A little less than a month ago, I joined two hundred Jews from around the world at Auschwitz-Birkenau, as we gathered together both to memorialize the victims of the Nazi Genocide and to celebrate the renewal of Jewish life in Poland. Joining us that day was Marcel Zielienski, a Holocaust survivor, who as a 10-year-old boy walked the 60 miles from Auschwitz to Krakow after the Russian liberation in January 1945. Together we stood at the spot in Birkenau where Dr. Mengele selected who would go to forced labor and who to the gas chambers. We said memorial prayers for the dead at the crematoria where over 1 million people—mostly Jews—were murdered.
Standing at Auschwitz that day, it never occurred to me that I would so quickly have to confront Holocaust denial when I returned home to the San Francisco Bay Area. But, a few weeks ago, I found myself driving home from the gym when I answered an unknown number on my cell phone. On the other side of the line was a menacing voice calling on me to “End the Jewish takeover of America” by voting for John Fitzgerald for Congress. It was a terrifying experience. While Fitzgerald has denied any responsibility for the phone calls, their tone and rhetoric closely align with the positions Fitzgerald advances on his campaign’s website: there, he questions the historical veracity of the Holocaust and advances tired conspiracy theories alleging Jewish control of media, finance, and government.
It is tempting to ignore people like John Fitzgerald, or to dismiss them as fringe actors. For the most part, California’s District 11—where I live—enjoys a culture of acceptance and diversity. Our values are best captured by our annual Martin Luther King Day observances, where people of many faiths, races, and political background come together to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy of justice and to advocate for those who still find themselves on the margins of society. My own congregation enjoys very positive relationships with elected leaders from across the political spectrum, and we are appreciative of the Republican Party’s withdrawal of support for Fitzgerald’s candidacy.
The sad truth is, though, that Fitzgerald’s ideas do not exist in a vacuum. The Anti-Defamation League has identified no fewer than 9 candidates whose views could be categorized as racist or extremist. In Walnut Creek, we’ve had to deal with hate directed towards our own religious institutions; earlier this year, local congregations—including my own Synagogue—had to make special arrangements when the Westboro Baptist Church brought its brand of hate to our neighborhood.
As historian Deborah Lipstadt has recently noted, Fitzgerald represents a new breed of Holocaust deniers whose rhetoric is particularly insidious. Ignoring mountains of historical evidence including the personal narratives of survivors, criminal convictions and guilty pleas of Nazis and their collaborators, and physical artifacts of mass murder, bad actors claim to simply be “asking questions.” The truth is, though, that they seek to delegitimize the Holocaust, its victims, and its survivors while deploying the same anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish control and conspiracy that helped give rise to the Holocaust itself. And they do all of this under the guise of creating a “more honest” discourse.
As we approach the upcoming election, we should be mindful of those shared values that unite us as a country. Early in his Presidency, George Washington sent a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island; it famously reads in part: “happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” I know my community and have confidence in my neighbors; we will continue to reject the ideas of Fitzgerald and his ilk and will not allow his rhetoric to deter us from our important work building a more just and more equitable society.