‘Never let us be defined by antisemitism’

Yad Vashem conference applies lessons of Holocaust to contemporary issues.

December 29, 2016 19:28
3 minute read.

Yad Vashem conference

Yad Vashem conference


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A key message drummed home by speakers at a conference of Jewish educators, hosted by Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, is that Jews must learn from the history of antisemitism, but must never allow themselves to be defined by it.

On Thursday, the fourth and final day of the conference titled “The Shoah and Jewish Identity Challenges in Jewish Education,” the conversation centered on contemporary issues in the Jewish world, including antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

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Britain’s former chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, opened the day with a speech titled “Being Jewish in a Troubled World,” delivered by video.

“We know you only change the world by changing people, and you only change people by educating them,” he told the auditorium filled with Jewish day-school principals, teachers and senior Jewish Studies educators from 34 countries and six continents around the globe. “The world tomorrow is born in lessons we teach today.

“What the victims of the Holocaust died for, we must live for,” he said, reiterating throughout his address that “Judaism is about life.”

Noting that many Holocaust survivors did not discuss their harrowing experiences for decades, but focused first on building themselves new lives, Sacks said, “If you are a Jew, you build the future, and only then do you mourn the past.”

He also advised against searching for an explanation for the Holocaust. “When I stood for the first time at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the questioned that overwhelmed me was not where was God but where was humanity. Somehow civilization failed to civilize. Where was man?” he asked.

“To be a Jew is not to seek justification for suffering, but it is to fight suffering,” he added.

“Never let us be defined by antisemitism,” he stressed. “Let us realize its significance goes way beyond the Jews. What starts with Jews never ends with Jews. Jews were hated because they were different.”

Taking the stage later in the morning, Irwin Cotler, former Canadian justice minister, attorney-general and Parliament member, backed the sentiment of Sack’s message.

“I share with Sacks that we cannot allow antisemitism to define our identity, but we cannot ignore the history of antisemitism and the lessons to be learned from it,” he said.

“[Some] 1.1 million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz. Let there be no mistake about it. Jews were murdered because of antisemitism, but antisemitism did not die at Auschwitz – it remains today the canary in the global mine shaft of evil,” he continued, agreeing with Sacks that it is not a phenomenon that affects Jews alone.

Cotler turned his attention to what has become known as “new antisemitism,” which he described as “a discrimination against, denial of, assault upon the right of Israel and the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations.”

He said the manifestation of new antisemitism first found its institutional and international juridical expression in the United Nations’ “Zionism is racism” resolution of 1975.

“Under the protective cover of the United Nations as we meet, the UN General Assembly yet again has adopted 20 resolutions of condemnation against one member state, that happens to be Israel, and four resolutions against the rest of the world community combined,” Cotler said, accusing the UN of not only singling Israel out but also giving exculpatory immunity to major human rights violators such as China, Russia and Iran.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post after his speech, Cotler emphasized that the UN was set up to promote and protect universal human values, which includes protection against racism and antisemitism. He asserted, however, that the manner in which the UN and its agencies has “singled out Israel for consistent discriminatory treatment,” has helped fuel antisemitism.

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