Remember, Lest even our computers forget

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day and understandably, this day has unique and widespread significance in Israel and the diaspora. Like many Jews whose parents grew up in Eastern Europe, I come from a line of survivors. My mother was a hidden child during the war, and my father intermittently ran and was imprisoned with members of his family in what was then parts of the USSR.

Throughout the years I have often been asked why I made aliyah 25 years ago. I had considered aliyah for a number of years before coming to live permanently, but the defining moment was when I was on one of my vacation trips and saw myself in the window of a clothes shop. My brother had passed away a couple of years earlier, and, needless to say, I was smiling a lot less in the recent past. But that day, when I was  just walking the streets of Jerusalem, I felt home. To be clear, I was born in Newfoundland and grew up in Montréal.  There are lots of salmon that aren’t  as Canadian as I am. In fact, one time after I made aliyah, when I was referred to as an American, I spun around and immediately corrected the patient who had made the claim. I loudly stated that “I am Canadian, not American”. The patient was taken aback and asked what the difference was. I knew that the patient was of Moroccan descent, and I asked them if he was of Persian descent. He raised his shoulders and fervently clarified that “I am Moroccan, NOT Persian”. A moment passed, and he followed his declaration with the simple statement “oh”.

Countries like Canada and America try to respect people’s origins, but ultimately insist that you are now a whole new person, with a new passport and in fact a new identity. Sometimes, when I was back in Montréal, and I would ask a friend, specifically a non-Jewish friend, where his family was from, I would often get a surprised look as my friend would stumble to find the appropriate answer. I also found that memories of the “old country” were not well preserved. I remember asking a friend of mine whose parents were from Scotland, what it was like for them to grow up there.

There is a great deal of the Scottish culture that I truly enjoy, partly because I am Canadian, and the Irish and Scottish and English cultures heavily influence English-speaking Canada. My friend, however, had little to tell me of his parents exploits in Scotland. And more so,  he did not see any particular advantage to, or even a general interest in, being from Scotland. At the time, I was disappointed. I suspected that his family had quite a long lineage back in Scotland and I expected him almost to make the same declaration as in the TV show and movies “the Highlander”. “I am Duncan MacLeod of the clan McCloud, and I am a Highlander, and in the end there can only be one”. Usually, at this point in the show, the Highlander would pull out his long sword and chop off the head of his compatriot [since that was the only way to kill an immortal and absorb his energy]. Until this last part, I still thought it was pretty cool to be immortal and to be from the clan McCloud.

Collective memory is oftentimes all that is left of a civilization, no matter how advanced and widespread it was. Like many others, I suspect that by the time we have mastered long-range space travel, we will come across alien civilizations that have left behind only remnants of their greatness. Hopefully, they will have advanced enough to have their alien version of YouTube and Facebook, such that we will be able to, eventually, decode their language and learn almost every detail of their lives, up until their extinction. Hopefully, we will learn from their past so as not to make the same mistakes in our future.

Unfortunately, in the heat of a small skirmish, emotions can flare and someone can press the “red button”. Admittedly, even if 90% of the world population was wiped out by nuclear missiles and the following disease and turmoil, that still leaves close to 1 billion people in the world. This would definitely be enough to rebuild, but only if previous hatred and prejudice could be put aside. Even after such a cataclysm, I don’t expect Jewish Israelis and Hamas terrorists to throw down their guns and embrace each other as long-lost brothers.

There was a brilliant episode from the original Star Trek series which dealt with prejudice in the subtlest of ways. An entire world was destroyed due to a war between one group of the aliens who were black faced on the right side and white faced on the left side, versus the second group that was black faced on the left side and white faced on the right side. Even my brother, with all his genius, missed this difference until it was pointed out in the show. Star Trek was very aware of the politics of the time on earth, and brilliantly demonstrated the insanity of judging a person based on skin color. The show ends with the two aliens beaming down to their totally dead planet, to fight their last battle until one would be dead and the other would eventually die alone. The show was so poignant that I personally think it should still be shown in classrooms around the world..

When aliens finally do openly visit our planet, they will be able to scan our YouTube, Wikipedia, and all open and freely accessible information sites to get an excellent picture of our society. Depending on their own history and more so, basic evolution, they may end up seeing tremendous similarities or will be repulsed by the violent nature of our progress. They will likely be most affected by the events of the 20th century. They will encounter a race that is capable of the ultimate atrocities, and yet, the ability to rebuild from the ashes. 25 years after the ovens of the death camps were running day and night, humankind  landed on the moon – a feat that required the combining of minds and skills from across the spectrum.

I am sure that one alien will ask his or her friend how such a change can happen in so short a time. How can mankind go from the edge of total bilateral extinction to the technological marvel of walking on another celestial body. There won’t be an easy answer, since we humans also cannot comprehend the switch between ultimate evil and astounding positive progress. We do know that we are capable of both, even in parallel to each other. How fascinating it will be to speak to these aliens and compare notes on our respective histories and means of progress.

