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May 4, 2016 6:46 am

The History of Antisemitism and the Holocaust

avatar by Jonathan A. Greenblatt

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The main gate at the Nazis' former Auschwitz II (Birkenau) concentration and death camp. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The main gate at the Nazis’ former Auschwitz II (Birkenau) concentration and death camp. Photo: Wiki Commons.

As an organization dedicated to combatting antisemitism and fighting against all forms of bigotry, the Anti-Defamation League speaks often about the Holocaust both from a Jewish framework, and from one that addresses hatred and genocide in the world at large.

The moral lesson of the Holocaust, or Shoah, is that we all must stand against hate wherever it surfaces. This moral lesson motivates us in our work every day.

On the occasion of this year’s commemoration of the Shoah, however, I would like to address the subject of antisemitism from a historical perspective, before the Shoah and after.

It has often been said that the Shoah could not have happened if not for the 2,000 year history of antisemitism, particularly in Europe. At the same time, it is noted, what happened during the Nazi period went far beyond anything that had transpired for millennia.

The striking characteristic about antisemitism for centuries, which did reach its culmination in the Nazi assault on the Jews, was its fantastical core. Jews were accused of things, particularly being an evil power, which had nothing to do with the reality of Jewish life for centuries.

Let’s not forget that the tragedy of the Holocaust was that a maniacal regime committed to the destruction of the Jews gained control of Europe at a time when Jews had absolutely no power — no army, no state, no place to go, and little political influence.

That absence of Jewish power, however, had been true for 2,000 years. During that time, Jews were accused repeatedly of influencing history in an evil way, the killing of Christ, the poisoning of the wells, the murder of Christian children, even a plan to take over the world as embodied in the notorious forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. When the Nazis began their campaign against the Jews, the same fantasy of evil Jewish power was at work.

That horrid mix of accusations of Jewish power together with the reality of Jewish powerlessness created that worst of all moments for the Jewish people.

From then on, several things became clear.  First, there was a need to educate people about what antisemitism could lead to, hence the broad range of activities focusing on the Holocaust.  Second, was the recognition that good people who stood up to rescue Jews must be honored to encourage that kind of behavior for future generations.

Third, and most significant, Jews could never again afford to be powerless. While the legitimacy of the State of Israel rests on the 3,000-year connection of the Jews to the land of Israel, the need for Jews to have a home and be able to defend themselves was a powerful political factor immediately after the Shoah.

Which brings us back to the history of antisemitism: If that virus was based on fantasy before the Holocaust, how does one define it after, when Jews now have a degree of power as represented by a Jewish state? By the incredibly effective Israel Defense Forces?  By a strong and vibrant American Jewish community that works for US support of Israel?

What this new and positive reality, where Jews are no longer powerless, suggests is that antisemitism in the modern world is a much more complicated phenomenon. Antisemitism as fantasy still exists. A quick scan of social media will remind someone that the noxious delusions of bigots continue to thrive in the digital age, albeit the echo chamber now has much larger resonance.

Today, the locus of their attention is the Jewish state, which stands in as a proxy for the Jewish people. So-called “anti-Zionism” offers a convenient garb of political respectability to disguise the age-old virus of antisemitism.

A wide range of haters, from the radical Islamists of Hamas and ISIS, to odious white supremacists here at home, to so-called polite political circles in Europe (as recently made clear by the scandal roiling the Labour Party in the United Kingdom), all accuse Israel of being responsible for all the problems of the Middle East and the world.  We also see a broad range of baseless conspiracy theories propounded by many in these groups that postulate Jews were the force behind the terrorism of 9/11, or that we somehow control the international economy or that we even concocted the Holocaust.

The other side of the coin, however, is that power begets responsibility, thus topics like the Jewish State can be a legitimate subject of criticism by those who may disagree with certain policies and behaviors.

It is essential that the Jewish community recognize that we can and should embrace such vigorous debate. Such conversation only becomes suspect when the questions shift from the legitimacy of policy to the legitimacy of people, or when Jews are held to a different standard by those who willfully dismiss or ignore the faults of other countries, particularly when they are more egregious.

