Antisemitism: The Oldest Hatred
Thank you, Ambassador Eizenstat, my good friend Stuart, for that gracious introduction. And thank you for all you have done for this nation, for slave laborers and Holocaust survivors. Years ago, you helped make the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum a reality. Today you help it continue to flourish and educate. Your contribution is unsurpassed.
I am honored beyond measure to have been invited to give this address. The Capitol is America’s public square and the fact that in 1979 President Jimmy Carter signed a resolution originated by Senator John Danforth and passed unanimously by both houses of this Congress determining that the United States government shall mark this day of remembrance in this, America’s most sacred space, speaks volumes about how our nation confronts both the challenges of the past and of the moment.
As Sara Bloomfield likes to remind me, I occupy a unique position in the annals of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I served as a consultant helping to design the permanent exhibition when the site the museum occupies today was just a hole in the ground. I subsequently received two presidential appointments to the Holocaust Memorial Council and chaired three different committees. After completing my terms, I was honored to receive two different fellowships to the Center for Advanced Holocaust research where I wrote two books. As someone who has been a consultant, member of the executive, and a recipient of the museum’s largesse, I feel an immense debt of gratitude to this institution.
And now, I have been entrusted by the President of the United States to monitor and combat what has often been called, and rightfully so, one of the “oldest” or “longest” hatreds. It was this hatred, of course, which was the foundation stone of what we have come to call the Holocaust.
In the past year, I have traveled widely and met with numerous people – Americans and foreigners – in that effort. While the job I do after a year in office still seems new to me, the fight is age old.
Already in the early 8th century, the text of the Passover Haggadah (the text setting forth the order of the Passover seder service) included a line that many of us gathered here recited just a few weeks ago: “in every generation there are those who rise up to destroy us.” Clearly, even in the 8th century, if not earlier, the authors of the Haggadah understood that antisemitism or Jew-hatred, as it might be put more simply, was a stunningly persistent phenomenon. Its ability to adapt over millennia to different political, religious, and social settings was remarkable then and remains so over 1,200 years later.
One might assume that, given the age-old nature of this animus, the world at large would be able to easily identify antisemitism. Long before I entered this position, I was already struck by the fact that so many well-meaning people – Jews and non-Jews – have trouble recognizing it.
This is not reflective of a shortcoming on their part. It is because antisemitism can be sometimes be hard to identify.
Let me explain. Antisemitism has distinguishing characteristics that make it unique among, and different from, other prejudices. Primary among them is that it is a conspiracy theory. The antisemites posit that the purportedly “all-powerful” Jews stealthily conspire to use their ill-gotten financial might, political strength, and inordinate influence to benefit themselves at the expense of non-Jews. The antisemite believes that media, banks, courts, political leaders, and even pandemics are manipulated and controlled by Jews.
Secondly, antisemitism is ubiquitous, coming from every place on the political, national, and religious spectrum, from Christians, Muslims, atheists and even Jews. It flourishes in places where there are Jews and where there are none. Yet even as the conspiracy theory morphs over time and among different groups with varying political outlooks, the underlying perception of the devious, all-controlling, conspiring, cosmopolitan Jew remains remarkably the same.
Thirdly, many people find antisemitism hard to identify because their perception of what a victim of prejudice is does not include the Jew.
As a means of dealing with these and other ambiguities regarding the nature of this hate, Secretary Blinken has “enthusiastically embraced” the non-legally binding working International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
I am often asked what my goal for my tenure in office is. While I hope to be able to reduce the proliferation of expressions of antisemitism, I also hope to enhance the world’s understanding that the fight against antisemitism is not a niche issue.
The fight against antisemitism is about far more than protecting Jews — although that in its own is enough. It is about a fundamental obligation of a government to keep its citizens safe — especially the most vulnerable, including members of religious and ethnic minority groups.
In any country where antisemitism and other forms of hatred are left to rage, democracy is at risk. Freedom is at risk. Security is at risk. Stability is at risk. Unchecked hatred led, slowly but inexorably, to the ultimate horror of the Holocaust. And the horrific ideas which produced the Holocaust engulfed persons with disabilities, Roma, gay men – and so many others. In the decades since, around the world, we have seen how these same flames of hatred can be fanned to ignite societal tensions into violence, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, genocide, and destruction on a terrible scale.
Antisemites cling to their conspiratorial fantasies even though, in the last century, Nazi Germany managed to murder a third of world Jewry while the world stood by. Had the Jews been the all-powerful group that antisemites believe them to be, would they have “allowed” that to be done?
For decades, Americans could treat antisemitism as a problem for other countries to resolve. Here, we considered it more theoretical than tangible. But this is no longer the case.
Today we are witnessing a rise in antisemitism worldwide – the United States included. That is why President Biden, Vice President Harris, Secretary Blinken, and governors and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle rightly consider antisemitism not just a threat to a particular group of Americans, but also a threat to democracy and international security.