For all we know, these aliens will have achieved interstellar travel by stealing the technology from another planet and then annihilating it, so as not to have any competition. No one ever said that “my friendly Martian” is the paradigm for visitors from elsewhere. By the same token, I certainly hope that any alien will speak with English subtitles. It would definitely smooth things over.

It is often quoted that those who forget their past are doomed to repeat it. This sets a very high bar for anyone trying to achieve peace in the world. Pick any two countries that have had some degree of a relationship in the past, and it is likely that one member of the pair seeking peace was originally the oppressor and the second member was originally the oppressed. It requires tremendous courage and perhaps, dumb luck, to succeed in overcoming such differences in order to have a viable peace between the two entities. For those even with short-term memory, it is hard to imagine that we have a substantial peace arrangement with Jordan and Egypt. I wouldn’t want to have to depend on these two countries to come and save us in a time of desperate need. Nevertheless, at least based on tourism, it seems that we have some friends around the world.

New machine learning algorithms will eventually be able to read every book, every newspaper article, every editorial [along with the political history of the writers], evaluate the relative strengths of each country’s military and social services, and calculate the risk of peace versus a confrontation between the two countries.

Smallpox is no longer a virus that young people are vaccinated against, which makes it a very dangerous weapon in the hands of someone willing to spread it around. The computerized algorithm I just noted above, will be able to calculate the likelihood of one relatively weaker army using biological warfare against an unprepared larger and much more powerful army. While it is definitely true that samples of smallpox are still maintained in secret labs around the world, it still takes time to rev up the vaccine producing engines and then get the vaccine distributed to everyone. And, if the smaller, weaker country attacks without warning and spreads the virus effectively across the population within a short period of time, the results could be disastrous and the “weaker” army could prevail.

Just recently, Israel picked up on a strain of polio that had passed down from Africa and was working its way up through Egypt into Israel. In what should have been recognized as a world saving action that merited a Nobel Prize, Israel identified the virus almost immediately, by virtue of continuing regular checks of wastewater, specifically looking for virulent “extinct” viruses. Every child under the age of seven was vaccinated with the oral version of the polio vaccine that not only protects against the disease, but also prevents the spread of the disease to others.

Israel’s speedy recognition of the virus and reconstitution of the vaccine, are beautiful examples of the power of modern day technology to keep us healthy. But that only works if everyone follows protocol and if the health care system in place is able to reach out and connect with literally everyone in the country. The Israeli ID number, which uniquely identifies every Israeli citizen made it far easier to track who was and wasn’t fully vaccinated. The reason for this last point is to remind people that the “loss of privacy” via having such a universal ID number, is more than made up for, by the potential benefit, such as in this last polio scare. Some people thought that the extreme reaction of the government was overblown. These are people who have never lost a loved one, or watched them become paralyzed, by a totally preventable disease.

It is a fundamental part of Judaism to remember whenever evil has been done.  Jews were forbidden to offer human sacrifices because these were considered an abomination in the eyes of G-d. Causing pain to an animal  was considered such a basic misdeed, that it was not only Jews who were commanded to avoid it but rather all human beings on the planet. How does this coexist with our rights to kill animals for food? The answer is that it is only under strict rules that the animals may be killed, and in a fashion that is meant to be  quick and painless.. I would not dare  get into a discussion about whether cows and chickens can sense the anxiety of an upcoming death. Also, I would not begin to fathom how the animals feel when being processed before ritual slaughter. I fully admit that in cases like this, I abdicate my concerns  to G-d, and hope that He is in fact a caring G-d who would not tolerate animal cruelty.

Collective memory is made far easier with tools like Google, Facebook, Evernote, Calendar and more. The more we take time (and pictures/videos) to remember critical events, the greater chance we have have of remembering them, As time goes by and more and more people actively (or passively, via sensors) create new memories, others will be able to learn from every person’s experience.

Imagine a computer that has learned from a billion sources about Holocaust Memorial Day. Perhaps such a computer will be wise enough to see the next Holocaust coming. Perhaps it will be able to identify Twitter and Facebook activity that reliably predicts a massive racist action between groups. Perhaps such a computer will issue a “never again” warning for any group that is in peril. The difference for the Jews is that we now have a means of defense, much to the chagrin of our enemies. And should this computer warn us of an impending attack, we will be ready.

Let me finish with an anecdote about the difference between statistics and real life. In math, a finding of less than 5% probability is not considered statistically significant. In other words, the fact that only 5% of European Jewry survived the Holocaust would be considered, mathematically, equivalent to the complete annihilation of the Jews in Europe. But those 5% of Jews fought in the war of Israeli independence and somehow beat back the demons of despair and depression as well as huge numbers of enemy combatants and created a whole new life, including children, in their new/ancient homeland. Humans are not statistics. And on this day, we remember this fact and pay homage to everyone who suffered, both those who died and those who survived the greatest inhumanity of man against man.

Thanks for listening



About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
Related Topics
Related Posts