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Diplomacy in Action

Centropa Summer Academy Program: Remarks to Educators for Holocaust Education Program

Hannah Rosenthal
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
July 12, 2011


Good afternoon! Ladies and Gentlemen, it is an honor to have the opportunity to talk with you today. As educators, you play a critical role to help develop the next generation of citizens, not only for each of your respective countries, but for the world.

Being in Sarajevo is important for two reasons -- we can see, and feel, and hear the stories of how Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Catholics really did get along, and we can see what happened when people let their differences get in the way of peaceful coexistence.

I have been to most of your countries – you are coming from Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S.. You probably have stories of cooperation and conflict in your own communities. I am thrilled that you are participating in this Centropa program where you have had the opportunity to interact with colleagues from 14 countries and learn about the richness of Jewish life and contributions in Europe. I hope that in the past week’s workshops, you have been able to focus on the importance of memory, and how modern technologies will help keep those memories alive and meaningful. I hope the dual tools of memory and technology have helped you as teachers to share stories and project ideas with each other, and that those devices will help your students during the school year, as they collaborate in class, and well into the future.

People of different religions in this region got along for several centuries – when Jews and Muslims, and Orthodox and Catholics, all lived side by side. Did they love each other? Surely not all of them. But did they get along and depend on each other? Of course they did. While the Nazis almost completely destroyed the Sephardic Jewish world in Bosnia-Herzegovina, many surviving Jews returned to the area after the war.

The Jewish community played a significant humanitarian role during the ethnic war in the early 1990s. The story of La Benevolencija – a Jewish humanitarian organization formed 100 years ago that promotes welfare for all people irrespective of religion or nationality – is a story of civil society at its best. In the middle of an ethnic war of hate, those who refused to emphasize religious differences and wanted to work together, could do so. Where? In an old synagogue in the middle of a dying city that had been cut off from the world. Who was there to open the doors each day? A tiny band of Holocaust survivors and their children.

What was the book they used as their guide? The Sarajevo Hagaddah. This copy has supposedly survived since 1492 when Jews brought it with them fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. What does it say on the first page of every Hagaddah? "All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All those who are in need of fellowship, let them come and celebrate Passover with us."

In other words, the Jewish community of Sarajevo used the Hagaddah as a how-to book. And we are glad they did...

A month ago, in Lithuania, I spoke to educators there about teaching the Holocaust. As I noted, the Holocaust affected Lithuania, as it affected your countries in one way or another, and it should be acknowledged. The Holocaust and World War II era is a part of your country’s historical narrative, just as the contributions of Jews to European society before the Holocaust is a part of history. What makes the Centropa program so unique is its focus on 20th century Jewish history that engages you as teachers, as well as your students, with Holocaust education in innovative ways. In teaching about the Holocaust, memory plays an invaluable role: memories from survivors, victims, witnesses and perpetrators of the Holocaust have contributed significantly to what we know and understand about the Holocaust. These memories have shaped the way we perceive history and respond to it.

We are facing an inevitable challenge to Holocaust education. What will we do when there are no longer survivors, liberators or other eyewitnesses who can recount their firsthand accounts of the Holocaust? Personal testimonies have been an effective tool in Holocaust education over the past several decades. Soon we will rely only on videos or recordings of their testimonies. In the past week, I hope that you have found some useful tools to access memories of Holocaust survivors – whether it’s having a survivor in your town able to speak in your classroom, or it’s a visit to a museum, or a film you show your class -- and incorporate them into your lessons. Channeling your students’ creativity to make memory come alive will ensure your success.

In the 21st century, where everything seems to be instant and high-speed, available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a button, it is important for our education systems to be up-to-date in their ability to incorporate technology in the classroom. I use old and new technologies to communicate with the public about anti-Semitism, as well as human rights, tolerance and democracy. I compile a weekly summary of news articles from around the world – thanks to the Internet, we have access to many sources. These items are subsequently posted on my Facebook page under the heading “Here’s What We’re Hearing” so that social media users are more aware of anti-Semitism around the world.

