Menu JTA Search

Special Interview the Reality of Anti-semitism

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

– Samuel Pisar is convinced that the resurgence of pernicious anti-Semitism is a worldwide reality and that no country is immune to this barbarism. It is, in his opinion, a danger not only to Jews but to the very essence of civilization.

The internationally famous lawyer is the author of the best seller, “Of Blood and Hope,” which has been published in France, the United States, Brazil and England and is soon due to be published in Israel. Pisar is a Holocaust survivor who had his Bar Mitzvah in Maidanek and was interned at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps and liberated at the age of 16 by American troops.

According to Pisar, anti-Semitism and its pernicious form, Nazism, is not an aberration of history, the result of some fortuitous development. It is a form of social gangrene that results from economic dislocations, political convulsions and society on the verge of collapse.

“The seeds of collapse are sprouting everywhere, “Pisar told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview. Those seeds, he observed, are “unemployment, inflation, economic uncertainty, the energy crisis, the uncertainty of oil supply, terrorism, violence in the streets and politicians who cannot cope, economists who cannot cope and diplomats who cannot cope.”

LIVING IN APOCALYPTICAL TIMES

Pisar is neither an alarmist nor a pessimist. There are counter-forces to anti-Semitism but for those forces to extirpate this social disease, the origin and nature of anti-Semitism must be understood. Born in Poland and made a citizen of the United States by a special act of Congress, Pisar is starkly realistic about the condition of modern society and particularly about the Jewish condition within this society.

“We are living in apocalyptical times,” he observed. “To me, we are facing quite possibly the thermonuclear gas chamber of the future — a kind of global Auschwitz. I do not only mean that I am afraid of another Holocaust. Auschwitz is also the symbol of a very long and cowardly abdication as the Jewish people were being abandoned in Europe. And Auschwitz is the symbol of the calvary that followed it and engulfed the world. This kind of terminology is essential if we are to sound a warning to others and to establish some protection for ourselves.”

Anti-Semitism is a universal issue, Pisar continued, because, while Jews are the first targets and victims of this outrage, “it can engulf everyone.” Anti-Semitism is the litmus test of democracy — whether it can withstand the onslaught or capitulate to it, whether forces can unite to combat both its causes and effects or whether there will be an “abdication of responsibility,” Pisar emphasized.

Given the social unrest and turmoil in many countries, a situation develops psychologically where someone has to be blamed, he said, noting at the same time that the United States is not to left out of this scenario. “It becomes a season for demagogues. It’s always the fault of someone when things go badly, and usually it’s the fault of ‘the others’ and first and foremost of ‘the others’ are always the Jews.”

But the virus of anti-Semitism continues through the bloodstream of society and “then come the other ‘others': the Blacks, the immigrants, the intellectuals, the artists, the trade unionists, minorities, and anyone else who is a little bit different and at whom the finger can be pointed,” Pisar declared.

At first, anti-Semitism is propagated by the lunatic fringe and political troglodytes; then more and more people “become receptive to that kind of stuff as the climate deteriorates, and that is the danger,” he explained.

“People must understand that Jews may be the favored scapegoats in history, but then come the others,” Pisar continued. “And if one allows this to happen, if one remains indifferent, if people say it is not their problem, then gradually, as society becomes engulfed and diseased, everyone suffers. These are the lessons I carried out of the Holocaust. I saw it myself. In Auschwitz it was not only the Jews, but the Gypsies, then came the Slavs, and then came the Greeks and the French and the Dutch and the Russians. Everyone would have become engulfed except the Master Race.”

The seeds of Nazism in Germany, Pisar observed, were sown in the soil of social discontent and turmoil but they sprouted and flowered with the framework of a democracy, the Weimar Republic. Hitler did not come to power by armed insurrection; he was given his mandate by the officials of the republic and within the framework of the Weimar Constitution when the economists and the politicians could not resolve Germany’s socio-economic crisis.

NOT A BOOKKEEPING ISSUE

Anti-Semitism takes different forms in different epochs and countries — from “blood libels” to resolutions in the United Nations equating Zionism with racism to Soviet propaganda identifying Zionism with imperialism and colonialism. It appears first as desecrations of cemeteries and synagogues, as hate literature, and as the deliberate killing of unarmed civilians in Israel and Israeli installations around the world.

