When the offices of Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai and Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan suggested a joint interview ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 to discuss global antisemitism and the importance of Holocaust education, no one realized that there was a real-world reminder of those issues looming on the horizon.
Sitting in Dayan’s office in Jerusalem less than two days after the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, ended due to courageous action by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who distracted the radical Islamist terrorist holding him and three congregants at gunpoint by throwing a chair, there was much to say.
Shai recalled that on Saturday night, while the hostages were still trapped in the synagogue, he woke up every couple of hours to check the news, and was relieved when they came out of the ordeal safely.
“I acquired this kind of Jewish solidarity that I never had in the first half of my life,” he said.
Shai, 75, recalled that in his generation, the Jewish Diaspora was not discussed, and he even pleaded with his parents not to speak to him in Yiddish or Polish or Russian. But eventually he came to understand that the Diaspora is an integral part of the history of the Jewish people and its state, and he finds that solidarity to be essential.
“Today, 80% of Israelis were born in Israel. They don’t know what the Diaspora is,” Shai said. “They should know that there are eight million people out there and we are brothers and sisters. That is what I am trying to say to my colleagues in the government, to the Knesset members, and every Israeli I meet. I say: These are your brothers and sisters. Don’t forget it.”
Shai spoke out against claims that the Colleyville attack was not antisemitic.
“Maybe it is more comfortable to some people to blame terror as a general phenomenon. No,” Shai said. “If it was not about Jews, why did the guy walk into a Jewish synagogue? There was probably a mosque or a church. Why not the supermarket across the street? He was looking for Jews.”
Shai called it “very typical” that organizations and states try to ignore antisemitism, even though statistics show that it is on the rise.
“It’s denial,” he added. “They try to deny the very fact that antisemitism is still here, especially in Europe, which has suffered so much from antisemitism.”
“Antisemitism did not disappear. It just has new forms,” Shai stated.
Dayan recounted that when he became Israel’s consul-general to New York in 2016, he didn’t think that antisemitism would be high on his agenda.
“But then reality slapped me in my face,” Dayan said. “It started gradually. I remember going to a cemetery in a suburb of Philadelphia where a Jewish cemetery was desecrated, and then with the mayor of Rochester, New York, to visit the desecrated Jewish cemetery there, and a swastika in Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan.”
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, in which participants chanted “Jews will not replace us” and Nazi flags were waved, shocked Dayan.
“Nothing was the same after Pittsburgh,” Dayan said, referring to the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, in which an antisemitic man who believed in white genocide conspiracy theories took the lives of 11 people. Soon after that came attacks in Poway, California, Jersey City, New Jersey, and Monsey, New York.
“There were 15 Jewish fatalities; 15 Jews murdered in antisemitic incidents. I remember... I was at a memorial for Mireille Knoll, a Jewish woman murdered in Paris, and they noted the shocking figure that in France, 11 Jews were murdered in 10 years. But in the United States, 15 Jews were murdered in less than two years. That means that we have a tremendously great problem, not only in Europe but also in America,” Dayan stated.
Asked whether the US is doing enough, Dayan preferred to talk about Israel’s responsibility.
“Even if antisemitic incidents happen thousands of miles from the shores of Tel Aviv or from Jerusalem, it is a domestic issue for us,” Dayan stated. “That means that the government and Israeli diplomats should express themselves very clearly.”
Similarly, Shai said “we have to do much more.... We have to take a proactive role in combating antisemitism.”
One way in which the Israeli government is trying to do that is by monitoring social media networks; Shai plans to bring a report on online antisemitism to the cabinet next week. In the last year, the minister said, Israel picked up on antisemitic messages from 420,000 users on social media.
“But that’s not enough,” Shai admitted. “We have to figure out what we can do about the social media, [which has] become a nest for antisemitism.... We should turn to the social media, technological giants and charge them with that and say ‘What are you going to do about it?’ If they don’t do [anything], maybe we can do other things.
“We are the Jewish state, the only one in the world,” Shai said, “and we have a commitment.”
