According to the annual report of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, published ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, anti-Semitism in 2021 was the highest it’s been in 10 years.
This should not replace our mourning over the fate of those of our loved ones who were deported, tortured and killed during the Nazi genocide of the Jews during World War II. But it does warrant reiterating, in their memory, that fulfilling the “Never Again” promise requires, first and foremost, fighting anti-Semitism.
It’s the one thing, however, that seems to have been forgotten over the decades. Indeed, violence against Jews comprised almost a third of last year’s anti-Semitic incidents, with at least 10 per day on average. Among these were hate-filled graffiti, the desecration and/or vandalism of property, the tearing off of Star of David pendants from necks and the aggressive removal of skull caps from the heads of Jews.
The online storm, too, is unprecedented. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the phrase “Hitler was right” was posted on social media 17,000 times in a single week in May alone, and the vow to exterminate the Jews is daily fare. “Today’s world needs Hitler,” tweeted CNN freelance contributor Adeel Raja, for example, which many followers “liked” and “shared.”
At anti-Israel demonstrations everywhere, epithets such as “damn Jews” were commonly chanted. Jewish institutions, restaurants and stores were attacked, nearly half of them in Europe; the rest in America and elsewhere.
The phenomenon exists across the political spectrum, from right to left, along with most of the Islamic world. Even worse, its conformist echo reverberates in the international media and in both governmental and non-governmental institutions. Politicians and performing artists don’t hesitate to repeat slanderous accusations about the Jews and Israel or support the BDS movement.
The U.N. Human Rights Commission set up an ad hoc permanent committee with a $1 billion budget and 29 employees devoted solely to “monitoring any suspected human-rights violations by Israel.” Not by Syria, not by Iran not by China.
It’s precisely this double standard that defines anti-Semitism. Yet the world simply looks on and nods.
While 4,500 missiles rained down on Israel from Gaza, for no good reason, during Operation Guardian of the Walls last May, the international community shouted about “human rights for the Palestinians,” but not the right of Jews to defend themselves.
When such an attitude is exalted, stores are smashed in Los Angeles and New York, turning the ancient blood libel into a contemporary one: that Jews love to kill children. The trope that Jews dominate the world is transformed into an accusation that Israel is guilty of “ethnic cleansing” and colonialism.
It’s an evil narrative that distorts episodes such as the eviction of Arab squatters from a house in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem. It’s a narrative that journalists embrace, ignoring history and the urban-planning regulations applied equally in the Jewish state to both Jews and Arabs; it’s one that disregards the benevolence of Israel’s Supreme Court towards Arabs.
Today’s anti-Semitism is cloaked in “anti-apartheid,” “anti-racist” and “anti-colonialist” rhetoric. Anti-vaxxers suggest that they are suffering a Shoah because Jews not only spread COVID-19, but have profited handsomely from the pandemic.
Moreover, anti-Semitism has even managed to attach itself to the “#MeToo” and Black Lives Matter movements. According to the latter, Jews are “white supremacists.” Ironically, it’s Jews who have become the object of Islamist attacks in American synagogues, where they were already targeted by actual white supremacists. In other words, anti-Semitism by now is universal.
All studies on the Germans’ cruelty that led to the genocide of the Jews highlight the crucial role played by incitement mythology. Henry Kopel’s important book, War on Hate: How to Stop Genocide, Fight Terrorism, and Defend Freedom, points to the way in which Jews were referred to by the masses as insects and beasts; as exploitative capitalists; as traitorous, parasitic, inhuman communists—all dedicated to what Adolf Hitler claimed was the aim of “exterminating” Germans.
In a similar vain, today Jews are said to want to “exterminate the Palestinians.”
The Germans called the Jews “perpetrators of atrocities” and a “deadly plague” (as Iran currently defines Israel). Today, the Jews and Israel are accused of being “colonialists” and “racists.”
