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Efraim Zuroff

IHRA’s success and difficult dilemma

This week we observe International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27, the day of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp as mandated by the United Nations in 2005. If there was initial skepticism regarding this initiative, especially in countries which already had designated their own memorial days linked to the dates of important local events in the history of the Shoa, like Israel for example, I think that by now there is general approval for the need for an international memorial day observed all over the world on the same date. Thus one day can be devoted primarily to mourning, while the other day can be reserved for dealing the very important political issues which relate to the causes which led to the Shoa, and particularly anti-Semitism.

One organization which has accurately recognized the connection between the Shoa and its anti-Semitic roots, and is trying to uproot the latter, is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which has become one of the most important groups promoting Holocaust education throughout Europe, North and South America, and Israel. IHRA was founded in May 1998 by Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, who was shocked by a survey which showed that manyS Swedish schoolchildren lacked knowledge of the Holocaust, as well as his visit to the site of the Neuengamme concentration camp in Germany. Originally named the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, Germany and Israel joined the initiative the same year as its first members.

Today, 35 countries are full members of IHRA, and 10 additional countries have Observer status. IHRA is playing a major role in a variety of areas connected to Holocaust commemoration, Research and education, as well as in combatting anti-Semitism. And in fact, its most outstanding contribution has most probably been its adoption in 2016 of its Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, which according to the Combat Antisemitism Movement has been endorsed/adopted until the end of 2022, by a total of 1,116 entities, among them 39 countries, 464 non-federal government entities, 339 educational institutions, and 274 NGO’s and organizations. The definition, unlike various other descriptions of anti-Semitism, covers all the existing variations from right and left, including those focused on Zionism, and which unfairly single out Israel for criticism, which are often overlooked or ignored.

There are, however, various problems which plague IHRA’s activities. The first and foremost is that resolutions must be approved unanimously by all the member countries, but there are no consequences for those countries which do not implement them. The most disturbing example has to do with the issue of Holocaust distortion, which is rampantly prevalent in the post-Communist “new democracies” in Eastern Europe. In those countries, they do not deny the Holocaust, but they hide or minimize the highly significant role played by their nationals in the mass murder of the Jews, and promote the canard of equivalency between Communist and Nazi crimes thereby deflecting attention from their crimes and focusing attention on their suffering.

Thus in 2020, IHRA issued a Ministerial Declaration which addressed the issue in unequivocal terms as follows: “We accept our responsibility as governments to continue working together to counter Holocaust denial and distortion…We will continue to work closely with experts, civil society and our international partners to further these goals.” Another declaration under the heading of: “Leading global efforts to counter Holocaust and distortion,” specifically mentions “a shocking increase in efforts to minimize the impact of the Holocaust and downplay the crimes of the Nazi regime and its collaborators. This trend, in which Holocaust distortion inches toward the mainstream, erodes our understanding of the historical truth of the Holocaust and fuels antisemitism.”

IHRA has even created a tool kit against distortion, and the German Presidency launched a global task force against Holocaust distortion which was given an extra-budgetary contribution. In addition, a global campaign to raise awareness about Holocaust distortion was launched, using slogans such as “#Protect the Facts,” and “#Say No To Distortion.”

The problem is, however, that the same countries which are the worst offenders when it comes to distortion, such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Croatia, Poland, Hungary and Romania cannot be punished, or expelled from IHRA. They remain members in good standing, and continue to deny the highly-significant role of their local collaborators in the murders. Thus, ironically, Croatia, a country which suffers from a significant proportion of Ustasha (Croatian fascists) supporters will ascend to the Presidency of IHRA, despite serious problems of Holocaust distortion ever since they became independent from Yugoslavia.

About the Author
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center's Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.