Holocaust Remembrance Day will be observed in many parts of the world on Jan. 27 thanks to a landmark 2005 U.N. General Assembly resolution designating that day. One might say, “It’s about time,” as it took 60 years for the United Nations to memorialize the Holocaust, or “perfect timing,” given Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ongoing public denial of the Holocaust, which is not unrelated to his desires to obtain nuclear arms and wipe Israel off the map.
Remembrance of the Holocaust is important for many reasons, from recalling the enormity of the tragedy that befell European Jewry to reminding us all how easily the human capacity for hatred can be harnessed into genocide.
But as we recall the horrors inflicted by the Nazis, we must not delude ourselves: Neither Holocaust remembrance nor Holocaust education should be considered an antidote to contemporary anti-Semitism.
In recent weeks some commentators, noting the recent Holocaust denial conference in Tehran, have pointed to teaching about the Holocaust as an answer for this type of anti-Semitism. But the medieval charge that Jews poisoned wells was not a debate over water quality; it was a libel asserting that Jews were conspiring to harm non-Jews, and gave an explanation for troubling events.
Likewise, Holocaust denial is not about the Holocaust. It is about Jews, charging them with making up the Shoah as part of a conspiracy to harm non-Jews and, in Ahmadinejad’s view, harming Palestinians in particular.
Imagine a young Muslim on the outskirts of Paris listening to imams describing Jews as the offspring of apes and pigs, infidels who have no right to live on — let alone have a claim on — the Arab land of Palestine. Your image of Israelis is that shown on Al-Jazeera, outsiders who are defiling the Holy Land and oppressing Palestinians.
How would teaching this young Muslim about Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz and the Einsatzgruppen death squads possibly cure his anti-Semitism? Do we really expect that learning about dead Jews will somehow change his views about live ones, who he believes are harming his Arab and Muslim brothers today while controlling a land to which he believes only Muslims can lay claim?
Recall the anti-Semitic orgy that was the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban. The spewers of hate were not skinheads and neo-Nazis. They were representatives of anti-racist groups from around the globe who believed that demonizing Israel and its Jewish citizens was the best way to combat racism.
Was their problem really lack of knowledge about the Holocaust? They likely had more Holocaust education than the norm. Yet in Durban they regularly equated Ariel Sharon and Adolf Hitler, and Israel and Nazi Germany, while using the Holocaust-produced lexicon of genocide, terms such as “ethnic cleansing,” to anti-Semitic ends.
True, knowing about the Holocaust is critically important as a key event in 20th-century history that offers many important lessons. But it is dangerous to suggest that Holocaust education is a tool — or as some say, “the” tool — to combat anti-Semitism.
Consider the U.S. State Department’s treatment of Sweden in its “Report on Global Anti-Semitism.” It noted a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes and the perception of the Jewish community and that these incidents were linked to immigrant populations, leftists and events in the Middle East. Yet the report observed approvingly that “the Government took steps to combat anti-Semitism by increasing awareness of Nazi crimes and the Holocaust.”
Not only is the intellectual disconnect troubling, but such a stance is too easy a way out for governments that do not want to deal sufficiently with the sources of contemporary anti-Semitism.
There are many things that can and are being done to combat today’s hatred of Jews. Human rights organizations must be challenged when they do not sufficiently assert that freedom from anti-Semitism is a human right.
Governments must be engaged to ensure that they investigate and prosecute anti-Semitic hate crimes fully. Monitoring groups must catalog not only the old-fashioned forms of religious and racial anti-Semitism, but also the more contemporary forms which treat the Jewish state in the same bigoted manner that traditional anti-Semitism regards the individual Jew. Campus administrations need to uphold the highest academic standards and make certain that while heated debate is encouraged, intimidation is prohibited.
These and other steps, including education-based programs, can help in the fight against anti-Semitism. But they must all be guided by testable theories and available facts to demonstrate how and why they are likely to work.
In the next generation the Jewish community in the United States and in Europe will be shrinking, both in real numbers and proportionally, and resources they can draw upon to combat anti-Semitism also will likely diminish. We can no longer afford to rely on presumptions, past practices or wishful thinking.
Kenneth S. Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s expert on anti-Semitism, is the author of the newly released “Antisemitism Today: How It Is the Same, How It is Different, and How to Fight It.”