'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign at Dachau.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The question of what if any role Holocaust education could play in countering the boycott movement against Israel has challenged me time and time again.
It was reawakened after I heard of the remarkable work of Father Patrick Desbois, exposing the little-known story of the nearly two million Jews massacred by the Nazis and their local collaborators in the unmarked killing fields of the former Soviet Union, while local populations watched or sometimes helped.
More on this story a little later.
It is a sad fact that when I speak to students on American college campuses about Israel’s rights based on international law, about the Jewish people’s connection to the land and about the centuries of persecution of the Jewish people there and elsewhere, I must be careful not to bring up the Shoah.
It’s certainly not that I don’t believe in the importance of teaching the lessons of Western civilization’s darkest moment, or explaining how different the world would be if Israel had existed for the desperate Jews of 1939.
Yet I hesitate to mention to university students how I felt looking at photos of elderly Holocaust survivors living in Israel with their Israeli grandchildren in IDF uniforms, the pride and sorrow in the eyes of the survivors saying “never again” when Jews are in charge of their own destiny.
The reason is that when you speak to today’s college students, who have heard over and over that Israel’s existence is a criminal displacement of an indigenous people, they have been conditioned to see any association of Israel and the Holocaust as a cheap trick to excuse Israel’s supposed abuses of the Arab people. A similar situation is “pinkwashing,” whereby Israel is claimed to be LGBT-friendly only to deflect attention from its egregious treatment of Palestinian innocents.
On today’s college campuses the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) advocates claim that Arabs are the new Jews and Israelis are the new Nazis. A recent Pew survey showed the gap narrowing between millennials’ sympathy for Israel and the Palestinians, where support for the Jewish state is stagnant while those sympathizing with the Palestinians have increased 50 percent in the past 10 years. Jason Riley of The Wall Street Journal found that polls show twice as many professors on the American college campus identify themselves as Marxists than as conservatives.
The far-left has aligned itself against Israel, so it’s no surprise that being in favor of Israel’s actions is taboo on campus.
Which brings me to Remembrance Day 2016. My 23-year-old son, who is a strong supporter of Israel, joined with me to hear one of the greatest righteous Gentiles of our time, Father Patrick Desbois, speaking at New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue’s Remembrance Day commemoration.
Father Desbois is a Roman Catholic priest, the head of the Commission for Relations with Judaism of the French Bishops’ Conference and the founder of the Yahad-In Unum, an organization dedicated to locating the sites of the unmarked mass graves of Jewish victims of the Nazi mobile killing units in the former Soviet Union.
Father Desbois’ story needs to be heard by today’s college students, who live in a generation where Holocaust denial is on the rise.
It was Patrick Desbois’ search for his grandfather’s past (his grandfather had been deported to a Nazi prison camp in Rava-Ruska) that lead to the 21st century’s most important Holocaust revelation. Up to two million Jews and Roma were killed in a three-year period by the Nazis in the Soviet Union, almost all in unmarked killing fields.
Mobile execution units, Einsatzgruppen, killed men, women and children, one bullet at a time, buried their bodies, alive or dead, and moved on to the next town. Nazis with Hitler’s willing executioners, collaborating Ukrainians, Moldavians, Russians, etc., enthusiastically killed their Jewish neighbors as the towns’ children and adults watched, sometimes in horror, sometimes with enthusiasm.
After listening to Father Desbois and watching his story featured on 60 Minutes, I realized that I was doing a disservice by not teaching the lessons of the Holocaust and how they relate to the only Jewish state in the past 2,000 years. This is not to imply, as US President Barack Obama seemed to in 2009, that Israel was created only because of the Holocaust.
In truth, despite the Jewish people’s desire to have a modern Jewish state, reignited with the Dreyfus trial and the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the 19th century, it is unlikely that there would have been an Israel in 1948 if not for a ship called the Exodus and the slaughter of European Jewry. Yet the struggle for Jews to continue, secure and increase their long presence in the Levant predated World War II and continued through the Palestinian Arab grand mufti’s alliance with Hitler.
It is important to begin to consider reintroducing Holocaust education as part of the fight against the BDS movement, whose contemporary anti-Semitism and boycotts of businesses doing business with Israel are sadly reminiscent of yesterday’s Nazis, and the parallels should make us take Islamist threats of extermination seriously.The author is the director of MEPIN™ and a regular contributor to "The Jerusalem Post." MEPIN™ (mepinanalysis.org) is read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset and journalists. He regularly briefs Congress on issues related to the Middle East.