By the time I was six years old, some 10 years after the Holocaust, any discussion my parents would have about it invariably ended with them lamenting the failure of the Roosevelt Administration to save the Jews of Europe.
I never heard a single word at the dinner table against any of FDR’s domestic policies, nor, of course, his stewardship of the allied campaign to defeat the Nazis. But on the question of not speaking out forcefully on Hitler’s drive to annihilate the Jews, or doing anything to impede it, or to save them, my parents were not forgiving. My mother’s family in Lithuania, with one single exception, was wiped out like so many Jews there and in the rest of occupied Europe. So, 10 years on, this was very much on her mind.
Recounting these tragic episodes of official indifference to the fate of European Jewry is worth noting today in how the international community has reacted not only to the Iranian regime’s nuclear program and its malign behavior, but also to its now 42-year campaign of genocidal threats against the State of Israel and its incessant, daily spewing of anti-Semitic invective.
I was reminded of the dangers of indifference again when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered remarks last week on the occasion of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The stepson of a Holocaust survivor who authored a moving personal account of his years as a victim of Nazi barbarity, Blinken went beyond the usual expressions on the need to remember.
The secretary zeroed in on the failure of the State Department to save Jews during World War II when an open-door policy could have allowed in untold numbers of European Jews facing certain death at the hands of our enemy.
Referencing then-Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, Blinken said that “He had immense power to help those being persecuted. Yet, as the Nazis began to systematically round up and execute Jews, Long made it harder and harder for Jews to be granted refuge in the United States.” Long served as a special assistant secretary of state for war issues, before being named assistant secretary in 1940.
Actually, this indifference began before the outbreak of World War II in 1939. In July 1938, at the initiative of the United States, 32 countries and 24 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) convened in Evian, France to discuss the growing issue of Jews seeking to flee persecution in Nazi Germany and in Austria. Despite the ruffles and flourishes of this international gathering, only the Dominican Republic, among all the countries present (including the United States) offered a specific proposal to admit Jewish refugees.
The message was not lost on Nazi Germany.
Nor was the case of the SS St. Louis, less than a year later, in May 1939. The Hamburg-America line vessel, sailing from Germany to Cuba with over 900 Jews aboard, was ultimately denied entry at Havana, despite strenuous efforts by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to negotiate with the Cuban government to allow them in.
The ship then made its way to the Florida coast, within view of Miami, hoping for a positive decision to allow the passengers to disembark. Denial to dock in the U.S. was the answer at the State Department, which said the refugees “must await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for, and obtain immigrations visas before they may be admissible to the United States.”
Ultimately, the ship returned to Europe. Though some passengers found refuge thanks to efforts of the JDC, less than half survived the Holocaust. Hitler’s “test” to prove that Jews would not find a haven, even in the Western Hemisphere, succeeded.
For sure, 2021 is not 1938. But the vehemence and the nature of Iran’s rhetoric leveled at the only Jewish state bears striking resemblance to that in Europe over 85 years ago. Israel is described by Iranian leaders as a “cancer which must be excised.” The Nazis used the word “vermin,” but the message is the same. Every week, one Iranian official or another – from the top down – threatens to level Israel’s second-largest and third-largest cities, Tel Aviv and Haifa. The Holocaust is not only denied in Tehran, it is used as a club against Israel, claiming the “Zionists” hide behind it as a rationale for their illegal existence.
The current rushed effort to engage Iran in a resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) talks on Iran’s nuclear program raises many questions, the first of which is do we really believe, after nearly 30 years of developing a program focused on producing nuclear weapons, the Iranian regime intends to trash it, in order to be considered a member in good standing of the international community?
Beyond that though, is the businesslike way this is all being carried out. Tehran, since the U.S. elections in November, knowing that a more favorable approach toward it by the U.S. and its P-5+1 (U.S., United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, plus Germany) partners was in the offing, has done everything to stick a finger in our collective eye, by raising the level of enrichment of nuclear fuel, introducing advanced centrifuges, testing ballistic missiles, and denying snap inspections of military sites. Do we really think this is just brinkmanship?
There is an infinitesimal chance that any of the P5+1 players will ever be the target of a campaign that calls for its annihilation as a “cancer” that must be removed. Or, that a multi- stage inter-continental ballistic missile will ever be fired from Iran into the heart of any of its capital cities.
