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Kristallnacht in Dubai: Finding hope despite a rising tide of extremism

As more and more people know less and less about the Holocaust, new allies in the fight against hate and antisemitism are emerging in the lands of the Abraham Accords
A group of young leaders from Lebanon, Syria, and Gulf countries join the Sharaka organization on the March of the Living, visiting Auschwitz, April 27, 2022. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
A group of young leaders from Lebanon, Syria, and Gulf countries join the Sharaka organization on the March of the Living, visiting Auschwitz, April 27, 2022. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

The world today stands at a dispiriting threshold: as the years tick by, the number of Holocaust survivors who remain to tell their stories diminishes. In Israel, recent estimates put the number of survivors living in the country at 161,400, with an average age of over 85, and almost one in five of remaining survivors aged 90 or older. As the generations pass and the events of the Holocaust fade further into the past, so too do the memories and awareness of its horrors, with one recent survey of adults under the age of 40 in the US finding that over 10 percent of respondents could not even recall having ever heard the word “Holocaust” before. The same study found that over 50% of respondents believed that the final death toll was less than two million.

Perhaps the most troubling finding in that same survey, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, is that approximately half of respondents claimed to have been exposed to Holocaust denial or distortion online. While this is alarming enough of its own accord, it is equally clear that it is merely a manifestation of an equivalent real-world increase in hate crimes, antisemitism, radicalization, and resurgent extremist movements across Europe, some of which can trace their lineage back directly to World War II. As in the past, economic turmoil and hardship are being exploited to fuel the rise of insidious conspiracy theories, and as in the past, there are many who do not support such sentiments and who would consider themselves to be firmly on the right side of history yet are willfully ignoring the evidence of their ears and eyes, ignoring or downplaying the recent rise of the extremist movements.

As the tide of history rises once more, the only solution for those who are committed to ensuring that “Never Again” remains an effective rallying cry and not mere hollow words is to redouble our efforts, to reach out to new audiences and to find new allies to stand with us in our cause. Political events and shifting diplomatic priorities in recent years have opened doors in the Middle East that were long closed and thought to be irredeemably so. The signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 and the subsequent influx of Israeli tourists and trade to the Gulf and Morocco sparked a welcome curiosity in the history, culture, and stories of Israel and the Jewish people. There was a newfound willingness to question old truths, to reexamine partial narratives and to consider and accept new perspectives. These are opportunities that must not be missed — learning and internalizing each other’s past is how we move peace to the next stage, from signatures on a piece of paper to something warmer and more meaningful.

The United Arab Emirates is perhaps the defining example of this shift in focus. Less than two months ago, the foreign minister of the UAE, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, came to Jerusalem for meetings with President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Yair Lapid. As part of his itinerary, the foreign minister made time in his schedule to visit Yad Vashem and to lay a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance. It was a powerful statement.

In this same spirit, International March of the Living will be inaugurating a new Gulf chapter in the United Arab Emirates with an event on November 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht. The Night of Broken Glass remains one of the defining moments of the pre-war years and a catalyst for the atrocities that would follow, as well as a memory that few who lived through it could ever forget. The interfaith event at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum will include a talk by Holocaust survivor Eve Kugler, who will tell her story to an audience of Emirati leaders and schoolchildren. For many of those in attendance, it will be their first encounter with this period in history that for many of us is ever-present and continues to define our lives in myriad ways.

The new chapter promises to be a highly symbolic presence — a place to contemplate and discuss the past within a country that exemplifies the new and brighter future ahead for Israel and the Jewish people and their place in the world.

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Since 1988, the International March of the Living has brought Jewish students, Holocaust survivors, educators, and distinguished leaders from all over the world to Poland to study the history of the Shoah. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, participants march arm in arm from Auschwitz to Birkenau, together with thousands of people of diverse backgrounds and faiths, in memory of all victims of Nazi genocide and against prejudice, intolerance and hate.

For the first time, during the 2022 March of the Living, delegations of Arab students from Israel, and other Arab countries, as well as a delegation from United Arab Emirates led by H. E. Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori, attended the March of the Living. The Arab groups included citizens from Abraham Accords signatory states, and also from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Morocco.

In a historic moment, Dubai will host its first ever Holocaust commemoration on the eve of 2022 international Kristallnacht memorial observances, a powerful symbol of reconciliation, and an important step in ensuring Holocaust education reaches a wider audience.

About the Author
Phyllis Greenberg Heideman is president of International March of the Living, the annual international Holocaust education program.
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