A new way to battle antisemitism

How it really is! World culture and European civilization owe an immense debt to the Jews of Europe before 1939. Those achievements should be highlighted to combat modern antisemitism.

Albert Einstein at his office, University of Berlin, 1920; how many Einsteins were lost in the Holocaust? (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Albert Einstein at his office, University of Berlin, 1920; how many Einsteins were lost in the Holocaust?
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Do Europeans know what Jews contributed to every field of life? Do people anywhere – even young Jewish men and women – know how European Jewry helped shape modern life?
World culture and European civilization owe an immense debt to the Jews of Europe before 1939. Try to imagine the explosion in European knowledge and creativity, from sciences to the humanities, from literature and poetry to the law and politics, from the economy to the arts (stage, screen, opera, operettas, music, painting) – try to imagine this all – without Jews. Despite this, dangerous antisemitism is mounting. The role Jews played should be brought home to all peoples everywhere using the newest media available. Further in this column we will explore the technique we propose.
This is not a message to be borne only to non-Jews. We now count four generations after the Shoah, in a “now” world which learns little about it, if at all. Most younger people – even those who return from the March of the Living – see Europe as a graveyard of six million Jews.
But, behind that number were living people: families, doctors, scientists, writers, singers, actors, poets, film directors, merchandisers, philosophers, spiritual leaders. The Holocaust is seen as death camps and death numbers. The time has come to infuse those almost incomprehensible numbers with life, to focus on the living Jews and amazing communities before 1939.
Before it was so cruelly destroyed, Jewish life in Europe was astonishing in its vibrancy, its diversity and its contribution to the world around it. Ashkenazi civilization was the fruit of over two thousand years of Jewish life in Europe. Sephardi communities were well over a thousand years old there. Yiddish was born about 1,000 years ago, and Ladino flourished following the expulsions from Spain and Portugal over five centuries ago.
The Nazi genocide is a double crime. It embraces also the crime of culturocide. Two great cultures went up in ashes. Yiddish, which once had its millions of speakers, exists mainly in efforts to keep a small light glowing in theater in Israel, especially due to the efforts of people such as the nonagenarian actor Shmulik Atzmon, who founded Yiddishpiel in Israel and occasionally off-Broadway shows like Fiddler in Yiddish.
Only in some ultra-Orthodox societies is it a spoken language, but there it is not a tool of literary or poetic expression. Ladino is mostly celebrated in its beautiful romanceros, the sweet sounds of Sepharad captured and broadcast over the radio and TV. Both the Yiddish and Ladino languages find a place in the curricula of colleges and universities. The older generations of speakers of the languages have faded away, while in most cases their offspring were not taught or did not learn the language.
We should show that – who knows how many – genius minds and hands and voices were lost in the ashes: geniuses whose unimaginable potential for improving and enriching human life are lost forever and their following generations never to be born. The time has come to demonstrate for the new generations of Jews and for the entire non-Jewish world the vibrancy and richness of this life,. These new generations in general do not read as much as they watch television, or TV series on Hot or Yes or Amazon Prime or Netflix.
This project should use the tools of today and tomorrow: Film and TV-series, social media and sets for viewing also at home and in schools. With today’s film techniques, past film footage can be enlivened and interviews conducted with voice-over in a multitude of languages.
After years of working on the idea, and turning it into a project, we envision eight 50-minute episodes, each focusing on a distinct part of European Jewish civilization in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Historic footage is available in abundance and could include interviews with descendants of famous Jews or their biographers.
The richness of Yiddish and Ladino, as well as their impact on the languages of the host country, should shine through as a natural part of the total series. Yiddish was spoken from the Netherlands to Birobidjan in Siberia and from Finland to northern Italy. Ladino flourished especially in Turkey and Greece and across the Balkan countries as far as Bosnia.
The series should be produced initially in English and using modular techniques and voice-over in Russian and Hebrew. I would hope that it would then be produced in all major European languages as well as Arabic, and in key Asian languages – similarly narrated by a famous local or regional personality.
Initial production costs should be provided by a foundation or a major Jewish organization or a group of individuals who believe in the vital importance of the project. Recognizing that Europe without the Jewish role would not be Europe, both the European Union and individual countries should co-finance such a series – especially those countries where Jews and their cultures were destroyed.
Most important, the gathering of the historic film material would be an immense treasure trove. The footage gathered – whether used in the documentaries or not – can be organized in the form of a virtual museum, which brings to life the reality of the pre-destruction European Jewish people.
This Internet museum will be an ongoing testament and witness to the vitality of what was. It will take the viewer on a unique journey through European Jewish life and culture in the modern period, and celebrate what Jews did for Europe and the world, a potent unused tool in the face of rising antisemitism.
A small team of experts financed in part by a gift from the late Jaques Graubart, and with the investment of years of effort by this writer (encouraged by a small group of friends) came up with a first proposal for eight episodes: Science and Medicine; Theater and Film; Economy and the Professions; Journalism and Politics; Philosophy and Religion; Literature; Education and Music.
A similar project should be created for the role Jews played in Muslim lands. From Morocco across northern Africa to Egypt and the Sudan, and from Yemen to Turkey and Lebanon to Iran, there are Judeo-Arab and Judeo-Persian languages, customs and cultures now dying or dead. Some date back to the time of the prophets and others certainly two thousand years or more.
Great figures in poetry and music, rabbinics and politics shaped Jewish history and helped form modern Muslim life. Antisemitism and the hatred aroused by the creation of Israel eradicated entire communities while enriching Israel’s new society.
This eradication of flourishing communities and their rebirth in Israel, as well as in France, to some extent Canada, and earlier, across Latin America is also a great story waiting to be told. The redeemers of European Jewish life and the redeemers of Jewish greatness and pain in the Muslim countries will, through their compilations in film create a lasting record for generations. Their virtual museums may live on through evolving media for decades and generations to come.
Who has the vision? Who will be the redeemers? ■
Avraham Avi-hai, in his various senior roles in the Prime Minister's Office under David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol as well as World Chairman of Keren Hayesod, was known as an innovative initiator of major projects. In this article, he makes public for the first time details of a new creative way to deal with two major issues facing Jews today, and thanks Editor-in-Chief Steven Linde for his constant encouragement. Contact: 2avrahams@gmail.com