But Israel has sound reasons to be worried. The current JCPOA agreement is replete with holes and sunset clauses that would allow the Iranians, patient and not worried about calendars or clocks, to eventually find a path to a nuclear weapon. Its missile program already has produced weapons that can reach the heart of Israel and its friends in the Gulf.
And the rhetoric out of Tehran about destroying the “Zionist entity” continues unabated.
Even with statements noting the JCPOA needs to be strengthened (begging the question as to why the 2015 agreement was so porous to begin with) there is a nagging sense that Israel’s justified mistrust of Tehran is seen as an annoyance, or that it is simply spoiling the party, with reconciliation within reach. Israel of course, is in Tehran’s crosshairs, and by extension, the Jewish people must not have to sit by and watch another outlaw regime, this time in the 21st century, threatening to annihilate Jews.
In the 1930s, all of the signals relating to Nazi Germany’s designs on European Jewry were as obvious as a neon sign on a clear night. Words do count, but few were listening, and even fewer did anything about it.
Secretary Blinken’s candid remarks about indifference to such threats which were carried out on European soil over 75 years ago have implications for the present. All policymakers now making their way to the table with Iran should heed that message.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
Hardly a day passes without reading of someone, somewhere uttering an antisemitic trope. That part is not new; for millennia, this has been the norm. In the pre-Internet era, one could read, primarily in the Jewish media, about an antisemitic public official, a neo-Nazi, or a desk clerk at a restricted hotel uttering hateful comments or spinning conspiracies about Jews.
What is new, or relatively so, is that today we’re learning of Jew-hatred in real time, within hours of it being spouted. It comes from expected, and from unexpected, quarters. And sometimes it’s simply the portrayal of Jews that sends an antisemitic message.
Take the recent Canadian-produced NBC series “Nurses,” whose premise centers around five nurses and the lives and people they interact with. The most recent episode involved a young Hasidic accident victim named Israel and his father, whom we meet in a hospital room, where they’re engaged in conversation with one of the nurses.
The young Hasid needs a bone graft, he is told, and that will require using the bone of a cadaver. Israel expresses shock at the idea of having a “dead leg” inserted into his body, to which his father — dressed in a Hasidic black hat and coat, and wearing payot — says disgustedly: “A dead goyim leg — from anyone. An Arab, a woman.” The nurse, belittling both the father and son, responds: “Or, God forbid, an Arab woman.”
Never mind that Orthodox practice would allow for this graft, much more important, is that the picture presented to the viewer is classic antisemitism. Dressed in black and closed-minded (with one of them literally named Israel), the message is that these Jews are both peculiar and bigoted.
Any stereotyping is dangerous. But the Orthodox community often gets the brunt of this kind of instant presumptuousness. They are portrayed as an oddity or as an easy foil. The show made no attempt to give any kind of context to Orthodox Jewry or its medical worldview. The writers of this episode needed highly identifiable Jews to make the story work — and who cares about who might be hurt as long as it fits neatly into the one-hour timeframe.
But murderous attacks on Jews in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Poway, California, or Monsey, New York, are just a few examples of how antisemitic rhetoric can turn violent.
My guess is that most viewers of this program are not Jewish. Those who know us only at a distance would understandably not know about how diverse we are. We have a communal spectrum that runs from left to right, and everything in between, and includes the religious and the secular. Is the viewer’s education about the Jewish people to be gleaned from the likes of “Nurses” and other highly watched programs that traffic in biased presentations about sectors of our community?
I’m old enough to remember episodes of “Dr. Kildare,” “Gunsmoke,” and other TV dramas, that treated Jewish subjects with compassion and a seriousness of intent. That those programs aired at a time when Jews were subjected to admissions quotas, restricted neighborhoods, corporate glass ceilings, and other forms of discrimination made this treatment of Jews all-the-more important in fostering mutual respect.
Today though, in the broader world around us, there seems to be a growing tolerance toward anyone saying anything about whomever they wish, without any filter or fear of opprobrium. And increasingly, Jews have become the target.