I also use Facebook and other social media, like Twitter, to connect with people – especially youth -- and to encourage them to go beyond words, speeches, or even lectures by providing a vehicle for them to do something tangible to promote tolerance and practice mutual respect. My colleague Farah Pandith, the Special Representative to Muslims Communities, and I have recently launched a virtual campaign called “2011 Hours Against Hate,” using Facebook. We are asking young people around the world to pledge a number of hours to volunteer to help or serve a population different than their own. We ask them to work with people who may look different, or pray differently or live differently. For example, a young Jew might volunteer time to read books at a Muslim pre-school, or an Orthodox at a Jewish clinic, or a Muslim at a Catholic food pantry. We want to encourage them to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. I encourage you to consider how this initiative would work in your classrooms, in your communities. With young people participating all over the world, they are redefining that the word GLOBALIZATION means.

Using social media to connect individuals is something I expect you will be doing as you move forward with this project. Technology will help connect your students from one country to another, such as in an online forum, where they can share comments and opinions as well as videos. It isn’t only about economics, but about building relationships.

Farah and I began meeting with hundreds of young people earlier this year – students and young professionals – in Azerbaijan, Spain and Turkey – countries that in their histories celebrated Jews and Muslims co-existing and thriving together. They want to DO something. They expressed strong interest in the campaign – and we have already surpassed our goal of 2011 hours pledged against hate. More recently, Farah and I met with youth and interfaith leaders in Jordan and Lebanon, discussing reaching out to others and increasing tolerance and understanding among different religious groups. Really, we have just begun.

As educators, you are each others’ best resources. I am interested in learning about your sessions in Krakow and Vienna, hearing about your cooperation in producing materials that reach the most number of students. I encourage you to continue to collaborate as you return to your respective classrooms.

You, as educators, play one of the most important roles: exposing students to the history, creating a safe space in which to discuss difficult topics, and teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to today’s youth.

I discover more and more the importance of educating youth about the Holocaust – teaching lessons of history, teaching tolerance. As the President’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, I am charged with both monitoring anti-Semitic incidents and combating such intolerance. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have honored me with this appointment and have fully integrated my office into the State Department. In this role, I have been tracking the rise in anti-Semitism around the world, and have seen its alarming presence and growth.

As a child of a Holocaust survivor, anti-Semitism is something very personal to me. My father was arrested – on Kristalnacht, the unofficial pogrom that many think started the Holocaust – and sent with many of his congregants to prison and then to Buchenwald. He was the lucky one – every other person in his family perished at Auschwitz. I have dedicated my life to eradicating anti-Semitism and intolerance with a sense of urgency and passion that only my father could give me.

I have been on the job for more than a year and a half – and I have seen six significant trends in anti-Semitism around the world:

First of all, anti-Semitism is not History, it is News. I run into people who think anti-Semitism ended when Hitler killed himself. More than six decades after the end of the Second World War, anti-Semitism is still alive and well, and evolving into new, contemporary forms of religious hatred, racism, and political, social and cultural bigotry.

This stems from the fact that traditional forms of anti-Semitism are passed from one generation to the next, updated to reflect current events. We are all familiar with ongoing hostile acts such as the defacing of property and the desecration of cemeteries with anti-Semitic graffiti. There are still accusations of blood libel, which are morphing from the centuries-old accusations by individuals that Jews killed children to use their blood for rituals, to accusations that Jews kidnap children to steal their organs. Conspiracy theories continue to flourish, such as supposed Jewish control of the U.S. media and the world banking system, or that Jews were involved in executing the September 11 attacks. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” continue to be best sellers in many, many countries, and taught to religious students as truth. The ‘old fashioned’ anti-Semitism is alive and well.

A second phenomenon is Holocaust denial. It is being espoused by religious leaders, heads of State, such as in Iran, in academic institutions, and is a standard on hateful websites and other media outlets. As the generation of Holocaust survivors and death camp liberators reaches their eighties and nineties, the window is closing on those able to provide eyewitness accounts and thus we have a heightened sense of urgency to promote Holocaust education, create museums and memorials, and carry the memory and lessons of the Holocaust forward.

A third, disturbing trend is Holocaust glorification, which can be seen in parades honoring soldiers who fought in the Waffen SS, which glorifies Nazism under the guise of fighting the Soviets and obscures their roles in the Holocaust. Following a March 2011 commemoration in Latvia, a notorious neo-Nazi made blatantly anti-Semitic statements, including incitements to violence against Jews, on a television talk show. The growth of neo-Nazi groups is of special concern in Europe, and Holocaust glorification is especially virulent in Middle Eastern media – some that is state-owned and operated, which calls for a new Holocaust to finish the job. Truly bone-chilling.

