As we approach the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, established to coincide with the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, the coming together of several pieces of reality make this a special occasion.
First, as this is a big anniversary, the 75th of the liberation, the realization that few survivors will be around to celebrate future big anniversaries is upon us. The imperative to get as many testimonies as possible, as the USC Shoah Foundation is doing, and to expose young people to those testimonies, must be doubled down. Creative education to help young folks connect to those now distant events takes on even greater meaning.
Second, if there’s one thing we all can do on this anniversary to honor the perished is to commit ourselves to avoid politicizing anti-Semitism. The imperative of “Never Again,” which has emerged from the Holocaust, clearly is intended to have everyone stand up against a resurgence of anti-Semitism wherever it comes from.
At a time where we see violence and other aggressions against Jews coming from the right, from the left, from within majority communities, from within minority communities, this is not a moment that we should allow politics to poison the willingness to stand together against hatred of Jews. The true test as to whether politicians or others are serious in combating anti-Semitism, not merely engaging in rhetoric, is if they are willing to condemn it when it comes from people of their own ideology, own community, own political party.
It is also a moment where we need to reinforce the double message of the Shoah.
First is the moral theme. We must condemn anti-Semitism and all forms of hate and do it early on. Of course, the Shoah was the most extreme manifestation of anti-Semitism and no one should suggest that even the violence against Jews in recent times is at all reminiscent of the Holocaust. But it is necessary to talk about it because it is the ultimate warning sign that if hate is not dealt with early on and taken seriously, it could grow, take on worse and worse forms, and even result in genocide.
The lesson therefore is one of standing up early and often against hate.
The second lesson for the Jewish people is a pragmatic one: Jews can never again be powerless in the face of evil. The great tragic coming together of events resulting in the Shoah was that at the very time that a party, the Nazis, committed to the destruction of the Jewish people, gained power first in Germany and then through most of Europe, the Jewish people were powerless. They had no army. They had no country of their own. They had no ability to convince nations around the world to open their doors. Powerlessness at the worst possible moment.
It is ironic that this powerlessness came at a time that the major justification for the hatred of Jews was the fantastical claims of overweening, poisonous Jewish power. This was reflected in the publication in the beginning of the century of the fraudulent document known as the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” which was used by Hitler to a fare-thee-well to justify his assault on the Jews.
Fortunately, with the founding of the state of Israel and the support of the United States and the American people, Jews are no longer powerless or alone. With power comes responsibility, but that is a challenge 75 years after Auschwitz that should be welcomed.
It is important as we remember the disaster that was the Holocaust and the connection of centuries of anti-Semitism deeply embedded in Western civilization to that event– its connection to the perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders–and as we are deeply troubled by the resurgence of anti-Semitism, we also should speak to positive developments that give hope for the future. That is why the community honors rescuers to show that even in the worst of times, good people can stand up and make a difference.
That is why it is vital to highlight the positive changes in the Catholic Church in the last 50 years. Historic sources of anti-Semitism are not inevitable.
That is why we must commend the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance for promoting Holocaust education around the world and for adopting a working definition of anti-Semitism, including conspiratorial assaults on the good name of the state of Israel, that is increasingly becoming the standard.
That is why we recognize for good that when the tragic shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue took place more than a year ago, representatives of different faiths and different communities rallied around the Jewish community.
This International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a sobering one for what we commemorate and for what we are currently experiencing. The best gift we can give to the remaining survivors and to all those who perished is to commit not only to remember but to come together, politics aside, to stand against the latest incarnation of the oldest poison.