“Saturday Night Live’s” Michael Che delivering a blood libel about Israel and the COVID vaccine masked as a “joke”; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)’s assertion that a Jewish space laser and the Rothschild family were responsible for California’s wildfires; and Lowell, Massachusetts, School Committee board member Robert Hoey’s referring to a former city employee as a “kike” on live public access TV are just a few very recent examples of what is becoming a frightening trend.
The Canadian producer of “Nurses” has apologized for the offensive episode, and NBC has pulled this episode and others from the air.
“Contrition tours,” where networks, politicians, comedians, and others offer a quick, “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry,” or give apology interviews with friendly journalists, is one way of getting these kinds of controversies quickly out of the way. But that is not enough.
The media can play a large role in sensitivity training for the public at large, but first it needs to take a course or two itself. Playing off Jewish stereotypes for shock value, or for a few laughs, is both irresponsible and reckless.
We need to see more positive programming about the Jewish community and its many contributions — in so many fields — to this country. School systems need to utilize textbooks that teach about our story as an immigrant people who came to America from dozens of countries to find a land of opportunity denied to them in the darker corners of Europe and elsewhere. And while people may know a bit about the Jewish religion, more attention needs to be paid to its history, customs, and traditions. Doing that might prevent a repeat of the “Nurses” debacle.
In May, we will observe the 15th anniversary of Jewish American Heritage Month. While positive programming about our community should be a 12-month-a-year endeavor, this special designation on the national calendar offers many opportunities for educators, government officials, media operatives, and others to spotlight our community in a positive way.
The danger we face is the mainstreaming of antisemitism. Where once these expressions of hatred were confined to the margins or were never discovered because there simply was no Internet megaphone, today they are seemingly everywhere, including network television.
As is often said, it may start with the Jews, but it never ends there. It’s not just about us: just follow what is written or said on social media, TV and talk radio, statements from political figures, and off-handed comments by celebrities; they are everywhere. It is one long parade of insults, put-downs, threats, loose talk, and worse.
Is the “Nurses” episode a wake-up call, or just another statistic in a week or month of egregious incidents? Our task is to speak up each time this happens, and as important, to ensure that our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and others beyond our community do not become inured to the threats before us.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Algemeiner.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
(February 3, 2021 / JNS) The question now is not if the United States will return to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but when. Notwithstanding reports that the Biden administration has too much on its plate right now to move up talks with Tehran as a priority, it certainly seems like that process is underway. That would send Washington back to the table for the first time since an agreement was concluded in 2015.
The Trump administration withdrew from the pact in May 2018, citing inherent weaknesses and loopholes on such issues as Iran’s ballistic-missile program, snap inspections of nuclear sites and sunset clauses, as well as its malign behavior in the region. In tandem with that decision, it imposed a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, including a series of sanctions on an array of Iranian political, quasi-military and commercial figures and front organizations.
The regime in Tehran has clearly been waiting for the day these policies will be reversed and has positioned itself steadily over the past few months by playing hard-to-get. Reverting to form and week by week, it has generated new developments designed to make Western negotiators (the “P-5+1” made up of the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia, plus Germany) nervous.
First, it was increasing enrichment of nuclear fuel to the 20 percent level, followed by reports of the installation of more advanced centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear installation. That was followed by reports that Iran had begun production of uranium metal, which can be used as a component in nuclear weapons.
All of these developments are in breach of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement touted as keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but in fact only sidelining it because of sunset clauses that are getting near to expiration by the day.
Less than two weeks ago, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported on a list of seven conditions laid out by Tehran that must be met before it returns to a negotiating table. Among them, the demand that the United States lift all sanctions imposed against it; that there be no connection made between Iran’s nuclear program and other issues, such as its ballistic-missile program or its support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas; that it will not permit other regional actors to enter into the JCPOA discussions; and that it refuses to back a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
Already, angst on the part of our P-5+1 partners is being felt. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said Iran “is in the process of acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity,” due largely to the previous administration’s maximum pressure policy. He called for a quick resumption of the JCPOA talks.
That begs a question: If the original agreement, in which France was a participant, was as watertight as it was marketed at the time, why is Iran moving headlong into developing nuclear weapons?
