My father, Martin Freiberg, was born in Magdeburg, Germany, on February 20, 1931. It was neither a good time nor place to be born a Jew.
He was given the name Martin, after his late uncle, my great uncle, who died in 1915 on the western front in the Great War – a soldier killed in action fighting for the Kaiser and the German Fatherland. Some two decades later, the German state declared my family, and all Jews, to be evil bacteria, vermin that needed to be exterminated.
My father never volunteered to share his wartime childhood experiences with his children. He didn’t want to talk about the discrimination, hunger, humiliation, abuse and fear. Psychologists call this repression, an unconscious defense mechanism to block unpleasant memories. My father simply locked them all away, shut tightly in some inner vault. Like so many survivors, he just wanted to move on.
Although never elaborating upon his ordeals during the war, I do recall him talking about the day in 1945 when American tanks entered Uetz where his family found precarious refuge after escaping Magdeburg.
My father remembered that a GI gave him a chocolate bar and that he swapped the yellow six-pointed star Nazis ordered Jews to wear with one of his American liberators, receiving in exchange the shoulder sleeve insignia of the 102nd Infantry Division, the Ozarks, which had fought its way through France and Germany.
I don’t know if his liberator kept the star, but that US army emblem was among the few belongings my father had with him at the nursing home when he passed away in 2015.
ON INTERNATIONAL Holocaust Remembrance Day people across the world gather to remember the Jews murdered by the Nazis and to condemn contemporary antisemitism, the latter increasingly conspicuous, as the recent events at Colleyville’s Beth Israel synagogue demonstrated.
If people once thought that the palpable horrors of the Holocaust would be enough to discredit antisemitism and that this oldest of hatreds would finally be delegitimized and discarded, they find themselves disappointed. Antisemitism has shown amazing resilience; like coronavirus, its ability to mutate and develop new variants is simply remarkable; successfully infecting different populations, thriving in new environments, affixing itself to a range of conflicting ideologies.
For the Right-wing racist, the Jew is the all-powerful globalist committed to destroying the national ethos and enslaving the common man. For the far-Left extremist, the Jew is a Rothschild capitalist who sucks the blood of the downtrodden masses. For the militant Islamist, the Jew is the murderer of innocents and the perverter of morality.
The xenophobic ultra-nationalist, the authoritarian revolutionary socialist, and the Jihadi warrior may all abhor each other, but they can unite in common assault on the “nefarious international Jewish conspiracy.”
Current antisemitism does not only target individual Jews, but goes after the collective Jew, the Jewish state. If in the past it was the Jews who purportedly controlled the newspapers, exploiting their influence to advance their vile interests, today it is the Zionists and Israel that supposedly manipulate the global media for their own mendacious purposes.
If once it was the evil Jew who ostensibly fermented wars and sent soldiers to die needlessly on foreign battlefields, today it is alleged that Israel and the Israel lobby aggressively promote unnecessary wars, Iraq being the prime example. If there was a time when it was the supposed sadistic Jew who killed children in a satanic religious blood right, today it is Israel that stands accused of the premeditated systematic mass-murder of Palestinian children.
But the Jewish state is not just a problem for the rabid antisemites. When I was Israel’s ambassador to the UK, I noticed something puzzling at the major public International Holocaust Day commemorations. The first time it happened I thought it an aberration, but after occurring repeatedly, I understood it was much more than that: no-one wanted to mention Israel. (Britain’s Foreign Office a notable exception, conducting an annual joint ceremony with Israel’s embassy.)
Of course, these commemorations are of the Holocaust, and not Israel focused. Yet surely the country born out of the ashes of the genocide, that provided a home for so many survivors, and that had it achieved independence merely a decade earlier could have offered refuge to countless Jews fleeing Nazism, deserves some reference.
Easier to understand was why the same commemorations chose to ignore Britain’s 1939 Palestine White Paper that all but closed the gates of Mandatory Palestine to the millions of Jews trapped in Europe, helping to seal their fate. But unlike Israel, the UK wasn’t forgotten, Britain’s own acceptance of Jewish refugees was often highlighted, especially the Kindertransport that brought some 10,000 Jewish children to the UK.
INITIALLY I thought that this silence over Israel, not an uncommon occurrence also in memorial ceremonies outside Britain, was because the organizers didn’t want to inject “controversy” into the proceedings. But eventually I reached the conclusion that Israel’s absence stemmed from an additional factor, something far deeper.
For today’s West Europeans and North Americans, it is all so natural to stand in solidarity with the victims of the Holocaust, to show sympathy for the oppressed and persecuted Jew. But it is more complex to empathize when Jews refuse to conform with the accepted role set out for them in the Western cultural tradition, and modern Israel is emblematic of the anti-victim Jew who fights tormentors.
The Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization reported that 2021 was the most antisemitic year in a decade. From the conduct of the Iranian regime to the violent attacks on American synagogues, present-day Jew-hatred is a fact of life. But it would be wrong to suggest that things don’t change, because a very important one has, the Jews have changed.
Rejecting the subservience and acquiescence of their past, Jews increasingly embraced Zionism’s collective self-empowerment. Israel’s establishment in 1948 created a revolution in the Jewish reality, with Jews worldwide taking pride in the subsequent successes of the Jewish state, especially in its capability to defend itself against enemies. This, while guaranteeing a home for Jews anywhere facing persecution.
Martin Freiberg was one of those proud Jews. More than most, he could appreciate the historic transformation in the Jewish people’s circumstances. And if some remained uneasy with the Jewish state’s military prowess, he found it of immense comfort, as do most Israelis.
The writer, formerly an advisor to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.