Memory loss can be a terrible disease. In the best case, it affects our recall of the minor details of an event, but in the worst case, such as with Alzheimer’s disease, it can lead to complete distortion of the past.
Holocaust denial is a kind of amoral cultural Alzheimer’s, and what makes it worse is that, unlike dementia, it is an intentional disease. Holocaust deniers often consciously lie, but they do so in the name of deep-seated hostility towards Jews. Their attitude is based on typical anti-Semitic bias—the idea that the Jews are taking advantage of the memory of what happened. This is a particularly ridiculous thought, given the colossal, overwhelming nature of the experience the Jewish people went through. It is impossible to imagine that some advantage could be gained from an absolute evil that pervades recent knowledge and the facts of Jewish history and life. Yet, the desire to deny the Holocaust propels these individuals to repudiate historical evidence and even eyewitness accounts.
Similarly, when UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) denies that Jerusalem has been linked to the Jewish people for centuries and millennia, it also rejects the extensive historic evidence attesting to the ongoing Jewish presence in the city. By so doing, it is also suffering from what could be diagnosed as anti-Semitic Alzheimer’s.
There is nothing improper about this comparison. The connection between relegating the Holocaust to non-existence and doing the same with the relationship between the Land of Israel and its people are two forms of denial intended to obliterate the Jewish people.
Europe has been haunted by anti-Semitic Muslim and neo-Nazi terror attacks.
It is therefore very important and positive that International Holocaust Remembrance Day is currently observed in Europe with commitment. International Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place on January 27 every year, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on this day in 1945. In Italy, the president of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella will participate in the commemorations, alongside many schoolchildren. Commemorations also include educational programs, trips to Auschwitz, and public speeches. Most importantly, this day provides a unique opportunity to meet with survivors, who are dwindling in number but can still provide us with their personal testimonies and the strength of their presence.
Remembering the Holocaust provides us with universal lessons on the depth human evil can reach, and, conversely, the love of life and the heroism of adults and even children who thwarted human barbarity with their own survival. I think about my dear relatives who were murdered at Sobibor and Auschwitz. They included Poles and Italians, as well as my father’s little brothers who, while my father just barely escaped deportation, were killed, and my heart is filled with unbearable pain.
Why Holocaust remembrance is important, yet insufficient
The memory of the Holocaust is not solely based on ethics or sentiments. It is also a very important political duty. It should serve to prevent anything remotely like it from happening again. The call of “Never again” should defeat anti-Semitism once and for all.
Sadly, this has not worked. The paradoxical, contemporary growth of anti-Semitism is all too visible. Its murderous rage has reached cities all around the world, in all continents, and what hurts the most is the huge dimension that it has taken in Europe, the mother of genocidal anti-Semitism. This has happened precisely in the places where there has been an effort to remember the Holocaust and where there is the pretense of absolute hatred for anti-Semitism alongside distaste for any other form of discrimination.
I will not dwell again upon the recent episodes of violence, contempt, murder and solidarity with murder, ranging from France’s “yellow vest” protesters to Britain’s leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn. Europe has been haunted by anti-Semitic Muslim and neo-Nazi terror attacks. Jihadist serial killers in France have murdered Jewish schoolchildren, as well as an elderly woman who survived the Holocaust. They also attacked young Parisians wearing kipahs. Many Jews and non-Jews avoid attending overtly Jewish occasions in case they are attacked. Emigration from Europe to Israel has reached its highest level since World War II. Anti-Semitic jokes are now daily fare everywhere, and it has become legitimate in bourgeois circles to think that the Jews are, at the very least, a bore and at most an unnecessary burden in the already difficult relationship with Islamic immigrants.
Two surveys on anti-Semitism
Two recent surveys highlight this phenomenon in its broadest sense. One survey was carried out by CNN among Europeans in general, and the other by the European Union among its Jewish population.
Results of the first survey show that one-third of all Europeans know little or nothing about the Holocaust, or they completely ignore its existence. In France, for example, one in five of those questioned between the ages of 18 and 34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust! Yet, ancient anti-Jewish prejudices abound. More than a quarter of Europeans believe that Jews have too much influence in business and finance. One in five said Jews are too involved in politics. A third of the Europeans asked said that Jews use Holocaust commemorations to advance their own positions and goals. And while 54 percent of those polled said that Israel has the right to exist, 46 percent of them think that it does not. This means that almost half of all Europeans think that Israel should not exist.
We can see this new trend confirmed by a second set of polls: a third of Europeans imagine that supporters of Israel (or as they specify, the Jews) use accusations of anti-Semitism to shut down criticism, and another third said that commemorating the Holocaust distracts from other atrocities perpetrated today.
Polling results point to Israel as the ghost that always hovers over opinions. Sometimes, it is even accused of being responsible for the hatred of the Jews. More than a quarter of respondents to the survey said that most anti-Semitism in their countries was a response to the actions of the State of Israel.
If we look at the other survey, in which European Jews were polled, we see that almost all European Jews rated anti-Semitism as the biggest social problem in their countries. For 85 percent of respondents, the most common anti-Semitic statements they come across involve comparing what the Nazis did to the Jews with what the Israelis do to the Palestinians. Alongside this, there is the accusation that the Jews exploit the Holocaust for their own purposes, and therefore to Israel’s advantage. Almost 90 percent of the European Jews polled declared they had suffered some violence (including threatening and offensive online messages, which I have experienced firsthand, phone calls, comments, and gestures, along with actual physical assaults, such as those against people wearing kipahs or a Magen David necklace charm). Thirty percent identified the perpetrator as “someone with an extremist Muslim view,” someone with left-wing political views (21 percent), or with right-wing politics (13 percent).