There’s no longer any shame associated with applying the same kind of language and imagery that set the stage for the Shoah. Nor can any veil cover the face of Islamist religious incitement against Jews.
As Kopel explains, you didn’t have to be an avid Nazi to participate in the massacres of innocent Jews, including children (38,000 killed in one year; 45,000 rounded up and sent to extermination camps). You were simply “an ordinary German, without any special propensity for violence,” and if you were a leader, you had a “medium to high intellectual level, free of pathologies.”
Incitement was the vessel—the “flying carpet”—leading to massacre. And that’s it in the case of every act of genocide and each terrorist.
In his recently published book, Mai più! [“Never Again!”], Italian historian and philosopher Giorgio Volli tells us that “Never Again” is the sole recurring theme in the many documents connected to today’s anniversary.
Still, incitement to kill the Jews is allowed to advance today without curtailment. The Islamic Republic of Iran considers it a foremost task, enshrined in law, which it pursues through war and the construction of the atomic bomb. The terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah see it as a religious duty.
Elaborating the Shoah has taken many years. The Nuremberg trials of 1946-1949, and subsequently that of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, were overshadowed by the incredulity that European culture could have given birth to so much evil.
Volli describes this well. The interpretation of “absolute evil,” together with what philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”—of hiding behind Hitler & Co.’s “madness,” “perversion” or “paranoia” and refusing to see that very large numbers of Mozart-loving Germans killed Jewish children—lull us into believing that it won’t happen again. Not to us. But it’s already happened, albeit in more minor ways.
Volli notes that many of the documents establishing International Holocaust Remembrance Day are reductive. The German one, for example, doesn’t include the word “Jews.” That of the Council of Europe even calls the Holocaust “paradigmatic” among crimes against humanity.
Few dare to blame the Germans as a nation. Nearly everyone prefers to call the killers “Nazis,” while the European Union speaks of a general attack on minority groups, racism and xenophobia. Nobody remembers that it’s anti-Semitism we’re speaking about!
But the fundamental tendency of International Holocaust Remembrance Day towards general “humanitarianism” is clear. The advice to all those involved in the commemorations is to cite in their speeches all forms of discrimination, including Islamophobia, and use the lessons of the Shoah to present a universalist message.
Certainly, as Kopel points out, between 1952 and 2001, there were 37 genocides in the world, from Cambodia to the Balkans and from the Uyghurs to the Kurds. And, of course, all human suffering is identical: Nothing differentiates a Jewish child killed by the Germans from an Armenian one killed by the Turks.
But denying the particularity of the Shoah not only trivializes it; it risks reinforcing anti-Semitism. The extermination of the Jews, industrially planned at the Wannsee Conference 80 years ago, was masterminded, as former U.S. President George H.W. Bush said, “by men who considered themselves intellectuals.”
International Holocaust Remembrance Day, therefore, has hundreds of good reasons to be committed to the war against anti-Semitism and the ongoing attempt to destroy the Jewish people. When the Shoah is treated like a “universal” event, the Palestinians take the opportunity to invert the victim and the persecutor in their propaganda campaign, so as to make the Jews the new Nazis. It’s what the late, great historian Robert Wistrich aptly called the “Nazification” of the Jews and Israel, through accusations of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and racism—the main leitmotif of contemporary anti-Semitism.
The return of murderous anti-Semitism after the Shoah is a serious impediment to achieving the aim of “Never Again.” The Jan. 17 hostage-taking at the Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas—carried out by a well-known ISIS anti-Semite—was not immediately classified as an anti-Semitic act. Ditto for the case of Ilan Halimi, who was slowly killed in Paris in 2006, after being kidnapped by a gang who tortured him while reading the Koran. The French police refused to see the anti-Semitic character of the crime.
Such incidents remind us that commemorating evil does not exempt us from continuing to fight it. With our hearts filled today with the memory and suffering of our grandparents and aunts and uncles, we nevertheless cannot abandon the battlefield if we wish to say “Never Again” and mean it.
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. She 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.