Forgetting Auschwitz

This week, world leaders are gathering in Jerusalem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the democratic world, recalling the lessons of this painful history could not be more important.

These are difficult times for liberal democracy. Institutions are under strain. Rules and norms are being challenged and, in some cases, shamelessly flouted. Societies are becoming increasingly polarized and fragmented. And the toxic “isms” of the past – ethno-nationalism, populism, anti-Semitism – are being revived.

Whereas ethno-nationalism and populism have been dominating debates for years – particularly since the Brexit referendum and US President Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 – the resurgence of anti-Semitism has been less discussed. And yet the evidence of this trend is abundant – and chilling.

In Hungary and elsewhere, the dog-whistle demonization of the Holocaust survivor George Soros has gone on for years. In the United Kingdom, a leaked document revealed “relentless” incidents of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. During the Yellow Jacket protests in France, a prominent Jewish intellectual was met with cries of “dirty Zionist.”

Violent anti-Semitic hate crimes – from an arson attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris to shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and eastern Germany – are also on the rise. In France, police reports indicate that anti-Semitic incidents increased by 74% from 2017 to 2018.

Likewise, according to a forthcoming report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, anti-Semitic hate crimes in America’s three largest cities (New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) are on track to reach an 18-year high. The German government’s anti-Semitism commissioner has warned Jewish men not to wear yarmulkes (the traditional Jewish head covering) in public.

It has been said that anti-Semitism is a red flag for a society. Attacks on the Jewish community portend attacks on other groups. The German pastor Martin Niemöller’s post-World War II confession eloquently captures this progression: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

But the risks of rising anti-Semitism run even deeper. The rejection of anti-Semitism lies at the root of modern Western liberalism, and forms the foundation of our societies. Nowhere is this truer than in the European Union, which was founded explicitly on the goal of preventing the horrors of World War II from ever being repeated. Indeed, even beyond rules, institutions, and the rule of law, the EU is based on respect for human dignity – a priority born from and sustained by the memory of the Holocaust.

Europe’s “never again” mantra has always been more aspiration than reality. The Srebrenica massacre in 1995, and, more broadly, the war and ethnic cleansing that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, clearly defied it. But the soul-searching that followed the Balkan conflict suggests that Europeans at the very least recognized the betrayal of their fundamental values.

Such self-reflection is much harder to come by these days. Mentions of anti-Semitism are often shrugged off or even cynically rationalized. Displays of outrage or solidarity lack depth, with discussions hijacked by arguments about Israeli – or even US – policies. Meanwhile, liberal democracy weakens.

Two reasons for this weak response are worthy of particular attention. The first is the fading of memory. The history of anti-Semitism in Europe is nearly as old as Europe itself. But the last 70 years have brought a remarkable respite, because of the indelible mark the Holocaust left on those who had lived through, or near, it. But nearly all of them have died. Younger generations view this singularly horrific event as yet another tragedy of history, and thus do not fully appreciate the scale or urgency of the threat anti-Semitism poses.1

The second reason is the broader erosion of democratic principles and institutions. In this sense, anti-Semitism is a canary in the coal mine, showing us just how toxic and divisive our social and political discourse has become. The instrumentalization of the most basic rules, norms, and principles to advance personal or partisan objectives threatens to unmoor our societies. If we cannot agree that anti-Semitism has no place in our societies, what can we agree on?

The resurgence of anti-Semitism – and the weak response to it – is a harbinger of democratic decay. The commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz will hold a mirror up to our societies. We can either avert our eyes and allow ourselves to reach the point where there is no one left to speak for us, or we can recognize the threat we face – and confront it head on.