The answer lies elsewhere, in plain view. As the treasure trove of documents on Iran’s nuclear program—ferreted out of Tehran by Israeli agents in 2018 show—the Iranian regime never had any intention of exiting the nuclear-weapons business to begin with. With stealth and a measure of patience unknown in the West, Iran has been willing to wait out “maximum pressure” while raising the temperatures of its threats and its international bullying, hoping that appearance of its headlong drive to produce a weapon will instill enough trepidation for the P5+1 to prematurely offer a basket of incentives, including the removal of sanctions, to return to the table.
The Biden administration has said that before there is any resumption of talks with Tehran, it must return to full compliance with its assurances on enrichment, the installation of centrifuges and the production of uranium metal, among other provisions.
But so brazen is Tehran in believing that the P5+1 is eager to have it back at the negotiating table that the leading Iranian nuclear official recently told the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) that in order to prevent “any misunderstanding,” it should avoid publishing “unnecessary details” of its nuclear program.
Much has been written of late about how much things have changed on the ground, and that lessons have been learned since the JCPOA agreement was announced five years ago.
Time passes quickly: Sunset clauses agreed to in 2015, after which Iran can proceed with its objective of producing nuclear weapons, are now five years closer to expiration. Iran continues to pursue a ballistic-missile program unfettered.
It also continues to build up Hezbollah’s arsenal with shipments of precision-guided missiles and to be present in Syria, where it has no business other than to expand it hegemonistic objectives. Its terrorist friends and proxies—Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen—are also beneficiaries of its cash and weapons. It is seeking to establish a naval presence in the Mediterranean. And the regime remains a serial abuser of the rights of women, LGBTI, juvenile offenders and, of course, its political opponents.
Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by that the Iranians are not making genocidal threats “to level Tel Aviv and Haifa,” and calling for the “Zionist cancer” to be excised. Policymakers in London, Paris and Berlin may pass this off as simply rhetoric for home consumption, but Israel, its supporters and Jews everywhere take it seriously. If an Iranian bomb were to become a reality, these threats would dramatically affect the stability of the entire region.
Iran’s intentionally ratcheting up its threats and its nuclear program tells us precisely about its real intentions. If it feels pressure to agree to talks on an “improved JCPOA agreement,” in its mind it needs to be wired in such a way as to repeat what happened in 2015—gain advance concessions in exchange for talks, and then to prevaricate and obfuscate its way into another loophole-filled agreement that will be just enough to satisfy our nervous partners in Europe.
Iran has demonstrated—and not only in these past five years—that it cannot be trusted. Our objective should be to put it permanently out of the nuclear-weapons business. It is on that objective that our eagerness should be focused.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis on JNS.org.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
CEO Op-ed in the Algemeiner: Why the IHRA Handbook on Anti-Semitism — Not Just Its Definition — Is Needed
The year 2020 will be marked as, among other distinctions, a time of unbridled global antisemitism. The phenomenon is growing from three sources — the radical Left, the extreme Right, and Islamists — but while that doesn’t tell the full story, it does provide a spectrum that indicates how widely this particular virus has spread.
This unbridled antisemitism demonstrates why a new handbook of definitions is so important. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in conjunction with the European Commission and with the support of the recent German presidency of the EU, has published this new guide.
Based on extensive research conducted by RIAS, the German Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on antisemitism, the handbook is a first-of-its-kind best-practices guide for use in such fields as law enforcement, the judiciary, education, international bodies, funding institutions, and civil society.
The handbook connects the IHRA document to real life examples — which helps to make it a real “working” definition.
Making the battle against antisemitism relevant to individual branches of government, or to educators, will help to monitor, identify, respond to, and counteract antisemitism in the open or in dark corners of society across the European continent and beyond.
In 2016, the IHRA, a consortium of countries committed to Holocaust education and remembrance, adopted a working definition of antisemitism. It was not intended to be a detailed, deep dive into the causes and manifestations of this millennia-old hatred. It was meant, rather, to speak to categories of Jew-hatred, both classic and contemporary.
Its recognition of how the existence of Israel has worked its way into the repertoire of antisemites has been vitally important in helping those fighting antisemitism to pull the veil off “legitimate criticism of Israel” from those who advocate the elimination of the Jewish state.