But anti-Semitism cannot be viewed merely as individual acts against Jews to be counted up in a bookkeeping ledger. The danger of these developments is that individual acts and individual Nazis can coalesce at a given time to institutionalize genocide. This is the basic lesson Pisar drew from the events preceeding the Holocaust and more recent developments around the world.

FORCES COMBATTING ANTI-SEMITISM

Pisar, whose understanding of modern society was forged in the blast furnace of the European Catastrophe that led to the death of 11 million people, including six million Jews, noted, however, that the dialectics of society also produces the forces that can stem the tide of dissolution and with it the upsurge of anti-Semitism. “Every generation forges the tools of its own survival,” he said.

He noted, for example, that in France, which has had a history of anti-Semitism, the bombing of the Rue Copernic synagogue in Paris last October sparked a reaction “so powerful so spontaneous, with hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen, Jews as well as non-Jews, marching in the streets” in cities throughout the country.

The message by the marchers “was that it’s impossible, this cannot happen, never again, 34 years after the Holocaust,” Pisar said. “I believe that people realized that even though the desecration of cemeteries and synagogues and the bombing itself was initially anti-Semitic, it was a threat to everybody. This is how society had collapsed in the Second World War, this is the way it happened in

the 1930s and the 1940s — the indifference, the cowardice, the abdication while people were being put to death.”

Granted, he noted, that each contingent of marchers may have had its own partisan reason for demonstrating, the unifying factor in the last analysis was the onslaught against Jews and the need to respond by calling a halt to anti-Semitism “because anti-Semitism is the barometer of democracy. The Jew is the barometer of democracy.”

NEED TO FORGE ALLIANCES

But understanding the causes and consequences of anti-Semitism is only the first step toward combatting it. To assure its eradication, to make certain that another Holocaust does not happen again, it is necessary to forge alliances with various segments of the population. Alliances can and must be forged with Blacks and other minorities, with trade unionists, with segments of the left and segments of the right, Pisar said, especially in the United States where a pluralistic society makes it more feasible to do.

He noted, however, that there “is a moment of confusion” as to how to build alliances and with whom. “My impression of the present time is that we (the Jewish people) don’t know what to do about the basic question of how to prevent another Holocaust from ever happening again. The Jewish leadership doesn’t know which way to jump. I think it is a tragedy that the old coalition between the Jews and the Blacks has come into question. I can understand how tactically such a thing could happen. But in terms of long-term strategy of survival of safeguarding the rights of the down-trodden, we Jews must never forget that we belong on that side. The Black-Jewish coalition must be rebuilt.”

In terms of other potential allies, Pisar asked: “Is the new Moral Majority friends, enemies, neutral? Should we be allied with these people, or are those the kind of people who ultimately represent a danger to us? It’s a very important question.”

OTHER QUESTIONS POSED

There are other questions of this type, Pisar observed. “Is the left lost to the Jews simply because it is a little pro-Palestinian? I don’t know the answer. People are also uncomfortable with the left because of Communism, because of Soviet Communism, because of the possible loss of freedom.” Regarding the left, Pisar also noted that “we are alienating and putting in the category of anti-Semites many people who are not anti-Semitic. We cannot label the entire left as anti-Semitic, we can not afford to cut ourselves away from these people because they are traditionally pro-Jewish.”

People are also afraid of allying themselves with the right “because the memories and experiences teach that that leads to an unhealthy situation,” Pisar added. “In the long term, it’s not a natural alliance. It’s against the grain. People don’t know where to go. It’s very difficult to choose. I myself can see some good arguments for allying ourselves with either side (the left or the right). But I am afraid of these alliances because I don’t know where they will end. Before the Second World War it was more clear cut. We knew who the enemy was. Today a man like myself finds it very difficult to know who are the enemies and who are the friends. Where should we be and on whose side?”

Asked if the Jewish leadership is capable of organizing, of mobilizing, of creating the kind of consciousness and cohesiveness necessary to combat resurgent Nazism, Pisar stated:

“My impression is that the Jewish leadership — excellent men as they may be — is confused, is groping, is not finding the answers, is at cross purposes on all kinds of issues. There is no strategic thinking and planning in terms of Jewish survival. Everything is tactical and from day to day. What is needed is thinking that is strategic; thinking that projects not only for a year but five years, ten years. This is the survival. What we have to learn is how to make this a central issue.”

NEXT STORY