A fourth concern is Holocaust relativism – where some governments, museums, academic research and the like are conflating the Holocaust with other terrible events that entailed great human suffering, like the Dirty War or the Soviet regime. No one, least of all myself, wants to weigh atrocities against each other, but to group these horrific chapters of history together is not only historically inaccurate, but also misses opportunities to learn important lessons from each of these historic events, even as we reflect on universal truths about the need to defend human rights and combat hatred in all of its forms. History must be precise – it must instruct, it must warn, and it must inspire us to learn the particular and universal values as we prepare to mend this fractured world.
The fifth trend is the increasing tendency of blurring the lines between opposition to the policies of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism. What I hear from our diplomatic missions, and from non-governmental organizations alike, is that this happens easily and often. I want to be clear – criticism of policies of the State of Israel is not anti-Semitism. But we record huge increases in anti-Semitism whenever there are hostilities in the Middle East. This form of anti-Semitism is more difficult for many to identify. But if all Jews are held responsible for the decisions of the sovereign State of Israel, when governments like Venezuela call upon and intimidate their Jewish communities to condemn Israeli actions – this is not objecting to a policy – this is anti-Semitism. When individual Jews are effectively banned or their conferences boycotted, or are held responsible for Israeli policy – this is not objecting to a policy – this is anti-Semitism.

Natan Sharansky identified three ways that he believes crosses the line: “It is anti-Semitic when Israel is demonized, held to different standards or delegitimized.” The U.S. is often the only “no” vote in international bodies where countries seem to have an obsession with singling out Israel for disproportionate condemnation.

The sixth trend is the growing nationalistic movements which target ‘the other’ – be they immigrants, or religious and ethnic minorities -- in the name of protecting the identity and ‘purity’ of their nation. When this fear or hatred of the ‘other’ occurs or when people try to find a scapegoat for the instability around them, it is never good for the Jews, or for that matter, other traditionally discriminated against minorities. The history of Europe, with Russian pogroms, Nazism, and ethnic cleansing here in the Balkans provides sufficient evidence. And when government officials talk about protecting a country’s purity, we’ve seen that movie before.

The State Department monitors these trends and activities and reports on them in all 198 countries and territories – in two major annual reports: The International Religious Freedom Report and the Human Rights Report. I am now involved in developing a major training initiative for State Department employees so they can better monitor what is happening in their countries, and sensitize them to the various forms of anti-Semitism. This will make our annual reports more comprehensive, and allow us to do an even better job of monitoring and confronting anti-Semitism in all its forms. These reports tell us that many countries are pushing hard to advance human rights and fight discrimination. It also tells us that there is so much more work to do. If we don’t chronicle it, if we don’t name it, we can’t fight it.

Of course, it isn’t enough to study and monitor these deeply troubling trends. It is critical that we act to reverse them.

My approach to combating anti-Semitism is not just to preach to the choir, so to speak, but to join in partnership with non-Jews in condemning it – government, civil society, international institutions, business leaders, labor unions, and media.

Last summer, Secretary Clinton launched an initiative to strengthen civil society across the globe and she instructed all of us in the State Department and all our overseas posts to treat civil society as strategic partners. Partnering with opinion leaders from civil society as well as government -- as well as building bridges among ethnic and religious groups, is the way to change a culture – from fear and negative stereotyping to acceptance and understanding, from narrow mindedness to an embrace of diversity, from hate to tolerance. I hope that through Centropa, and your classrooms, you – as members of civil society -- have made solid connections that will last through more than the next school year, when you reach out to students and your communities.

Together, we must confront and combat the many forms of hatred in our world today. Where there is hatred born of ignorance, we must teach and inspire. Where there is hatred born of blindness, we must expose people to a larger world of ideas and reach out, especially to youth, so they can see beyond their immediate circumstances. Where there is hatred whipped up by irresponsible leaders, we must call them out and answer as strongly as we can – and make their message totally unacceptable to all people of conscience.

I congratulate you for participating in this important academy and for combating anti-Semitism and other hatreds in all their forms. I hope you will lead educational efforts to make anti-Semitism something only found in history books. We are counting on you to translate the lessons of the past to create a better and more tolerant world.

Thank you for all you are doing and will be doing.

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