Redeeming the promise of ‘Never Again’

Concentration camp survivors sing Hatikvah (The Hope) inside the newly-liberated Bergen-Belsen, April 20, 1945

‘I was in Dachau and Belsen. I saw chambers where hundreds of Jews were put to death every day. … I saw the gallows in Belsen where Jews were hanged each Jewish holy day, while the rest were paraded to witness the ghastly punishments of men who had perhaps come a few minutes late to their daily grind… It is beyond mortal power to bring back to life six million who were burned, asphyxiated and buried alive by the Nazis. But our six million brothers and sisters who went to their deaths have bequeathed us a sacred injunction: to prevent such a disaster overtaking the Jewish peoples in the future and to do so by the Jewish people being an independent people in its own land, capable of resisting any foe or enemy by its own strength.’

David Ben-Gurion

Holocaust Memorial Day is the day our political leaders come together and say ‘never again’. They spout pieties and pabulum: evil, humanity, darkness, hope, we must learn the lessons of history or we are doomed to repeat them.

‘Never again’ is easy to say. It’s harder to honour. Learning lessons also takes effort, courage, and moral clarity. You might have noticed that these are in short order today. When we think about the six million Jews gassed and thrown in ovens by the National Socialists, we shake our heads and ask: Why? How? But when we encounter antisemitism in our daily lives and in our political discourse, we overlook it, deliberately ignore it, or attack those who raise concerns as ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘trying to stifle debate’.

Elie Wiesel called the Shoah ‘the kingdom of night’. But kingdoms are not single events; we can see them building up. We choose whether to serve as subjects or rebel against the crown. A new report from the German government finds that one in five Germans is antisemitic, and identifies an ad hoc alliance between the traditional Jew-haters of the far-Right and those on the modern Left who have allowed their hatred of Israel to be subsumed by antisemitic prejudices and rhetoric. Respondents to a 2003 European Commission poll cited Israel as the greatest threat to world peace, the tiny nation – smaller than the state of New Jersey – was the malefactor behind the world’s ills for 59% of Europeans. Antisemitism is in vogue again, with film directors, fashion designers, and movie stars professing their love of Hitler and hatred of Jews, and Nazi books, Nazi films, and Nazi t-shirts are best-sellers.

In the UK, we see the Left abandoning its commitment to reason, equality, and human rights in favour of the crippling self-hatred of Chomskyite anti-Westernism and the epistemic dead end of postmodernism. Nowhere does this manifest more sharply than in relation to Israel and Islamist terrorism. We are a country where ‘liberals’ take to the streets waving placards bearing the suicidal slogan ‘We are all Hezbollah’. Where hate speech about Jews, Zionism, and Israel permeates the comments – and sometimes the commentary – of a leading national newspaper website. Where a Labour MP calls on Jews to be barred from becoming ambassador to Israel because they have ‘Jewish loyalties’ – and the national news media doesn’t bother to report it. Still other MPs invite antisemitic preachers to London. Peers talk about ‘Holocaust Guilt‘ and ‘the strength of the Israel Lobby’ as the reasons ‘no-one takes action against them’. A council in Scotland has banned its librarians from buying Israeli books in protest at Operation Cast Lead (no books produced in Gaza, from which Hamas has been firing rockets on Israeli civilians, have been proscribed).

The FBI reports that almost two-thirds of religious hate crimes committed in the United States in 2010 were against Jews. In the last two months alone (December 2011 and January 2012), two synagogues were firebombed in New Jersey, singer Katy Perry’s preacher father gave an antisemitic sermon in Ohio, a Jewish resident of Long Island woke up to find the Chanukkah menorah on his lawn smashed to pieces, and (again in New Jersey) two synagogues were daubed with swastikas and the graffiti ‘Jews did 9/11’. Political discourse is also becoming more poisonous. Two leading Democrat campaign groups, the Center for American Progress and Media Matters for America, regularly offer up contempt for Israel and its supporters. American Jews who support the Jewish state are accused of ‘dual loyalty‘ and being ‘Israel-firsters‘ (a neo-Nazi term happily embraced by radical and ascendant elements in the American Left), while the Simon Wiesenthal Center is labelled ‘far-right‘.

For many on the Left, Israelophobia has reached pathological heights where reason offers no ballast. Israel – a democracy with free enterprise, the rule of law, and equal rights for Arabs, women, gays, religious and other minorities – is cast as a pariah state. Israel’s defamers cite the Palestinians in defence of their bigotry but these same people do not obsess about Russia and its slaughter of the Chechens, the massacres in Darfur, the Chinese oppression of Tibet or Taiwan, or the millions of serf-slaves imprisoned in the world’s waking nightmare, North Korea. What is it about Israel that stirs a special fury? What drives ‘progressives’ to describe a country with an exemplary human rights record given the conflict it finds itself in as imperialist, colonialist, racist, apartheid, and even Nazi?

Criticism of Israel is not and never should be labelled antisemitic. But criticism is disputing a policy or decrying a politician or calling for negotiations or landswaps or withdrawals. Criticism is not demonising a whole nation with the most inflammatory language at your disposal. Criticism is not calling for the destruction of a state or boycotts of its people and products. Criticism is not the criminalisation of an entire people, the most consistently and cruelly persecuted people in history, for simply returning to their ancient homeland and building one of the most scientifically, technologically, and medically advanced countries in the world. When Israel is singled out for unique and coruscating opprobrium, when the mere mention of its name can drive otherwise rational-seeming people to fits of apoplexy and outbursts about ‘Zionists’, ‘blood-thirsty warmongers’, and ‘Nazis’, we are not dealing with political debate but a verbal pogrom against the Jewish state.

Today, 67 years after the end of World War II and the liberation of the surviving Jews from the camps, antisemitism has not gone away but returned in the cloak of politics, and progressive politics at that. Holocaust Memorial Day is a fitting opportunity to redeem the promise of ‘never again’ before the kingdom of night sets in upon us once more.

Feature image © Maria Carmen by Creative Commons 3.0.  

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