The price of power is responsibility. Again, this is a welcome change after millennia of Jewish powerless.  In the case of the State of Israel, living in a volatile region embroiled in conflict and surrounded with so many hostile forces, the need for strength is imperative. When the Islamic Republic of Iran threatens to wipe Israel off the map or tests missiles inscribed with hateful messages in Hebrew, our grave history compels us not to ignore such genocidal rhetoric and to demand that others respond to it with equal fervor. Still, one can be critical of Israel without any justification or accusations of antisemitism.

On this Yom HaShoah, as we remember those who perished, let us be thankful that Jewish powerlessness is a thing of the past. Let us rededicate ourselves to fighting the real antisemitism that very much still exists. And let us show that we know what it means to have responsible power by not concluding that every criticism is antisemitism.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

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  • Joel Loeffelholz

    Mr. Greenblatt states: “. . . the Jewish State can be a legitimate subject of criticism by those who may disagree with certain policies and behaviors.” and “. . .When the Islamic Republic of Iran threatens to wipe Israel off the map or tests missiles inscribed with hateful messages in Hebrew, our grave history compels us not to ignore such genocidal rhetoric and to demand that others respond to it with equal fervor.” and, finally, “. . .Still, one can be critical of Israel without any justification or accusations of antisemitism.” Excuse me Mr. Greenblatt, let’s call these rather benign statements you make in this forum what you have designed them to be, as you have in other forums since becoming Director of the ADL, a transparent and odious attempt to defend the ranks from which you come, the self hating apostate organization and its members, JStreet, an organization established eight years ago by David Axelrod when every ligitimate national Jewish organization completely rejected Barak Obama’s “apology” to the Arab countries bent on Israel’s anillation! Lest we forget that your last “job” was in the White House as Mr. Obama’s advisor for “social change.” A simple reading of the ADL mission statement clearly shows how far you have departed from same! Ancient and modern history has taught us that unwavering support for the State of Israel is the only way to ensure not only its survival but also the survival of Jews worldwide.

    • Every sinner has a future, just as every saint has a past! If Mr Greenblatt felt like changing his stance, isn’t it good even as a deviation from his earlier views? Let us assume that he is quoting an old and respected adage “power brings responsibility!” and it doesn’t mean turning the other cheek when you are slapped on one! Israel is a powerful country, and using that power effectively to thwart attempts to hack away the territory held by it or to kill its armed forces and citizens, is legitimate in the background of a long history of atrocities suffered by Jews. The sorry record of Palestinian Arab rejection of a “national homeland” for Jews should put paid to the delusions of the two states living side-by-side in peace fantasy, I believe. I am from India and have always felt a lot in common with Jews, having been rules by Muslims for 800 years, and even now the pan-Islamic worrying about the “unfinished business” India because Islam could not convert all Indians; they are just about 14% even now, and Hindus of India 82% still!You will see that India is a target for IS, LeT, Al Quaida, all sorts of Islamic groups, and they help “bleed India” campaign by our Muslim neighbor, Pakistan!India and Indians support the Jews of Israel!

  • Percy Mandel

    Mr Greenblatt has totally underestimated the sources and extent of antisemitism and anti-Israel animosity. The fact that the majority of antisemites were born after 1948 means that their only knowledge of World War II, the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel is derived from media propaganda. The bad decisions that have led to Israel’s current predicament are well detailed in a book I have read, “The Nuclear Option”, by David Goldenstein. Those seeking to understand antisemitism and anti-Israel campaigns are advised to read the book.

    • You are right with this man’s underestimation and the need for unity. Its too bad but every Jew in Israel is under the microscope of media and one misstep causes all kinds of negative results to rain down on Israel. Each and every has a Responsibility. Thats kinda hard but its the way it is.
      But I still think persecution has a deepest root concerning the person who does it and all the other reasons are excuses that don’t hold up and if erased would still leave that primitive hateful feeling to strike out. I’m still wondering what causes this in humans…like there is some kind of Need to hate or blame SOMETHING because…….because WHY is my question & I know there is an answer. Anyone know WHY or how humans got this defect. I know the scapegoat thing to Symbolically cleanse a group (fantasy) but why…why that fantasy and why that need to strike outside?

  • Eugenia N.E. Lesiuk

    Was born in Canada after this horrible time of the Holocaust ,both sides of my family were in Europe during the Holocaust (World War 2 ) – both my parents were children !! My grandparents were not part of those who are guilty !! We as children of G-d (Hashem ) bear the resposiblity to stand against injustice and fight fo those who are unable as well as show mercy to those who do not know or were misinformed !!