International Holocaust Memorial Day this Sunday, January 27th, is an appropriate occasion to reflect on the nature of Holocaust museums and their role in society. New museums are still being established.
Some lead to controversies. One such institution is the planned Ghetto Museum in Warsaw, Poland, scheduled to open in 2023. There is also substantial disagreement about the not-yet opened Holocaust Museum in Budapest, Hungary. Their content and approach to how history has to be told are touchy issues.
From a wider perspective, the Holocaust should be related not only to the history of antisemitism, but also to contemporary hate-mongering against Jews. For many years, the expectation was cultivated that antisemitism would finally fade away after six million European Jews were brutally murdered by the German industrial killing system.
This hope has proven futile, particular in the 21st century.
In 2000, there was already a substantial increase in antisemitic incidents, mainly in France. This was followed by similar developments in several other European countries. In France, we first witnessed immigrants from Muslim countries playing a major role in antisemitic incidents. This development has since become evident in a number of other European countries.
Yet, there are still those who attempt to hide the evidence of the major role of Muslims in antisemitic acts. Among the main culprits are German authorities who in their statistics attribute the large number of antisemitic incidents by unknown perpetrators to right-wingers.
From the major 2014 Anti-Defamation League Global Study it became known that countries in which more than 80% of the population were antisemitic were all Arab nations. The largest study of European Jews’ perceptions of antisemitism was published in December 2018 by the Fundamental Rights Agency. It found that Muslim antisemitism ranked at the top of Jewish concerns in a number of countries.
Worse, the reality in Europe is that in most cases, Jewish victims do not complain to the authorities or even to monitoring organizations about antisemitic incidents. They consider such complaints futile, as they will frequently not be followed with any action by the authorities.
Old antisemitic stereotypes persevere. ADL studies conclude that at least 60 million out of 400 million adult European Union citizens believe the fake news that Jews killed Jesus.
The claim of dual loyalty by Jews is believed by at least 150 million Europeans. Furthermore, the word “Jew” has returned to being a curse in many European countries.
THE HOLOCAUST brought with it new types of antisemitism. Holocaust denial is not even the worst. Holocaust inverters say Israel behaves like the Nazis did, and that it conducts a war of extermination against the Palestinians. At least 150 million European citizens agree with this statement.
Holocaust victims were children at the time of the persecutions. Most are now at least 80 years old. In a decade, there will hardly be anybody left who can reliably testify about what happened to European Jewry. The Holocaust will no longer be living history.
Understanding that antisemitism is an integral part of European culture, and the fading away of Holocaust memories, must give those who operate Holocaust museums food for profound thought.
The former national director of the ADL, Abe Foxman, understood this well. He tried to engage non-Jewish students in the US to understand the Holocaust. He quoted them as saying, “This is interesting. The Germans hated the Jews. They killed the Jews. Afterward, they made up with the Jews. What is its relevance to me?” Foxman added: “One can only comprehend the Shoah if one understands antisemitism.
The Shoah did not happen in a vacuum or by itself in a specific country. This was possible because of the previous history of Jews being singled out in every generation, regime and religion.”
It is this singling out of the Jews which is an example for what may happen to others.
Jews are often the first to be attacked, but rarely the last. Foxman explained this concept, saying: “I can say to my students in New York that singling out is the mother of all prejudices. Jews have always been ‘the other’ regardless of their language and culture.
It was even the case when things in the world were going well. I tell them: ‘You, as a student can be “the other” in the Bronx, Queens or Florida. Therefore you have to understand that you need to stand up.’ Only then does the Shoah becomes relevant.” Foxman is now working on the establishment of a museum of antisemitism in New York.
Existing Holocaust museums may give attention to past antisemitism. Yet now, museums are needed which also deal with post-Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism.
In view of the expanding hate-mongering against Jews in many countries, there is need for museums explicitly dealing with both the Holocaust and antisemitism. These should also be places where content will be updated regularly and special exhibitions on contemporary antisemitism will be held.
As there are so many who can testify to the current hate mongering against Jews, these museums have the potential to become museums for living history.
The writer is emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.