In this regard, the working definition states, for example, that antisemitism includes “accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.” Antisemitism is also “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.” Or, as we see almost every day somewhere in the world, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
To date, 28 countries have adopted the IHRA working definition, and the number continues to grow. Provincial, state, and local governments are doing the same, as are organizations as diverse as the Argentine Football Federation and the Global Imams Council.
More countries, state and local governments, agencies, and non-governmental organizations need to add their support and buy in.
But equally important is how the definition will be applied, and by whom. That is where the handbook comes in.
Expressions of antisemitism know no borders. The hierarchy of leadership in Iran regularly spews antisemitism, often using Nazi imagery; Israel is frequently referred to as a “cancer” that needs to be excised. Genocidal calls for Israel’s destruction are daily features in Iranian media. And Tehran is known for its “leadership” in the Holocaust denial arena.
Over the past 12 months in Europe, we witnessed a concerted campaign by the neo-Fascist Nordic Resistance Movement to intimidate Jews in their places of worship and in communal spaces. A kosher restaurant in France, the scene of countless acts of antisemitism, was vandalized with tags of “Hitler was right,” “Jews get out,” and “Free Palestine.”
In Greece, multiple cemeteries were vandalized; rabbis were attacked on the street in Berlin and Vienna; and in Germany, on the holiday of Sukkot, a synagogue was attacked in Hamburg, just days before the one-year commemoration of the Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue in Halle.
And already this year, the European Court of Justice ruled that individual European Union member states can legislate against kosher ritual slaughter, or shechita. Already some countries place restrictions tantamount to a ban on the practice, including Sweden, Denmark, Finland, regions of Belgium, and non-EU member Switzerland. Efforts to ban circumcision, or brit milah, have been similarly underway in Europe for some time — though without much success at this point.
Denying Jews the right to these essential acts of religious freedom, especially on European soil, where the greatest crimes against the Jewish people were perpetrated, is not just “discriminatory.” All of this places Jews in an “other” or outcast category, which is unacceptable, and can only be read as antisemitic.
And, lest some think antisemites cannot bring back classic blood libel charges against Jews from the Middle Ages, the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University reported last summer that there were widespread assertions that Israel or Jews as a whole were responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, websites charged Israel with creating the virus in order to manufacture vaccines for it, from which it would profit.
With reports indicating a continuing rise in antisemitic incidents on college campuses, an arsonist set fire to the University of Delaware’s Chabad Center just as the school year opened in the fall. Earlier this month, among those demonstrators storming the US Capitol were those wearing clothing adorned with Nazi imagery, including a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie.
Much antisemitism from the far-left focuses on Israel and Zionism, with comparisons to apartheid South Africa and condemnations of “the occupation.” From the extreme right, classic charges of control of the media and banks are rolled out in new 21st century wrappers, but their message of hate remains the same. And notwithstanding the much-welcomed rapprochement between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, many in the Arab and Islamist media — particularly, but not limited to, the Palestinian media — spin webs of antisemitic rhetoric on a daily basis. The common denominator to all of this is hatred of Jews.
In our community, there are many whose innate antennae can identify antisemitism from the proverbial 36,000 feet. But others are less likely to recognize the nuances of it when it appears. The IHRA handbook will be a vital resource for them.
The working definition and the new IHRA handbook are not a cure for history’s oldest social virus. Much more needs to be done. Holocaust denial continues to grow, as the dwindling number of survivors reach the end of their lives. Recent studies reveal an astonishing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among millennials and Generation Z’ers, which obligates us to grow Holocaust education programs in our schools and universities.
And then there is the Internet, which has had a multiplier effect, as antisemitic conspiracy theories and outright rants run rampant on our laptops and tablets. The major social media platforms must confront the role they are playing as enablers of such combustible language.
In the 21st century, combating antisemitism requires new tools and means to join the battle. The IHRA handbook is a welcome addition to the resources we need to get the job done. If it sits on the shelf, it will have been a noble, but wasted effort. We need to encourage its wide distribution, and especially advocate for its recommendations and practices to be put to good use.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Algemeiner.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
When I was a youngster, and the subject came around to the Holocaust, my mother told me about receiving letters from her relatives in Lithuania, beseeching the family in America to bring them to the U.S., as the Nazis and their collaborators tightened their grip on Jews in the Baltics.
