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.
Dir. of Legislative Affairs Op-ed in the Algemeiner: Cultural Trends and Jewish Academics Give New Lifeline to Antisemitism
The recent struggle to remove antisemitic and anti-Israel content from a California ethnic studies curriculum demonstrated the formidable challenge posed by the academic doctrines of Critical Race Theory and “intersectionality.”
To the extent that Israel is depicted as a white colonial occupation project and the pro-Palestinian cause as a proxy for racial equity in the United States, the Jewish state will be stigmatized and Jewish individuals and institutions will suffer.
The fight to overhaul earlier drafts of the California curriculum opened a window into the difficulty of the Jewish predicament.
Jews are frequently portrayed as part of the privileged dominant class, while their status as targeted victims is often ignored Israel is seen as a European, colonial outpost, while the fact that most of its Jewish population is descended from communities that lived for centuries in the Arab and Muslim world before their expulsion from those countries, is hopelessly obscured.
In other words, Jews are losing further control of the public narrative about them. This point is underscored by the incursion of antisemitic violence into racial justice protests in the US and Europe. The death of George Floyd was followed by attacks on synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses in a number of cities, most recently three Israeli restaurants in Portland, Oregon, in January. The frequent appearance of the slogan “Free Palestine” in graffiti on Jewish targets showed the popular tendency to register discontent with the Jewish state by harming Jews in the Diaspora. An anti-racism rally in Place de la Republique, in Paris, featured signs with directives such as “Stop collaboration with Israeli State terrorism” as the crowd chanted “dirty Jews.”
Enter into this demoralizing picture two new proposed definitions of antisemitism, one offered by Jewish academics on behalf of the Nexus Task Force; the second, titled the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, presented by a group of progressive Jews under the aegis of the Van Leer Institute. Both documents profess to serve the cause of confronting antisemitism by identifying its contemporary manifestations — unless, of course, those manifestations take the form of anti-Israel demagoguery.
Why would Jewish critics of Israel feel the need to offer these re-imagined definitions of antisemitism?
B’nai B’rith has long advocated for broad usage of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which is steadily gaining acceptance around the globe. The IHRA definition illustrates how criticism of Israel can (and all too frequently does) cross the line from legitimate policy debate into antisemitic hatred.
Demonizing Israel by calling it a racist or Nazi-like state, or simply denying Israel’s right to exist, would be examples of antisemitism under the IHRA definition, because such language is intended to undermine Jewish self-determination and relegate the Jewish state to pariah status, thereby gravely threatening its national security.
Such limitations, however, cause Israel’s most vociferous critics to bristle.
Those who see a basis for comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa no longer wish to feel inhibited about drawing those analogies by a definition originally adopted in 2016 by the IHRA — an international organization comprised of 34 member countries — and since then, by many individual governments around the world. Instead, they would prefer to say, as the Jerusalem Declaration does, that nearly any criticism of Israel is fair game, and is not per se a form of antisemitism.
Both the Nexus Task Force definition and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) open the door for abuse toward Israel, but the latter does this with a disturbing level of specificity.
What’s acceptable under the expansive JDA definition? “Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism.” In other words, Jews are the only people, one could argue without being accused of antisemitism, who are not entitled to a homeland or national movement of their own.
The JDA further tells us that “it is not anti-Semitic, in and of itself, to compare Israel with other historical cases, including settler-colonialism or apartheid.” Meaning, hurling the most insidious possible allegations against Israel, as its critics frequently do in an attempt to challenge the Jewish state’s basis for existing, is not antisemitic. And so on.
According to the JDA, anti-Israel boycotts “are not, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic,” even though the stated intention of the BDS movement’s founders is to eliminate the Jewish state. Nor is imposing a double standard on Israel an act of antisemitism: “In general, the line between anti-Semitic and non-anti-Semitic speech is different from the line between unreasonable and reasonable speech.” Thus, Israel’s critics need not be “reasonable” to wave their free pass when charges of antisemitism surface.
The timing of these two alternative definitions of antisemitism is highly lamentable. With Jews already losing the rhetorical war around social hatreds, the authors are handing out newly minted permission slips to Israel’s harshest critics, as though anyone whose goal is the demonization or outright elimination of the Jewish state would ever strive to be reasonable.
Grotesque distortion of Israel in school curricula is, by the new logic, not antisemitic. Nor is BDS, or incendiary anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations and other international fora.
Anti-Israel hatred that finds expression in the public square or on university campuses, whether such venom explicitly holds Jews accountable for Israel’s actions or not, too often is simply hatred of Jews in another guise. This sinister strategy of using Israel or Zionism as a proxy for Jews has just been infused with new vitality by two new antisemitism definitions that may purport to identify and combat antisemitism, but in truth help facilitate it.
Read Fusfield's expert analysis in the Algemeiner.
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Eric Fusfield.
This year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) General Debate, like so many parts of life in 2020, was completely different this year. The General Debate, though it is dominated by long and dry speeches by world leaders, has always led to some noteworthy moments and drama. This year, the debate was mostly virtual, and it lacked notable breakout moments in the video messages, even from the speakers who are known to be more bombastic.
For B’nai B’rith, the General Debate period focused on the opportunity to meet with world leaders and discuss issues of primary concern to both our organization and the wider Jewish community. As such, for many years, we have served as the coordinator of a group of major American and international Jewish organizations that seek meetings during this one week in September, in addition to other requests that we send out on our own.
When we began to discuss the UNGA internally in late spring it was somewhat unclear as to how to move forward. New York had suffered a catastrophic spring and it was apparent that our normal in-person meetings would not happen. And, of course, the coronavirus was still the only thing that many of us (world leaders included) could think about at the time. Would countries be too focused on combating the virus to participate in our normal discussions? B’nai B’rith has contributed to coronavirus relief efforts around the world, but our disaster relief is not typically a major focus during UNGA meetings, which tend to revolve around issues of anti-Semitism, Iran and Middle East issues.
As the summer came, though, political issues were still very much relevant, as there was much discussion about Israeli plans to extend sovereignty in areas of the West Bank, a landmark peace agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and the U.N. Security Council’s failure to extend an arms embargo against Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. Certainly, anti-Semitism has been a grave concern pre-COVID, but has spiked around the world in connection to the pandemic.
With that in mind, B’nai B’rith requested meetings, making it clear that these would be virtual meetings only. Just as we were unsure about what UNGA would like, so were our diplomatic partners in U.N. missions, New York consulates and embassies in Washington, D.C. Some were unsure if there would even be bilateral meetings surrounding the UNGA, virtual or not. Eventually, though, many countries engaged diplomatically on the sidelines of the UNGA, not wanting to miss an opportunity for dialogue on substantive issues.
Overall, the experience was a mixed bag. We met with fewer leaders than we normally would have and could not meet with some world leaders with whom we usually meet.
But, we were also able to stretch the horizon of these meetings out — from early September throughout October (and possibly beyond) — which allowed us to meet with some leaders that we might not have during a normal UGNA.
We are, as always, grateful to the world the world leaders who gave their time to engage with us on important issues in the global Jewish community during a difficult year. We also want to thank the diplomatic missions that helped us to pull off these meetings. We hope, though, that this will be the only UNGA that we have to experience virtually
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Click here to view more of his additional content.
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