on twitter. #NeverAgain is tweeted alongside #NoBanNoWall, #ImmigrantsMakeAmericaGreat, #Resist and #NotMyPresident. The Executive Order passed by President Trump froze entry of Syrian refugees to the United States, banned entry of residents from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for ninety days, suspended the refugee admissions system for 120 days, and lowered the cap of refugees to be accepted in 2017. Many (including Trump’s team) referred to the Executive Order as a “Muslim Ban.”

In protests that erupted across the nation following this order, protestors repeated the phrase “Never Again.” Protestors scrawled it on signs, chanted it in airports and referenced it repeatedly online; “Never Again” became a plea for empathy. In one photo that went viral. [1] two fathers stand side by side with their child on their soldiers. One man is Jewish, the other Muslim. The Jewish man’s son is wearing a kippah and the Muslim man’s daughter is wearing a hijab. The Muslim man carries a sign that says “empathy” and the Jewish man carries a sign that says “We’ve seen this before. NEVER AGAIN. Jews against the ban.” The Jewish man is a Rabbi, a grandson of Holocaust survivors. [2] In holding the sign “Never Again,” he directly references the Holocaust. The Rabbi seems to be trying to say, “I understand. We have been there.” While the message of empathy and allyship seeps out of the photo, this message was not what the phrase “Never Again” orginially meant.

The phrase entered mainstream America’s consciouness thanks to Rabbi Meir Kahane, a Brooklynite who left a legacy of hate in his wake. Half a century ago, in 1968, Kahane formed the Jewish Defense League (JDL). The JDL was a Jewish militant group. They are now classified as a terrorist group by the FBI and a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They emerged for many reasons – a teachers’ strike in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, and an upsurge in Jewish pride following Israeli victory in the Six-Day War – but their emergence is not relevant here. What is relevant: their use of “Never Again.”

The JDL would call in “Never Again!” as a way to claim responsibility for an attack (like bombing Soviet airline offices). Whether or not the phrase was originally Kahane’s is debatable. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times the day after Kahane’s obituary is published (citing his use of “Never Again”) an angry citizen writes that “Never Again” came from a 1961 documentary on the Holocaust. Nonetheless, Kahane popularized it to such an extent that these origins – if true – have become murky. “Never Again” became explicitly linked to the violence of the JDL. Kahane believed his violence was necessary to prevent another Holocaust: “Never Again!”

As a profile on Kahane explains in April 1971, “in the heat of such sloganeering the emotions wilted the facts. For many, the Jews, as always, were threatened.” [3]  “Never Again!” became a powerful cry for Jews to defend themselves, to fight back, to not let the Holocaust happen again. In the introduction to his manifesto, titled, you guessed it, Never Again, Kahane writes:

We have seen the mounds of corpses and visited the camps where they killed us. We have stood in the now empty rooms where once Jews were driven to stand in their nakedness and breathe their last. We stood alone and not alone. By our side were the ghosts of those who were no longer, whose blood was shed like water because Jewish blood is considered cheap. We saw their outstretched hands and looked into their burning and soul-searing eyes that peered into our very being and heard them say:

Never again. Promise us. Never again[4]

Kahane utilized memory of the Holocaust to militarize his JDL. His use of “Never Again” was meant to declare that there would never be passivity in the face of genocide again, because Jews would fight back. The actions of the JDL under the leadership of Kahane directed anger hatred of against a wide array of targets. But where Kahane found his footing was in his anti-Arab rhetoric and action.

Kahane made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel in 1971. He built his following in right wing circles, and formed a political party called Kach (translates as “Thus!”). He gets elected to the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in 1984. There exist many (too many) tales of his xenophobia, racism and anti-Arab rhetoric. Like his election poster in the 1984 elections read: “This time [vote] Kahane: Because he is one of us! Give him the power to finally take care of them [Arabs]!” Kahane is expelled from the Knesset for being too racist in 1988, and is assassinated in 1990 in New York. Terrorist attacks are still committed in his name.

His legacy of hate in Israel is rooted in his actions in New York with the JDL in 1968; specifically, in his deployment of the phrase “Never Again.” Kahane never intended for the phrase to be used at is today, where it means “Never Again” should a Holocaust occur. Rather, he meant if and when another Holocaust were to occur “never again would there be that same lack of reaction, that same indifference, that same fear.”[5] Kahane’s “Never Again” was a direct call to arms. “Never Again” was a violent, rebuke of passivity and inactivity. “Never Again” was used to justify acts of terror in the name of fighting anti-Semitism. 

Yet somewhere between 1968 and 2017, “Never Again” turned from a call for violence to a call for peace. Barack Obama swore “Never Again” at Hiroshima. Bibi Netanyahu invoked “Never Again” visiting a Rwandan Genocide Memorial. The demagogue’s words have taken on a life of their own. They have become a way of bearing witness, not taking action. Of recognizing tragedy and not fighting against it. Elie Wisel writes in 2012:

“Never again" becomes more than a slogan: It's a prayer, a promise, a vow. There will never again be hatred, people say. Never again jail and torture. Never again the suffering of innocent people, or the shooting of starving, frightened, terrified children. And never again the glorification of base, ugly, dark violence. It's a prayer. [6]

It is Elie Wisel’s, not Kahane’s, “Never Again” that we use today: a “Never Again” imbued with a sense of peace, empathy and promise. Ironically, the notoriously anti-Arab Kahane would be disgusted at “Never Again” being used to fight a Muslim Ban. But maybe a modification on Kahane’s interpretation of “Never Again” should be used today.

Using “Never Again” today should keep in mind the history of the phrase. This is not to say using “Never Again” today should embrace the violence of Kahane, but it should embrace the action-oriented nature of “Never Again!” Calls for “Never Again” today should not just be empty rhetoric but action linked to securing tangible outcomes. “Never Again!” should be linked to steps taken to enact refugee-friendly policy and prevention of genocide. “Never Again” should once again become a slogan imbued with action, not passivity and prayer.


[1] “Untitled,” taken by Nuccio DiNuzzo of the Chicago Tribune,


[3] Mel Ziegler, “The Jewish Defense League and Its Invisible Constituency,” New York Magazine, April 19, 1971.

[4] Kahane, Never Again (1971), 3.

[5] Kahane, The Story of the Jewish Defense League (1975), 5.

[6] Wiesel, Hostage, 77.