This troubled my mother to no end, as the family had no connections, political or otherwise, that could have saved an uncle, aunts, and numerous cousins living in places like Vilna, Musnik, and Boguslavisic. That frustration must have preyed on her mind, always wondering if she could have done something to extricate the family from the jaws of extermination.
About 13 years ago, one of my sisters told me that her china closet had tipped over and in the process of the drawers falling out, revealed a packet on which was written, in my grandfather’s handwriting: “Inside My Sister’s Letter,” and under that, my mother had written: “Take Care of This.”
I took the packet thinking that finally, after many decades, these were the letters with the heartbreaking appeal to be saved from the fate they must have known awaited them. I looked at the one envelope in the packet, and saw that it was postmarked April 3, 1935, too early for our relatives to have concluded that the end was near.
Immediately I had the letters—one from my grandfather’s brother, one from his wife and another from my grandfather’s half-sister—translated from the handwritten Yiddish to English. The translator was the late Herman Taube, a survivor from Poland, who became a poet and writer, and a fellow congregant at my synagogue near Washington, D.C.
The content of the letters was similar. Family news from Lithuania, and questions about the family in America, written in that loving way before the ease of long-distance telephone calls. Speaking to my mother, my great-uncle Shlomo Yitzchak Berzak writes:
“Dear Rose, by looking on the pictures, we understand the psychology of all of you, we can see your interest in social life activities, even with strangers…I myself, who is close to you all, love you dearly, no distance, no power in the world can separate us.”
My great-uncle goes to write about his health, and promises that his daughter Chanele “will write to you, she is very busy, she writes that she received from you a gift and pictures and that she will write to you the latest news.”
He closes the letter with: “If you, dear Rose, will send us flowers from your garden, we will enjoy with great pleasure. Their scent will give us the aroma of the Garden of Eden.”
And this, from Shlomo Yitzchak’s wife, Etel, to her sister-in-law, my grandmother Shifra: “May the Almighty bless you and Avraham-Yona (my grandfather) with good health and joy from your children, good hearted and G-d fearing, as we can see from Rose’s writing.”
These few letters are all we have of what must have been a decades-long correspondence. My grandfather arrived in America at the very end of the 19th century, and brought over my grandmother, my eldest uncle and my mother in 1903.
Though touching, there is nothing especially unusual about these letters, with their inquiries about each other’s health and well -being, and expressions of familial love in both directions. We assume there must have been correspondence after this, but we do know that nothing further was heard from Shlomo Yitzchak, Etel, or Alta Sarah after 1941, when they, and all of their family members, were rounded up and shot by the Nazis and their local collaborators.
Reading these letters now, the longing to reunite is all the more heartbreaking, knowing it was not to be. Wrote Alta Sarah to my grandfather, his half-sister:
“I hardly remember how you look…but I still remember and miss you all very much, we desire how you look now…only G-d knows if you can (make the effort) to come and visit us. Now, our only consolation are letters, to know you are all in good health and read the good news about you and your family.”
As time passes, now 75 years since the end of the Holocaust, those who deny that it ever happened are seen and heard all over the internet. As the number of survivors who experienced and witnessed Nazi Germany’s singular barbarity decreases by the day, Holocaust denial, minimalization, and trivialization increasingly goes unanswered, a victim of fading memories and “anything goes” comment on social media platforms.
Indeed, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s flip-flop, after agreeing to delete expressions of Holocaust denial, was a classic example of 1984-speak. Said Dorsey, in response to a question from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado): “It’s (Holocaust denial) misleading information. But we don’t have a policy against that type of misleading information.”
The First Amendment is many things, but it should not stop a leading social media platform from denying its space to those who would rob us of our history, and who would actively enable deniers to promote outright lies about history’s most brutal crimes; crimes which occurred in the memory of tens of thousands of survivor witnesses who are still with us today.
When I entered the Jewish communal field in the 1970s, Holocaust denial in the United States was in the hands of people like Arthur Butz, an engineering professor who wrote “the Hoax of the Twentieth Century; the Institute of Historical Review (IHR, on whose Board Butz sat); and from Willis Carto, founder of the far-right Liberty Lobby (and a founder of the IHR). Their message of denial was of deep cause for concern, but—without the internet megaphone we have today—their voices produced a loyal but somewhat limited following.
