From the Book of Deuteronomy: Zecher Yemot Olam, benu Sh’not dor va’dor. Remember the days of yore. Learn the lessons of the generations that preceded you…
Not long ago I visited Berlin with the Second Gentleman of the United States, Mr. Douglas Emhoff. The date was January 30th, and we were in a country and in a city, where on that day 90 years ago, a maniacal mass murderer came to power and began the greatest antisemitic campaign in history. Not far from we were sat to partake in a lovely dinner hosted by U.S. Ambassador to Germany Dr. Amy Gutmann, thousands of Germans had marched with torches celebrating Hitler’s rise to power. Their chants and cheers were laced with antisemitic rhetoric.
Hitler and Nazism, we like to tell ourselves, had been thoroughly defeated. But now we were there to do something most of us never thought would be necessary 90 years after Hitler’s campaign that took the life of one out of every three Jews on the face of the earth: fight the very same hatred on which Nazi Germany had relied to make the Shoah, the Holocaust, possible.
But we were in a country that has seriously addressed the act of remembering. There are many historians who wish that other countries, including my own, remembered their particular wrongs — whether they reached the extent of a genocide or not — with the same commitment that democratic Germany has.
Yet, this “remembering” notwithstanding, all is not well neither in that country, nor in my own, nor in so many others in the world. The specter of antisemitism has returned and has insinuated itself in so many places.
Stories of the recent surge in antisemitism seem to crop up everywhere, among Jews and non-Jews – among people of different political, religious, and cultural backgrounds. A mother in a major European city shared that she was proud when her children chose to wear Jewish star necklaces and relieved that they tucked them under their shirts before going out.
What used to be the chilling norm mainly outside the United States is now increasingly the case inside it. Parents must explain to their children why the synagogue they attend has an armed guard at the entrance, while the church across the street has none.
They think twice about signing up their children for preschool at their Jewish Community Center because they fear for their safety. When the FBI Issued a warning that there was a threat against Jewish institutions in New Jersey, parents throughout the region whose children attend Jewish schools chose to keep their kids home.
The concern about antisemitism is changing how many Jews live their lives. Not only are strangers at Jewish institutions treated with suspicion, people who wear clothing that distinguishes them as Jewish often find themselves violently assaulted or taunted in the street.
Even when the physical damage is minimal, the psychological dislocation cannot be dismissed. Parents walking with their children in their own neighborhood often no longer feel secure. Such a parent recently asked if we thought they should fight back, pursue the assailant, or just assure their children that this is a rare occurrence, even when they know it is not.
Jewish college students often find themselves facing an unconscious form of antisemitism. Their complaints about it are regularly dismissed as lacking in urgency or importance. Jewish students are condemned for Israel’s actions, irrespective both student’s personal political views – if any – and the particulars of Israel’s actions.
One of the striking things about this surge in antisemitism is the degree to which it is normalized and politicized. Some comedians use it to get laughs. Some politicians make all sorts of comments laced with not-so-subtle innuendo.
All this was the backdrop to the trip I made with the Second Gentleman. Prior to coming to Germany, we were in Poland and walked across the world’s largest death camp – the Auschwitz-Birkenau German Nazi concentration and extermination camp. We saw the ruins of the gas chambers and pits where the Nazis dumped the ashes of close to a million Jews.
For the Second Gentleman, it was his first visit. For me it is a place I have visited over a dozen times. I have done research about that place. I have participated in making movies that fought those who would deny it. I have fought court battles against those who would say there were no gas chambers.
But all that experience fades into oblivion when I am there. Every time I walk that vast expanse of space, I am overwhelmed, as I know he was.
I am thunderstruck by the silence, by the void, by what we do not hear, the voices unheard, the souls destroyed, the voice of the child who wore those little shoes we saw, the woman on whose foot was that red shoe at the top of the pile. I sense the absence of the people who brought their few possessions in those suitcases.
AND I remember the silence of the rest of the world, including my own country’s.
I began with a quote from Hebrew Scriptures which commands us to remember. But it also instructs us to learn from the past.
It was in that spirit that we gathered in Berlin with envoys from other countries, the EU, and the European Council, who have been tasked to counter antisemitism. This was the third meeting we had convened since my entry into office. We met in New York, Brussels and now Berlin. We shall continue these multilateral exchanges to explore how governments might respond and have responded to this scourge.
President Biden has made rooting out antisemitism an urgent priority of his Administration. On December 12, President Biden established the interagency working group on countering antisemitism, Islamophobia, and related forms of bias and discrimination and charged it with developing a national strategy on countering antisemitism as its first order of business. Just this past Monday, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice, and Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall convened a Principals Committee Meeting of the Interagency Group. The Second Gentleman underscored the need for a coordinated, whole-of-government approach to tackle antisemitism and all forms of hatred in the U.S.
Separately, the working group also has begun hosting listening sessions with external stakeholders and experts to help inform the national strategy to counter antisemitism. The goal is to hear directly from a wide range of stakeholders, including the Jewish community, civil rights and faith leaders, civil society, the private sector, and others on how to counter antisemitism as a threat both to the Jewish community and all Americans.
People often ask me, how is it possible for me to do my job? How can I endure facing and fighting this hatred on a daily basis? How do my colleagues endure it?
In fact, those of us who gathered around that table in Berlin, those of us whose remit includes fighting this hatred, are the lucky ones. Everywhere I go, whether it is in this country or other countries, people – of all faiths, ethnicities, and nationalities – the same people who wonder how I can endure this job also ask with palpable determination and conviction: “what can I do? What can we do? I want to be part of this fight.”
We, who fight this on a professional basis, are lucky because it is our job to fight it. But no government plan can solve this problem. Governments can do much. At a time when antisemitism is being normalized, politicized, and used to get laughs no government response alone – however vigorous — will ever be sufficient to overcome this hatred.
There is something people can do. Government needs the voices and the actions of the people at large. During our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, we were overwhelmed by the sounds of silence. Now we must be overwhelmed by the sounds of people calling out those who would engage in this hatred.
One need not hold a lofty position to raise your voice to be part of this process. Neutrality, which is what silence is, is not an option. If you stand silently by, you have sided with the oppressor.
Whether you hear the insidious antisemitic crack at a dinner party, in a conference room or while working out at the gym: you must speak up vigorously and unabashedly.
Whether you are a social influencer with scores of followers or someone having coffee with a friend, you must say: this is not acceptable.
It is time — it is well past time — to make this hatred a thing of the past. It is time to make the antisemite a social pariah and to replace the silence with a chorus of voices proclaiming this shall not stand.
It is time to give life to the verse with which I opened and to say: Zekhor: We remembered. Binu: we learned.
And now, we have acted.