More attention needs to be focused on parties within Europe that have a visceral animus towards Israel.
These results clearly show a discord between the repudiation of anti-Semitism and racism, and the growth of anti-Jewish feeling in recent years. Those who on this Holocaust Remembrance Day insist upon tying the new racist danger to the new “nationalist” political parties and their “populist” derivatives should inspect whom or what is responsible for this.
The Jews who have felt the rise of anti-Semitism the most (70 percent) live in France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, all of which are Western European countries where traditional democracy is firmly established. British Jews—at 84 percent—expressed the highest level of concern about anti-Semitism in political life today. Together with Germany and Sweden, the United Kingdom has also seen the highest increase in the number of Jews considering emigrating over the past five years due to safety concerns.
Therefore, whoever continues to believe that anti-Semitism flourishes particularly where national right-wing parties have taken root is mistaken. Instead, much more attention needs to be focused on parties within Europe that have a visceral animus towards Israel as the greatest anti-Semitism has emerged from these parties. In Poland and Hungary, less than half of their Jewish populations are worried. In Italy, 30 percent have suffered insults or abuse. While this is certainly a concern, the fact that 58 percent of French Jews and nearly half of the Jews in Germany are worried about physical attacks is more of a problem. Curiously, however, in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government is suspected of racism, the number of Hungarian Jews saying anti-Semitism is a problem has significantly dropped.
Analyzing the rest of the data in this survey, we reach the conclusion that anti-Semitism must not be solely fought through Holocaust Remembrance commemorations or promoting school courses and pilgrimages (which are always welcome, in any case), but above all by demanding the dismantling of the horrible construction of lies about Israel inside the European Union.
What is Europe doing about anti-Semitism?
In December 2018, at a conference promoted with great goodwill by Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (who is also accused of right-wing populism), the Council of the European Union approved a document on the battle against anti-Semitism in Europe. This document calls upon all European countries “to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism in the fields of law enforcement, education, and training.” It also asks the European Commission and Europol to fight anti-Semitism online. This was an important step, even though this recommendation has not yet been adopted by several of the E.U.’s member states, because the resolution sees this new wave of anti-Semitism as clearly connected to hatred of Israel.
The bottom line is that we need to address the memory of the Holocaust in contemporary terms. Protecting it against the insidious political ideology of anti-Semitism means initiating new policies because the traditional tools simply aren’t working! It does not help to say “Never Again,” when across Europe the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is promoted with European money and subsidized by the European Union itself in the name of freedom of opinion. The European Union not only takes measures, such as “labeling.” It also demonizes Israel’s self-defense against daily and atrocious terrorist attacks.
Moreover, most European schools and universities continue to teach Israel’s history as a continuation of European colonialism in which the Palestinians are occupied and exploited by “evil” Jews who practice apartheid or even genocide. Anti-Semitism is further inflamed when the U.N. cultural organization, UNESCO, states that Jerusalem is a Muslim city currently occupied by Jews, and it continues to insist upon Palestinian statehood while fattening the coffers of the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority expends seven percent of its annual budget to pay salaries to imprisoned terrorists and the families of terrorists killed in their attacks.
Traditional tools against anti-Semitism do not work when the cultural platforms endorse claims that the Palestinians are victims of the Jews, “just like the Jews were victims of the Nazis.” This canard must be destroyed inside schools and also in the newspapers that for years have propagated such distorted information.
Anti-semitism and the delegitimization of Israel
Israel has tried three times to provide the Palestinians the famous “two states for two peoples” solution. At present, Israel continues to invite Mahmoud Abbas to renew peace talks. However, the Palestinian Authority categorically refuses to do so, while the division with Hamas creates a situation where a Palestinian interlocutor does not seem to exist. The meaning and motive of this Palestinian refusal, according to Abbas, are that the Jews have no right to their land. In short, they have no right, like any other people, to self-determination because they are Jews.
What does the delegitimization of Israel have to do with remembering the Holocaust? Everything! For those who still do not understand, please look at the cultural background of the refusal to make peace with Israel the speeches of Mahmoud Abbas and the school books used by the Palestinian children, which include caricatures portraying Israeli soldiers with hooked noses, holding missiles and adorned with Stars of David. This type of anti-Semitism is similar to all types of Jew-hatred, conforming to Europe’s anti-imperialist traditions. When cartoonist Dieter Hanitzsch received an award for fostering hatred against Netanyahu, this was merely the latest in a series of tens of thousands of anti-Semitic jokes and threats to Israel.
When Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party leader, asks in the name of freedom of speech to praise Hamas and call the Hezbollah “his brothers,” he shows that he has a soft spot for terrorists and their anti-Semitic theories. He embraces the widespread ignorance that currently exists regarding Israel and uses it for his personal political gain. This ignorance about Israel becomes particularly ironic on International Holocaust Remembrance Day when we remember the 6 million murdered Jews. As well as remembering what happened at Auschwitz, it is important to tell the truth about Israel at school and on television.
Earlier, we discussed how total memory loss is a disease, which in its most serious form is called Alzheimer’s. In Israel, medical scientists are experimenting on a cure for Alzheimer’s. This is not a parable; it is a fact. Let us hope it is a sign that Israel will also see a remedy for the disease of anti-Semitism.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Translation by Amy Rosenthal.
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