Holocaust denial today comes in all shapes and forms: from the Left, the Right, Islamists, and social media freelancers. A good deal of it emanates from Iran, which—not content to call only for Israel’s destruction on a daily basis—also seeks to mock the destruction of European Jewry.
The regime in Tehran conducted an annual cartoon contest, whose objective was to lampoon the Holocaust. One of the winners featured an old fashioned cash register, with the number 6,000,000 rung up, a cash draw on which was written “Shoah Business,” and a key to open the register, festooned with a Star of David—on which was written “B’nai B’rith.”
Holocaust denial ironically brings together the extremes of the political spectrum. Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Guardian reported gatherings of former Labor Party members and known far-right figures who traffic in anti-Israel tropes and Holocaust revisionism. “Storybook gas chambers,” is how one convener of these gatherings described the death camps. Another participant professed that there were no deaths in Auschwitz.
In Germany—of all places—one of the leaders of the ultra-nationalist AfD Party, famously referred to the period of rule during the Third Reich as but “a speck of bird poop.”
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ doctoral dissertation, written in the Soviet Union, minimizes the extent of the Holocaust and charged Zionist organizations with encouraging it. Nearly 40 years after writing this, Abbas still dabbles in denialist and revisionist rhetoric, including a speech in 2018 in which he charged Jewish “social behavior,” and not anti-Semitism, as being the cause of the Holocaust.
There is a perfect storm brewing of Holocaust denial and Holocaust ignorance. The Conference on Materials Claims Against Germany (known as the Claims Conference) 2020 survey points to some frightening, but not surprising statistics: 48% of U.S. millennials and Gen Z-ers were unable to name a single concentration camp. 63% did not know how many Jews were killed; 36% thought the number was fewer than 2 million. And, perhaps most disconcerting, is that 11% of those polled believe Jews themselves were responsible for the Holocaust.
If these young people come to Holocaust history tabula rasa, then will they learn that history from the internet, where deniers and minimizers lurk around every corner? The Claims Conference survey is the lastest wake-up call to act while we still can, and while there are still survivors with tattoos on their arms to attest to the fact that “I was there.”
Good for those who go on the March of the Living to see the sites of the Nazi concentration camps in Poland, or those Jewish schools which offer similar trips to graduating seniors. But what about our public schools? To date, only 15 states require that Holocaust education be a part of their public school curricula.
And what about Europe, where these very crimes were committed and which is experiencing a dramatic spike in anti-Semitism? The need for public-sponsored Holocaust education is as evident here as anywhere. Even though many European countries are members of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which commits its members to teaching about the Holocaust, adherence to this pledge varies from place to place. Kudos to those countries that have appointed special envoys to combat anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial. But more countries need to do the same. And a growing number of countries, including Austria, France, Germany and Romania have adopted legislation that makes Holocaust denial a crime, and here too, more should do so.
The problem also exists in the Islamic world, where in many countries young people are taught that the Holocaust is a myth perpetrated by Zionists playing on international sympathy in order to wrest land from the Palestinians. Much credit goes to the Secretary General of the Muslim World League Muhammad Abdul-Karim al-Isa, who led a groundbreaking visit of Islamic leaders to Auschwitz-Birkenau this year on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. The value of such initiatives cannot be overestimated.
The passage of time and the fading of memory is our most daunting challenge. That, and the willingness to believe that such a horrendous period ever happened. For their own nefarious reasons, anti-Semites of all stripes have found common cause, and sick satisfaction from turning history on its ear, and tormenting us by perpetuating the charge that this was all a myth.
Eighty-five years ago, Shlomo Yitzchak, Etel, and Alta Sarah Berzak wrote about their lives, about things that were the most important to them; health issues, news about the family, the hope that they would one day meet up with my grandfather and my mother and continue the conversation in person.
We know their lives were brutally ended, along with six million other Jews, in the blink of an eye. No more letters, no more expressions of love and good wishes, no more exchanges of photos.
To perniciously dismiss their demise by declaring it never happened, is simply unacceptable. These Jews were abandoned once, with such tragic consequences. We must not let it happen a second time, while there is still an opportunity to do all we can to honor their memory and defeat those who would rob it from us.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
B'nai B'rith International has widely respected experts in the fields of: