More than any other site, it is Auschwitz that symbolizes the fatal consequences of the collective insanity that gripped large swathes of “civilized” Europe less than a century ago. It was here that the man-made murder machine fueled by hatred of Jews was most efficient. Of all the fronts and battlefields of the Second World War, it was on the small slab of land that holds the network of Nazi extermination camps called Auschwitz-Birkenau that the largest number of human beings – 1.1 million – was massacred. No other venue can make such an infamous claim. When the UN General Assembly finally decided at the end of 2005 to institute International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it chose January 27, the day Russia’s Red Army, aided by Allied forces, liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Therefore, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it was only natural that most media attention was focused on the commemoration ceremonies at Auschwitz.
The Holocaust was remembered elsewhere, however.
In dozens of places across the globe people gathered, though Holocaust ceremonies were conspicuously absent where they are needed most – in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, where the most rabid forms of anti-Semitic prejudices are socially acceptable.
In most, if not all, venues, emphasis was placed not just on commemoration of past events but on recognition of the contemporary dangers presented by the irrational hatred of Jews. The recent murderous attacks in Paris make it impossible to ignore the stubborn lethal obsession with the Jews so many continue to harbor.
However, of all the different International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies, one stood out for its unique attempt to not just commemorate the past but to combat the present day violence directed against European Jews with such murderous affect.
Organized by the European Jewish Congress in cooperation with the Czech Republic and the European Parliament, the two-day event entitled “Let My People Live” was split into two parts. There was a classic commemoration ceremony that took place at the site of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where some 80,000 Jews, including many thousands of children, were detained until they died from the horrible living conditions or were murdered or were deported to Auschwitz or other extermination camps.
At the ancient Prague Castle, the residence of Czech Republic President Milos Zeman, there was a different focus altogether. Here the conference was devoted almost entirely to finding ways of combating contemporary hate crimes, including anti-Semitism.
For several years now, EJC president Moshe Kantor, who made a fortune in the fertilizer industry after acquiring a Russian state-owned company in 1993, has been lobbying European political leaders to develop pan-European measures – including legislation – to fight incitement, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.
Kantor’s efforts are admirable. At great financial expense and out of a strong conviction that anti-Semitism can and must be fought, he has stubbornly pursued his goals through conferences like the one he planned and helped provide funding for in Prague. His initiative to draft more stringent pan-European legislation has, however, come up against some obstacles, particularly the difficulty of reaching a consensus.
This was apparent during one of the panels at Prague Castle. Legal experts Irwin Cotler, Alan Dershowitz, and Yoram Dinstein, a former president of Tel Aviv University, could not agree on which sorts of hate speech should be protected under the auspices of freedom of expression and which should not.
Dinstein, for instance, who is working with legal experts from Italy, Germany, Estonia, and Switzerland to draft a “tolerance law” backed by the EJC, is much more willing to curtail freedom of expression as part of the battle against hate speech. At one point in the discussion, Dinstein said that, according to the legislation he is drafting, the sort of caricatures disparaging Muhammad in the French satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo would be outlawed.
Dershowitz, meanwhile, defended the right even of a “racist, bigoted, horrible magazine” like Charlie Hebdo to publish freely and without legal restraints.
Cotler seemed to take a middle ground between Dinstein and Dershowitz, arguing that some element of restriction on freedom of expression can help fight violence.
When it came time to field questions from the audience – which was made up dozens of European parliament members, diplomats, and EU bureaucrats – similar dissent was registered.
I for one cannot help but share the skepticism of Dershowitz and others at the conference regarding the futility of using legislation to combat different forms of bigotry. Prejudices do not go away just because they are made illegal.
There is also the danger that outlawing free speech will ultimately be counterproductive. Instead of allowing bad opinions to compete and be discredited in the free market of ideas, purveyors of hatred are turned into persecuted martyrs and elevated to hero-like status.
Finally, by using legislation to restrict freedom of speech, the implication is that there are those among us who are qualified to tell others which ideas can be expressed and which cannot. I know of no one whom I trust to censor what I read, hear, and see.
Perhaps the most troubling realization I took away from the conference in Prague Castle, however, was that even supposedly respectable political figures adhere to prejudices, bigotries, and a complete lack of understanding or appreciation for the freedoms offered by liberal democracies.
Cemil Cicek is the speaker of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. In the past he has served as deputy prime minister and government spokesman. Yet, at a conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust, Cicek expertly dodged a question leveled at him by moderator Stephen Sackur of the BBC regarding the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians by Turkey starting in 1915.
During the panel, which included Cicek, Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, Jan Hamacek, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies of the Parliament of the Czech Republic, and Valeriu Stefan Zgonea, president of the Chamber of Deputies of Romania, every time the Turkish parliamentarian mentioned the need to fight anti-Semitism, he added in the same breath “and Islamophobia” in a clear attempt to draw an equivalence between the two.
Neither Sackur nor anyone on the panel nor anyone in the audience confronted Cicek regarding Turkey’s support for Hamas, a rabidly anti-Semitic terrorist organization that includes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on its official platform. No mention was made, either, of the anti-Semitic rants of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Dovutoglu, who just a week ago compared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the terrorists who carried out the massacres in Paris, or of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who claimed this summer that Israel’s actions in Gaza surpassed what Hitler did to the Jews.
Another panel at the conference focused on the role of the media and public figures in promoting extremist political ideologies. One of the participants was Vladimir Yakunin, head of the Russian Railways and close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Similar to Cicek, Yakunin sidestepped questions posed by Sackur regarding fascist elements inside Russia. When asked directly whether Russia supported extreme rightwing elements inside and outside Russia the answer was a curt “no.”
Yakunin was hardly confronted regarding the Putin regime’s repression of journalists, its legislation outlawing homosexuality, or its revanchist claims on Ukraine, which include state-funded propaganda rejecting a unique Ukrainian culture and history that is separate from Russia’s and illicit military actions.
That men like Cicek and Yakunin can participate in a conference seeking to combat bigotry and prejudice of all kinds without being aggressively taken to task for the outrageous statements made by their respective countries’ leaders’ or for the policies and actions these leaders pursue should be a reminder of how easy it is to fall into the trap of complacency.
It was, perhaps, symbolic that the conference took place in the Czech Republic, a country that was the first sovereign state to become a casualty of the West’s appeasement to Hitler’s belligerence in the late 1930s.
Are the sorts of rationalizations used to justify refraining from forcefully confronting men like Yakunin and Cicek even slightly similar to the way of thinking in the 1930s that prevented the West from stopping Nazi Germany before it was too late? The writer is the editorial page editor of The Jerusalem Post.