The Resilience of the Survivors

By: Alicia Sanders-Zakre

August 5, 2020

Keeping Faith in Nuclear Disarmament

When I think about the Holocaust, I think about my great uncle Leon Messer, who survived the Holocaust after being imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. Every year at Passover, I join fellow Jews to celebrate the liberation of the oppressed Jews in ancient Egypt and pledge to fight for the liberation of oppressed people around the world.

When I think about nuclear weapons, I think about sitting in a crowded Japanese restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a college sophomore, surrounded by the hibakusha, the spirited survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who had travelled halfway around the world to pass on the experience of surviving a nuclear explosion with a new generation. I was as impressed by their harrowing stories as their faith in their audience, including 20-year-old me, to carry on their mission to abolish nuclear weapons.

Like many Americans, I watched John Lewis’ body being carried over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, where he was beaten bloody for fighting for his rights. Decades later, the systematically racist U.S. police force continues to murder black men and women around the country and escape accountability. John Lewis survived violence at the hands of the police and became an icon for civil rights and equality and the “conscious of Congress.” 

All of these intertwined systems of injustice—anti-Semitism, nuclear weapons, and racism—are upheld by the powerful few, to the harm of far too many. And yet, in each of these systems, it is often the survivors, those most oppressed by the injustice, who lead the resistance.

How do you keep faith in a better world when you are surrounded by injustice? When Jews were gassed for their religion? When the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated for their nationality? When black people around the world are murdered for the color of their skin? 

I find faith in the persistence of these survivors, of those who have faced the worst of the oppression and who still find the strength to fight against it. I find faith in their clarity of vision to perceive a more just world and their determination to make it a reality. If those who have suffered most from religious persecution, nuclear violence, and racial injustice have the resilience to advocate for change, then who are we to ignore their calls? It is courage, in the face of cowardice, and not naiveté in the face of reality, for these survivors to push for a better world: for religious and racial equality, for a world free of nuclear weapons. 

If we have not heard their demands, it is because we are not listening. These survivors do not stop at imagining a different future—they design the tools to get us there. The Movement for Black Lives has developed anti-racist policy platforms, on every issue from demilitarization to education. The hibakusha helped negotiate and now call on all governments to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, to prohibit and eliminate the weapons of mass destruction that obliterated their childhood cities. 

There is a role for everyone in these movements for justice led by survivors. 

Universities, like Georgetown University and 48 other U.S. colleges and universities, can end all partnerships with the laboratories researching and producing nuclear weapons, as they can divest from the fossil fuel companies that aid and abet the climate crisis. Communities of faith can press for nuclear abolition, following faith leadership. “We must never grow weary of working to support the principal international legal instruments of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, including the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons [TPNW],” Pope Francis said in Nagasaki during his November 2019 trip to Japan. Sisters Carol Gilbert and Ardeth Platte have been jailed for their non-violent actions at U.S. nuclear weapon bases to call attention to the inhumanity of these weapons and advocate for their elimination. Cities and states in the United States and around the world have adopted local resolutions to call on their governments to join the TPNW.

The unwavering faith and dedication of the hibakusha inspires me and many other scholars, activists, diplomats, and faith leaders, to follow their lead to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. On this seventy-fifth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we can do no less than honor them with our actions to eliminate nuclear weapons.

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