In fact, the issue has become so urgent that President Biden in December ordered federal departments and agencies to come together to develop the first national strategy to counter this vicious hatred.
Numerous other countries and the European Union have done the same.
What’s more, antisemitism isn’t simply a big picture problem to be studied and analyzed; its effects are felt daily up close and personal on a very human scale. It impacts Jews’ regular routines and lives. There is hardly a Jewish institution in Europe or the United States that doesn’t have some security at its door. At my synagogue, police officers and congregants patrol the grounds. If they do not recognize you as a “regular,” they question you. It’s decidedly different from many other houses of worship where the doors are open to all who wish to enter.
Many Jewish students pick colleges based on how safe it is to openly identify as a Jew. Some think twice about putting a mezuzah containing verses from the Torah, on their door. Parents, who used to allow their young teens to walk to synagogue on their own, now hesitate to do so. Some fear to send their children to Jewish schools. They counsel their children to tuck their Jewish stars under their shirts – ballcaps are often employed to cover their kippot, or skull caps. Parents of middle school and high school students worry as they see their children’s classmates openly express antisemitism, even as the school administration dithers about what to do.
This is, too often, the contemporary Jewish reality in America, and in other countries.
It is notable that this reality of Jew-hatred, whether here in America or in other venues too numerous to enumerate, has not defeated the Jewish people. The Haggadah’s statement that “in every generation there are those who rise up to destroy us,” is followed by the far more positive affirmation “and God rescues us from their hands.” Believers may see divine intervention. Others see it as an expression of an age-old resiliency. And yet others see both.
But divine intervention and Jewish resiliency alone are not enough. We all have a role to play. People of all nationalities, identities, and faiths often ask me: “what can I do?” This I can answer speak out. Speaking out may not eradicate antisemitism but it can contain it.
When you hear something, say something, whether it’s at the office, market, gym, or airport. If the person is making the remark in ignorance, point out its fallacy. If it’s being made maliciously, make it clear that such language is unacceptable. If the person saying it is from your group, speak out even more forcefully.
Saying nothing emboldens the antisemite and normalizes prejudice. We often keep silent because we do not wish to make a fuss. But that option is no longer viable. We may make colleagues, friends, fellow shoppers, or guests uncomfortable. We may lose a friend. But do we really want to be friends with someone who harbors such beliefs?
The President and his administration are calling out antisemitism and acting to counter it. So must we all. Speaking out may be costly for some. Keeping silent is far costlier for all.
I close with a note of cautious and relative optimism, something that is rare when speaking of Jew-hatred. In the face of the increasing normalization of antisemitism, we often hear people asking: is this the same as the 1930s? Are we on the edge of a historical and tragic redux? I can answer with a resounding “no.” Today is radically different.
In the 1930s and 1940s the persecution was emanating from governments. Governments were expelling, persecuting, and eventually murdering Jews. Today, it is quite different. I stand before you as someone who is a Presidentially nominated, Senate-confirmed Special Envoy whose mandate it is counter this vile form of hate. I hold a position that the Congress elevated to the Ambassadorial level. From both sides of this Capitol, we hear – as recently as last week – repeated bipartisan calls for ensuring that my office has the full support necessary to fight this fight. Moreover, I am not alone. Other countries have appointed people to similar positions focused on antisemitism and/or Holocaust issues.
Imagine if there had been a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat antisemitism in the United States State Department or in other foreign offices in the world –
- in 1938 after Kristallnacht, when Jews were desperate to find a haven
- in 1939 when the SS St. Louis and other ships which carried refugees were turned away
- in 1942 when the deportations were at their height and trains were rolling across Europe bring Jews to their death
- in spring 1944 when Nazi defeat was a sure thing, yet the Germans with the help of the Hungarian Axis regime deported 500,000 Hungarian Jews and murdered most of them.
- or in fall of 1944 when the existence of gas chambers in Auschwitz and Birkenau were confirmed and so many people implored our government to stop the killings.
In addition to the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, and the members of the United States Congress, fully supporting the work of my office, and that of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, today we also have, thanks to the bipartisan support of this government, a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This living memorial to the Holocaust educates and inspires both the public at large and professionals from every segment of society — law enforcement, judiciary, military, diplomacy, medicine, education, and religion — to gain fresh insight into their responsibilities today.
We do all this, so that, as President Carter and Senator Danforth together with so many others wished, we can finally stop the past from being repeated. This support allows me to, in the words of the Book of Devarim/ Deuteronomy, to “be strong and of good courage.”
But the full support of the U.S. and other governments is not sufficient to combat antisemitism. Governmental efforts must go hand in hand with the support of all people of good conscience, by all, including those who hold no official position but who know that the peace and wellbeing of the world in which they live is threatened by Jew-hatred and hatred of all sorts.
Together let us rise as one and say: after the genocide of World War II and the many genocides that have followed and continue to follow in its wake, enough is enough. When we see hatred of any kind, we will rise up and speak out with one voice.
This cannot stand. This shall not stand. Enough is enough.