Mosaic reader Jim Schwartz wants to know about the expression “Never again.” “Who first used it and when?” he asks:
Was it, as I’ve seen reported in the media, Meir Kahane? Was it picked up as a political slogan from some other ethnic or religious group, or did it originate with Jews? Does it have a source in another language, such as Yiddish? And does it refer only to the commitment to prevent another Holocaust, or can it apply to other things as well?
In itself, of course, the expression “never again” can refer to just about anything. “I’ll never speak to him again,” “I’ll never buy there again,” “I’ll never fall for that again”—one hears such statements all the time. Plain “Never again!” as an exclamation of determination, regret, or disgust is common in English, too. You have splurged, uncustomarily, on a fancy French restaurant that was recommended to you and the food and service were terrible: “Never again!” you say to your dinner companion as you dyspeptically depart.
It is thus quite possible that Meir Kahane, who indeed introduced “Never again” as a Jewish slogan and made it the title of his first book, published in 1972 as Never Again: A Program for Survival, adopted the expression with no other inspiration than its everyday use. “We have seen,” he wrote there, referring to the Holocaust,
the mounds of corpses and visited the camps where they killed us. . . . By our sides 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.
Kahane was partial to “Never again” even before this book. It was the slogan of the Jewish Defense League, founded by him in 1968. In one of its first acts of violence, the 1970 bombing of the Manhattan office of the Soviet airline Aeroflot, to protest Russia’s refusal to let Jews emigrate to Israel, a JDL caller phoned the premises after the bomb went off in the middle of the night and exclaimed “Never again!” into the receiver. The words accompanied other such incidents, too, and did not apply only to future Holocausts. Their message, rather, was that no longer would Jews let themselves be the victims of anyone or anything. In an obituary after Kahane’s murder at the hands of a Palestinian gunman in 1990, the New York Times reporter ventured that the words “meant simply that Jews would fight before enduring any threat.”
And yet according to Times reader John Davenport, who wrote the paper in response to the obituary, the phrase, used in the context of the Holocaust and Jewish history, was first used not by Kahane but in the 1961 documentary Mein Kampf, directed by the Swedish filmmaker Erwin Leiser. The film, Davenport wrote,
contains some emotionally shattering footage, most memorably of the Warsaw Ghetto. I first saw it as a student three decades ago and remember the narrator’s final words as vividly as when I first heard them. Over a general shot of Auschwitz, he says simply, “It must never happen again—never again.”
Leiser, incidentally, was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, and it could certainly be that Kahane saw his film, even though it was not widely viewed, and picked up “Never again” from it.
But as long as we are speculating, there is another possible source of Kahane’s “Never again” that I wouldn’t rule out, either.
In 1926, the Ukrainian-born Hebrew poet Yitzḥak Lamdan, who had settled in Palestine in 1920, published a lengthy expressionistic poem called “Masada.” Its title referred to the flat-topped cliff in the wilderness of Judea, above the Dead Sea, where the last Jewish holdouts from the failed 1st-century revolt against Rome made their final stand. In the poem is a passage in which the imagery of a hora, the whirling circle dance ecstatically danced by Palestine’s young Zionist pioneers, is interwoven with the imagery of the difficult, snaking path that was then the only ascent to the cliff’s top:
Lift your legs,
Firm your knees,
More and more!
In the dance’s circling chain
Never shall Masada fall again!
Lamdan’s poem played a prominent role in restoring Masada to Jewish national consciousness and incorporating its defenders’ heroic resistance into the Zionist ethos. Music was composed for a popular hora sung to its words. Youth groups made the arduous pilgrimage to Masada’s top and held torch-lit ceremonies on it, climaxed by the pledge of “Never shall Masada fall again,” sheynit masada lo tipol. After the establishment of Israel, the practice was adopted by the Israeli army for some of its units. The first seasons of archeological excavations at Masada in 1963-65, with their many dramatic finds, publicized it still further and led to its development as a tourist site frequented by millions. One of its visitors was U.S. President George W. Bush, who later in that day declared in Israel’s Knesset: “Citizens of Israel: Masada shall never fall again, and America will always stand with you.”
As a teenager in the 1940s, Meir Kahane was active in Betar, the right-wing Zionist youth movement founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky, which like its rivals embraced the saga of Masada. Its anthem, composed by Jabotinsky in 1932, ended with the words:
We will conquer the mountain or die—
Yodefet [or Yodfat; the site of another Roman siege in the same war], Masada, Betar!
One could thus assume that Kahane was familiar with the pledge of “Never shall Masada fall again,” from which his “Never again” could have also derived. Today, of course, the expression has been co-opted by campaigns and causes far removed from, and sometimes antithetical to, Jewish survival. The Syrian civil war? Never again! Limiting the entry of refugees to the United States? Never again! The Trump presidency? Never again! The Zionist occupation of Palestine? Never again!
Meir Kahane may be wishing in his grave that never again will anyone say “Never again.”