September 22 is the date chosen by the United Nations to endorse the conclusions of the so-called UN Conference against Racism that took place in Durban in 2001. As a participant in that fateful event I witnessed how it quickly evolved into a racist conference against Israel and the Jewish people.
Aside from the blatant anti-Israel theme that pervaded the entire proceedings, a session on the Holocaust was violently disrupted before it had a chance to begin. As I recall that moment I remember cringing in fear at what actually took place.
It may have taken 20 years, but it is gratifying to note that 11 countries have now decided to boycott this month’s Durban IV Conference; they include the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, France and Germany.
September 1 marked 82 years since Hitler invaded Poland – the catalyst for World War II – the war that claimed the lives of six million Jews specifically because they were Jews. Some four years earlier – on September 15, 1935 – Hitler approved the Nuremberg Laws depriving the Jews of German citizenship, but its aim was also to ostracize, discriminate and expel Jews from German society. As my late husband pointed out, he was excluded from the German Public School System in 1935 because he was a Jew.
While antisemitism was not new by 1939, the Holocaust proved to be the most devastating elimination of Jewish lives ever. From 1941 to 1945 the gas chambers were the major vehicles utilized to annihilate six million of our people. Yes, there have been other genocides but none are to be compared to the enormity of the Germans’ barbaric murder of Jews. It is totally reprehensible when attempts are made to equate other ethnic genocides with the Shoah.
Today, Jews are blamed for COVID-19 where online illustrated hatred of Jews would easily have found a place in Der Stürmer. Readers of my column will remember a previous article I wrote on antisemitism in the UK where one poster stated, “Get the bug – give the Jews a hug – HOLOCOUGH!”
A recent report put out by the UK’s Community Security Trust highlights worldwide anti-vaccination demonstrations marked by a similarity in the antisemitic language utilized as part of the anti-vaxxers’ campaign. In Poland, the country that refuses to give Holocaust survivors or their descendants compensation for property expropriated by the country’s Communist regime – an anti-vaccine rally held in Glogow had participants shouting, “Jews are behind the epidemic and rule the world.”
IN THE UK, the anti-vaccine movement’s verbiage vigorously propagates antisemitism. Piers Corbyn – an anti-vaccine advocate and the brother of Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour Party leader known for his antisemitic bent – devised an anti-vaxxer poster based on what was inscribed on the gates of Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work makes one free). Corbyn has written on “his” Auschwitz gates “Vaccines are safe path to freedom.”
In France, anti-vaccine protesters compare themselves to Jews who suffered discrimination in Hitler’s Germany; while in Germany – home to 100,000 Jews – anti-vaccine protesters wear the “Yellow Star” – utilized over the centuries to ensure a Jew was recognized as a Jew – but today used as a sign of discrimination by those who do not wish to be vaccinated.
The rise of antisemitism in Canada has led Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appoint, for the first time in Canada’s history, a Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism; the former justice minister and attorney general Irwin Cotler has been given this position.
In the US, the New York Police Department reported that antisemitic hate crimes were up 60% between January and June this year compared to the same period in 2020. A swastika found etched into an elevator in the US State Department appears to have contributed toward President Joe Biden’s decision to appoint historian Deborah Lipstadt as the US antisemitism envoy.
Woefully, the longest hatred is still with us. As I write these words I am reminded of having had the honor of sharing a platform (back in 2006) with the late Robert Wistrich, author of Antisemitism: the longest hatred, one of 29 books he either authored or edited.
Wistrich was head of the Hebrew University‘s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism and considered to be one of the world’s best-known and informed scholars on antisemitism. The symposium’s subject we jointly addressed was “A New Antisemitism? The Case of Great Britain.” As historian Wistrich pointed out, antisemitism has been with us since time immemorial. He recalled, as a 16-year-old schoolboy in Britain, his English literature lessons embracing Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Tale,” part of The Canterbury Tales; Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Christopher Marlow’s The Jew of Malta – all with antisemitic overtones.
It is 124 years since Theodor Herzl initiated the First Zionist Congress in Basel on August 29, 1897. Herzl, an assimilated Jew, was the Paris correspondent for the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse, which covered the Dreyfus trial in 1894. For Herzl, the trial proved to be a sharp reminder that Jews are not equal to others. Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish ancestry, was convicted for treason. The trial was a political scandal that divided the Third French Republic from 1894 until 1906. It was viewed by many as pure antisemitism. Dreyfus was falsely accused of spying for Germany.
Herzl later explained that it was the Dreyfus trial that turned him into a Zionist; he was particularly affected by crowds chanting “Death to the Jews.” In 1896, Herzl wrote Der Judenstadt (The Jewish State) where he envisaged that the coming into being of a Jewish homeland would end antisemitism.
Fast forward to today when we can but wonder what Herzl would think if he could see that – in spite of 73 years of Jewish statehood – the longest hatred is still with us.
Fortunately, Herzl (and we) can take comfort in the fact that in September 2021, a time of an unprecedented rise in antisemitism, we Jews are privileged to have Israel – a state whose gates remain open to every Jew in every place. How pertinent when we recall September 1939 – the beginning of the end for millions of Jews who might have survived had they been given refuge in countries whose gates remained firmly closed.
Shana tova, may it be a year blessed with good health, happiness and peace for Israel and Klal Yisrael.
The writer is chairperson of the Israel, British Commonwealth Association. She is also public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes immigrant integration into Israeli Society.