WHEN IT comes to the way the Holocaust is discussed on social media and beyond, Dayan said the good news is that outright Holocaust denial is “relegated mainly to the lunatic fringe.”
“No respectable, worldly journalists or intellectual with influence would stand on a stage today and say that the gas chambers did not exist,” he said.
At the same time, Dayan pointed to two other troubling phenomena: Holocaust distortion and Holocaust trivialization.
Distortion comes from governments, mostly in Eastern Europe, that present the suffering they experienced at the hands of the Nazis, the Soviet Union or both as equivalent to the Holocaust. Countries like Poland and Belarus have passed laws trying to force talk of the Holocaust being uniquely heinous out of the public discourse.
“Of course there were gas chambers, of course six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, but each country says... we had no collaborators with the Nazis; we were victims of the Nazis,” Dayan said. “That is not true. In every single European country under Nazi occupation or influence – maybe Albania is the exception – there were collaborators that murdered Jews, period.”
Holocaust trivialization is rampant with the comparisons between COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates and the yellow star or Nazi experimentation on Jews, a phenomenon Dayan called “obviously abhorrent.”
Worst of all is Holocaust inversion, Dayan said, referring to “the abhorrent comparisons being made in some places between Israel and Nazi Germany.”
In fact, Dayan argued, one of the most important lessons of the Holocaust is the importance of there being a Jewish state.
When foreign dignitaries visit Yad Vashem, Dayan tells them about the St. Louis, a ship full of Jews from Europe in 1939, which was not accepted at any port in the Americas.
“We were all figuratively in the St. Louis, going from dock to dock and from port to port, being refused entry in North America, the Caribbean and Latin America,” Dayan said. “As long as Israel exists... there will always be a safe haven.”
The other lesson Dayan tells visiting dignitaries is that, while the world in 2022 is not Germany of the 1930s, and even the rising antisemitism is not at that level, we know that it can grow to “monstrous dimensions.
“At the time, they probably didn’t imagine [the Holocaust] was possible. We know that it happened and can happen again,” Dayan said. “And therefore, I tell them, when you see antisemitism, confront it immediately, forcibly and decisively.”
When it comes to Israel and the Holocaust, Shai said “we remember the past, but have to look at the future.”
The Holocaust shaped Israel’s early years, “but now we are independent, a sovereign state, strong, successful with a leading hi-tech industry and so on.... Now, we have to ask ourselves how to define the character of Israel as a Jewish state.... What is our role as Jews and as a state in the world today?” Shai said.
THIS TIME of year, around International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is usually very busy in Yad Vashem, but with COVID-19, the museum is at less than 10% capacity of its usual 1 million visitors per year.
In order to continue educating people about the Holocaust even if they can’t visit Yad Vashem, the institution has enhanced its online capabilities, including online courses. Plus, its research and documentation continue mostly unaffected by the pandemic.
Yad Vashem’s School of Holocaust Studies is trying to engage “multipliers,” such as educators, diplomats, journalists and other influential figures, Dayan said, who can bring that message forward to many more people.
“Much is being said about the fact that, unfortunately, for natural reasons, the number of survivors is dwindling rapidly. And someday, we will be in a situation in which there will be no survivors. So that means that our work will be a bit more difficult, more challenging, no doubt, but much more vital. We’ll have to redouble our efforts,” Dayan stated.
In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yad Vashem is launching two online events to remember the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.
The first is the “IRemember Wall,” which allows visitors to the Yad Vashem website who register to be linked to one of the over 4,800,000 names found in Yad Vashem’s database of Shoah victims. The initiative has existed for over a decade and is available in six languages. One can choose a specific name or be matched with someone at random. Meta – Facebook’s parent company – partnered with Yad Vashem for the effort.
There is also a new online exhibit called “Remember Your New Name” about Jews who pretended to not be Jewish, using forged papers and false identities. These Jews were often the only ones in their families to survive the Holocaust.
The complete interview with Dayan and Shai can be heard on The Jerusalem Post podcast.