Antisemitism is no longer a question of extremism

How is it possible that Jews around the world today are again living in fear for their lives and property by simple virtue of their religious and cultural identity?

A man walks past a graffiti dedicated to the Holocaust in the northern port city of Thessaloniki (photo credit: ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS/REUTERS)
A man walks past a graffiti dedicated to the Holocaust in the northern port city of Thessaloniki
Polls released over the last few months in the lead up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day reveal a troubling reality of hatred, denial and ignorance sweeping the Western world – even in the mainstream. A disturbing picture emerges, underscoring a frightening proliferation of antisemitic sentiment, a severe and dangerous lack of Holocaust education and obfuscation of its memory. Some might argue that these claims are exaggerated, perhaps true among only marginal, extremist segments of society, but the numbers are jarringly to the contrary.
A CNN survey last November, for example, found that one in 20 Europeans do not believe that the Holocaust happened and a third believe that Jews exploit it to advance their own positions or goals; one in five believe that antisemitism is the result of everyday behavior of Jewish people.
The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found in a separate survey in December that 89% of Jews in 12 EU member states – home to over 96% of Europe’s Jewish population – feel that antisemitism is indeed on the rise and that more than one-third have considered emigrating because of these threats.
These statistics are not limited to Europe. A study released in April of last year by the Claims Conference found that 6% of millennials in the United States – and 41% of all Americans – could not explain the significance of Auschwitz.
How is it possible that nearly 75 years after the end of the Holocaust – in a world filled with monuments, museums, memorials, testimonials and literature about the Nazi attempt to destroy European Jewry – the adage of “never forget” still has not translated into action, and in many cases, is forgotten? How is it possible that Jews around the world today are again living in fear for their lives and property by simple virtue of their religious and cultural identity?
It personally pains me to see how the memory of the horrors my family endured during World War II have become exploited and distorted. In Ukraine, the country where I was born and raised in an era of severe Jew hatred, we now see Stepan Bandera, a  Nazi collaborator, being honored as a nationalist hero, his association with the mass-killings and displacement of millions of Jews swept under the rug; the same is true in Bulgaria, where each year neo-Nazis descend on the capital Sofia to honor the memory of Hristo Lukov, another Nazi collaborator whose movement was responsible for the deaths of 11,300 Jews sent to Treblinka; in Croatia, the Ustasa criminals who brutally murdered some 100,000 Jews, Serbs, and other minorities during World War II are far too often hailed as nationalist heroes.
We have long warned about the antisemitism espoused on the far-Right and in neo-Nazi movements in both Europe and the United States and have grown equally concerned by the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism on the far-Left. It seems simple enough to relegate these sentiments to radicals on both sides of the political spectrum, but the surveys above clearly point to a far more concerning truth, requiring comprehensive action.
On the far right, extremist parties have entered the mainstream, exploiting and obfuscating Holocaust memory and glorifying Nazis as part of a nationalist agenda, denying their own antisemitic roots by claiming to be pro-Israel. On the far left, disagreement with Israeli government policies has morphed into a virulent anti-Zionism that seeks to deny the Jewish people the right to a state of their own and to delegitimize Israel’s very existence. From each of these fringe corners, the very same perception seeps into the minds and actions of average citizens.
It is unlikely that all 66% of millennials who don’t know about Auschwitz are extremists; many might even consider themselves liberal, tolerant people. Auschwitz just never registered on their radar. The 20% of Europeans who believe that Jews are to blame for their negative perception may also consider themselves to be moderate and accepting people.
Therefore, the problem facing us today is not just the rise and propagation of extremist politics; it is a severe failing in educational systems and curriculum and a misplacement of the values of tolerance and acceptance.
In many countries today, including Germany and Austria, Holocaust denial has already been established as an illegal offense. However, we must recognize that today, it is not denial that serves as the greatest threat, but rather lack of awareness – or worse, an ignorant perversion of facts.
The recent #WeRemember campaign to rouse awareness of the Holocaust, led by the World Jewish Congress with partners across the globe, aims to be part of a lasting solution to this problem, reaching hundreds of millions of people, in countries as far away as Somalia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Russia, Uruguay and more. Heads of state, actors and musicians, astronauts, sports teams, media personalities and average citizens around the world took a valuable moment in the middle of their busy lives to dedicate a thought to the memory of the Holocaust and take part in what has become a widespread and grassroots initiative – photographing themselves holding a #WeRemember sign and posting it on social media in an active display of solidarity with the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust. Even the Archbishop of Croatia broke for the first time with the Church’s tradition of downplaying the murders of local Jews, by holding a #WeRemember sign and delivering an empowering speech on Holocaust remembrance in the Cathedral of Zagreb. Such a demonstration would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.
These types of initiatives form a critical part of the solution to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and warning of the dangers of hatred, but still, we know that it is not enough.
We cannot allow ourselves to remain in a situation where a vast majority of young people have no idea about the genocide that took place just two or three generations before them, when the word Auschwitz slips past their heads without any significance. Social media is an excellent way to spread the word, but this can similarly be used as a force for evil, with the spreading of Holocaust denial. These initiatives will have no impact until we lay the base foundation for proper education. Holocaust curriculum must be fundamental and obligatory in every education system. Tolerance training and bridge-building between people of different faiths and nationalities must become a core requirement in every school.
How can #We Remember the Holocaust and the crucial need to fight antisemitism if neither is taught in a manner that will make a lasting impact with our children? We must act now – otherwise we may remember today, but future generations will not.
The writer is the CEO and executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, the international organization representing more than 100 Jewish communities on six continents, operating under the leadership of WJC President Ronald S. Lauder.