75 years after World War II, Jews deserve freedom from fear, too

Despite being able to defend ourselves and determine our own destiny, we have not yet achieved freedom from fear.

MEDOFF WRITES that FDR refused to bomb railways leading to Auschwitz (Pictured: Railways to Auschwitz, Illustrative) (Arnd Wiegman (photo credit: REUTERS)
MEDOFF WRITES that FDR refused to bomb railways leading to Auschwitz (Pictured: Railways to Auschwitz, Illustrative) (Arnd Wiegman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Seventy-five years ago, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, the ghoulish mass-murder factory that killed as many as 15,000 Jews daily.
“We ran up to them and they gave us hugs, cookies and chocolate,” the late Eva Mozes Kor would recall for the BBC/KCET documentary Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State. “Being so alone, a hug meant more than anybody could imagine....”
Eva, who died this past July Fourth, was 10 at the time.
Today, 46 world leaders gathering for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem are offering the global embrace the Jewish people craved so desperately then. These dignitaries should be “glumstruck”: dumbstruck by the amazing strides Israel – and the rest of the world – has made since World War II, yet glum about the serious work remaining. The forum is titled “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism.” It’s scandalous that we’re still fighting Jew-hatred and not burying it.
Still, there’s great news, too. When US president Franklin Roosevelt articulated the Allies’ war aims in January 1941, he envisioned “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.” Jews today enjoy three of those four freedoms.
Just like huge dining room tables require suitably large houses, freedom of speech and expression presume a larger, more expansive democratic package. Most Jews today enjoy freedom of expression because most Jews live in democracies, with nearly half in Israel, the Jewish-democratic state.
While visiting the Knesset, the leaders should marvel at the miracle of Israeli democracy. Not only have enemies menaced this democracy since its birth, but Israel was mostly populated by immigrants from undemocratic countries. Israel’s democratic vitality rests on Israelis’ deep commitment to these core freedoms, and underscores how deeply Jewish the democratic values of individualism, spiritual independence and ideological diversity are.
While this extensive package of political rights symbolizes the democratic impulse baked into Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland, modern Jews’ freedom of worship represents the other great postwar Jewish political miracle. In 1948, the long-stateless Jewish people achieved statehood; by 1998, the long-unfree Jews mostly lived in free countries. When World War II began in 1939, barely a third of the world’s 16 million Jews enjoyed freedom to worship – or most other freedoms. Since the Soviet Union collapsed and more than one million of its Jews moved to Israel, very few Jews live under dictatorships.
Today, for the first time since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, most Jews are free of oppression. As a result, most Jews enjoy FDR’s third freedom, freedom from want. Not all Jews are rich, but few Jews starve. If most Jews before World War II were dirt poor, today, most are middle-class not because they’re Jewish but because they live in freedom, reflecting democracy’s happy marriage between liberty and prosperity.
Nevertheless, despite being able to defend ourselves and determine our own destiny, we have not yet achieved freedom from fear. It’s mind-boggling that the Jew remains one of the world’s most popular targets, with Israel, the collective Jew, attracting so much of the Jew-hateism today.
HERE, THEN, is this conference’s power and potential. Its power is symbolic, as the world’s leading leaders lead the fight against Jew-hatred, the most plastic hatred – eminently adaptable, depressingly long-lasting, completely artificial, and dangerously toxic. Simply by showing up, each dignitary is repudiating the haters and partially balancing out the legacy of the 1940s, when most countries failed to welcome Jews or fight for them, even while fighting the Nazis. Post-Holocaust, amid so much anti-Zionism, many Jews believe the world is against us. This conference counters that constructively, beautifully.
But the real challenge lies in making the conference real. The delegates must see beyond the three blind spots that help perpetuate Jew-hatred today. With their clouded vision, Jew-haters claim, “I’m not antisemitic, just critical of” Israel or liberal Jews or Orthodox Jewish neighbors or whatever particular bee buzzes around their bonnet. With their selective vision, enablers often see antisemitism only in their partisan enemies, not their political friends. And with their blurry vision, well-intentioned but feeble fighters try fighting hate generically, not Jew-hatred specifically.
To see the problem clearly, this conference should endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition” of antisemitism, which refuses to fall for the Jew-haters’ rationales or be fooled by their masks. Delegates should draw clear redlines when haters obsessively single out Israel, Jews or Judaism. And they should recognize that the most effective strategies against Jew-haters expose those who target Jews specifically.
Beyond making these moral statements, these leaders should target the antisemitism of the campus, the Internet, the street, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. They should leverage their diplomatic muscle to end the anti-Israel obsession in the UN and elsewhere while attacking today’s three most dangerous sources of Jew-hatred: the Iranian mullahs, the Hamas and Palestinian Authority delegitimizers, and the Islamist jihadists. We don’t need another declaration against hate; we need specific action plans and bold leadership commitments.
Clearly, this conference will not eliminate Jews’ rational fear of those who hate us. Over the last 75 years Israel has taught the Jewish people that the best way to fight fear is to stand up for yourself. And we have done that magnificently. But the second-best method is to stand tall with other good people – which is what this Fifth World Holocaust Forum is doing so magnanimously.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas – an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea – and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award finalist. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.


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