It was a historic week for many reasons. The world is in reflective mode as it marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The notorious camp has come to represent the incomprehensible, a hell on earth. Having travelled to Auschwitz every year for the last decade, the same ethical and moral questions remain about human nature, our primal needs and the normalization of evil itself.
There was hope for humanity in Jerusalem and beyond this week. Israel welcomed some 50 world leaders to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation. They came to Israel from far and wide not only to pay their respects to the Jewish nation and expand on their shared experience and history, but to recognize the dangers in our word today and to remind each other and the world itself that humanity is not immune.
In a steep warning to the gathered world leaders, world-famous Holocaust historian Professor Yehuda Bauer said, “Antisemitism is a cancer that destroys nations. Hitler was driven by antisemitism and aside from murdering Jews, 29 million (non-Jews) were also murdered in World War II…so there you are my friends, 29 million reasons for you to fight antisemitism.” In other words, antisemitism is an illness that infects everyone in its path.
And this conversation was taken all the way to the Vatican in Rome. In a meeting with the Simon Wiesenthal Center on January 20th, Pope Francis decried the “resurgent, barbaric antisemitism, urging the world to look within and listen in silence to the plea and suffering of humanity.” Gracious, accommodating and understanding, the Pope declared, “I will never tire of firmly condemning every form of antisemitism.” Indeed, speaking to the Catholic Board of Trustees this past weekend, I reminded them of our shared bonds and brotherhood. While there is much to learn from history, Christians and Jews are coming together in unprecedented friendship and collaboration.
In these historic times, we are seeing similar gestures of outreach and friendship emanating from the Muslim world. This week, Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, the Secretary General of the Muslim World League led a delegation of 62 Muslim and 25 religious leaders from 28 countries on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz. In a Washington Post editorial, Al-Issa declared, “The lessons of the Holocaust are universal and Muslims around the world have a responsibility to learn them, heed the warnings and join the international commitment to ensure Never Again.” True, the Muslim world must eradicate antisemitism and recognize Israel, but this is an important step forward that can build bridges of friendship and understanding.
In Jerusalem, world leaders gave powerful speeches that warmed the heart. One of the most poignant was that of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier: “I bow in deepest sorrow…the perpetrators were human beings. They were Germans. Those who murdered, those who planned and helped in the murdering, then many who silently toed the line; they were Germans.” Steinmeier admitted, “I wish I could say that we Germans have learned from history…I cannot say that when Jewish children are spat on in the school yard…or when antisemitism is cloaked in criticism of Israel.”
Representing the United Kingdom, Prince Charles said, “The magnitude of the genocide that was visited upon the Jewish people defies comprehension and can make those of us who live in the shadow of these indiscriminate events feel hopelessly inadequate.” Prince Charles spoke of his grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece who in 1943 in Nazi-occupied Athens saved a Jewish family by hiding them in her home.
Few countries on the planet can bring all sides together like Israel has on multiple occasions. Most notably was the presence of US Vice President Mike Pence and Russian President Vladimir Putin: In recalling the tragedy of the Holocaust and rising tide of antisemitism, Pence called for standing strong against Iran as the “leading state purveyor of antisemitism” and Holocaust denier as a matter of state policy – which “threatens to wipe Israel off the map.” For his part, Putin said: “We are all responsible for making sure that the terrible tragedies of this war will not happen again, that the generations to come will remember the horrors of the Holocaust.”
It’s true that, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “the Jewish people have learned the lessons of the Holocaust – to take seriously the threats of those who seek our destruction and to have the power to defend ourselves by ourselves.” It’s also true that Holocaust remembrance is a unifying vehicle that can bring us all together to disrupt hatred, intolerance and terror wherever it arises. In an opinion piece, our own former Minister of Justice, Irwin Cotler profoundly expressed that “some say that if there had been no Holocaust there would not have been a State of Israel. But it is the other way around, if there was a State of Israel, there would not have been a Holocaust.”
In a world divided and ridden with conflict, Israel presented an opportunity for leaders to come together for a reset. Holocaust remembrance provides the world perspective.
When we reach the brink, it can pull us back. This is why there is hope.