This week, I led a Simon Wiesenthal Center delegation for an audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican. My visit with him came at a time when anti-Semitism and bigotry have again taken center stage threatening our world and the future of humankind.
The meeting took place on the exact day 78 years before when 14 people, many of them graduates of Germany’s finest universities, sat around the table in Wannsee, Germany to plot the “Final Solution,” a code word that would lead to the extermination of six million Jews, one third of all the Jews at that time.
Who could have imagined that a mere eight decades later, as the world stops to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we would again be witnessing another worldwide epidemic of anti-Semitism and hate? Hitler himself, in a letter days before committing suicide, thought it would take a few centuries before National Socialism would be back in vogue. Yet, here we are, a mere 75 years later and it would be difficult to name a single country in Europe or North America where anti-Semitism has not returned with a vengeance.
I appealed to the pope, as the leader of the Christian world, to help us confront this debasement of humanity. I told him that we needed his leadership and moral voice in fighting this epidemic of hate.
Here we are in 2020 and anti-Semitism and bigotry are present everywhere in the heart of our democracies in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, and Berlin. This hate has now crossed the Atlantic and infected America’s cities, and her prestigious universities like Columbia and NYU, UCLA and Stanford. It is present even in the halls of Congress and in the corridors of the United Nations.
Worse, the attacks often take place in broad daylight, even on trains and buses — witnessed by hundreds of onlookers who stand by silently.
Shockingly, these attacks, reminiscent of the Holocaust years, often target religious Jews identified by their skull caps, or by their beards. That is what happened in New York when a Hasidic rabbi was attacked while lighting Hanukkah candles in the privacy of his home. And in Florida, where a 68-year old Jewish man was shot six times while walking to his synagogue.
How can we explain to ourselves that 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the leaders of Iran continue to publicly deny that there ever was a Holocaust? Yet their leaders still receive VIP treatment when visiting almost every country in the world.
Jews are not the only people being attacked. I pointed out to Pope Francis that Christians in Kenya and Nigeria are being beheaded and targeted in bloody terrorist attacks. They too must have our attention and solidarity, our expressions of outrage and commitment. Indifference is too high a price to pay for men and women to stand by and do nothing. We all have the ability and the responsibility to stand up to the evil that threatens our world.
Let us remember that Winston Churchill said that if the world challenged the Nazis in the early 1930s, tens of millions would have been spared from making the ultimate sacrifice in the 1940s. And the words of Simon Wiesenthal, the legendary Nazi hunter, who warned, “Freedom is not a gift from heaven; it is something we have to fight for each and every day.”
Unfortunately, religious leaders were not at the forefront of confronting Hitler’s Nazism and we dare not make the same mistake again. Instead, let us build a coalition of Jews, Christians and Muslims, standing shoulder to shoulder in the battle against anti-Semitism and hate, so we can win the day for our children, grandchildren, and future generations.