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May 4, 2016

The History of Anti-Semitism and the Shoah

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared on The Jerusalem Post Blog

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As an organization dedicated to combatting anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism, 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 anti-Semitism 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 about what anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism: 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 U.S. support of Israel?

What this new and positive reality, where Jews are no longer powerless, suggests is that anti-Semitism in the modern world is a much more complicated phenomenon.  Anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism.

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 anti-Semitism.

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 anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism.

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April 21, 2016

This Passover Let Us Remember That Once We Were Strangers, Too

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared on The Huff­in­g­ton Post Blog

Syrian refugee woman reacts while travelling in an overcrowded dinghy as it arrives at a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey

This Friday night, Jews around the world will gather at Seder tables with friends and family to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We are commanded to tell the story as if we had personally fled slavery, transforming the experience from the simple recounting of an ancient tale to an exercise of empathy and reflection on the suffering of others.

Today, as 60 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes around the world, we face the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Many are caught between the terror of the Islamic State and the barrel bombs of Assad’s regime and his Iranian backers in Syria. Others flee the terrifying grip of Boko Haram in Nigeria, or extreme gang violence in Central America. Still others flee other countries where they are persecuted and tortured because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There is one thing that unites all these refugees: No matter their home country, they are fleeing for their lives and seeking safety in new lands.

In place of compassion and open arms, however, too often refugees have been met with hateful rhetoric and closed doors. More than half of U.S. governors have either said they will not accept refugees in their states or have asked the federal government to shut our doors. A bill pending now before Congress, the ill-named “Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act” (H.R. 4731), would drastically reduce and cap refugee admissions and create new procedures that would substantially delay resettlement for many refugees whose lives are in danger. It would also allow state and local governments who “disapprove” of a group of refugees to veto resettlement in their communities.

Shutting our doors to those fleeing extreme violence is un-American. It flies in the face of our values as a nation that has served as a beacon of hope for those around the world seeking a better life. But, sadly, it is not the first time we have seen this kind of ugly response to a refugee crisis.

For those of us in the Jewish community who have family members, like my grandfather, who fled Nazism in Europe, this narrative is all too familiar. In July 1938—three years after the Nuremberg Laws had stripped Jews of German citizenship, deprived them of most political rights, and left hundreds of thousands of Jews seeking international refuge—Fortune magazine asked Americans, “What is your attitude toward allowing German, Austrian, and other political refugees to come to the U.S.?” Shamefully, more than two-thirds said we should keep the refugees out.

The following year the St. Louis, carrying 937 German refugees—mostly Jews fleeing Nazi Germany—set sail for Cuba. Most had applied for U.S. visas. Turned away from Cuba, as the St. Louis sailed so close to Florida that the passengers could see the lights from Miami, they appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to give them safe harbor. With public opinion opposed to lifting the stringent immigration quotas or to making an exception for the ship’s passengers, the St. Louis returned to Europe. Almost a quarter of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.

It was unconscionable to turn our backs on Jewish refugees fleeing Europe in the 1930s, just as it is unconscionable today to seal our borders to those fleeing extreme violence around the world.

The temptation may be to give into fear and fear-mongering claims that terrorists will slip into our midst disguised as refugees, but America has put up the highest hurdles in the world for refugees seeking entry. In fact, refugee status is the single most difficult way to enter the United States. Refugees must pass difficult and thorough screenings by the U.S. Department of State, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, international intelligence agencies, and the United Nations. Refugees are not terrorists. There may be even more that can be done to educate refugees as they seek to integrate into our society, but we must remember that they are people fleeing the very same brutality we fear.

As we gather around the Seder table, and we tell the story of the Exodus as if we too were fleeing Egypt, may we also have compassion for those fleeing brutality today. The Passover story is the story of people fleeing slavery. It is the story of people seeking safety abroad. It is the refugee story. This Passover, may we open our doors to refugees and grant safe harbor to those fleeing for their lives. For once we were strangers, too.

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October 12, 2015

Why the Holocaust Has No Place in the Gun Debate

By Jonathan Green­blatt
National Direc­tor of the Anti-Defamation League

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared on The Huff­in­g­ton Post Blog

With the campaign season in full swing, the debate over gun control laws once again has taken center stage. As the candidates reacted to the senseless mass shooting in Oregon two weeks ago, an old meme about guns, Hitler and the Holocaust resurfaced.

The argument goes something like this: If Jews and others had had freer access to more guns in the run up to Hitler’s assuming power and had been able to use those guns to fight back against the Third Reich, then there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust, or far fewer would have perished. This historical second-guessing is deeply offensive to Jews, Holocaust survivors and those who valiantly fought against Hitler during World War II. It is, in fact, as many historians have previously noted, a distortion of history itself.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson was the most recent to make this outrageous point last week during an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Since then, he’s taken a lot of heat, and for good reason. But he’s certainly not the first person to make the assertion.

ADL has responded to this talking point countless times since it first surfaced in 2013, when there were a slew of Holocaust and Nazi analogies as part of the gun debate. But it was a fringe idea then — and it deserves to be relegated to the fringe now, not given the courtesy of a mainstream conversation. These are the facts:

  • Guns or lack of them did not cause the Holocaust. The Holocaust was the product of anti-Semitism and the moral failure and indifference of humans.
  • It is mind-bending to suggest that personal firearms in the hands of the small number of Germany’s Jews (about 214,000 remaining in Germany in 1938) could have stopped the totalitarian onslaught of Nazi Germany when the armies of Poland, France, Belgium and numerous other countries were overwhelmed by the Third Reich.
  • Despite the overwhelming military force of the Nazi regime, there were thousands of brave civilians — Jewish and gentile — who indeed often resisted with every fiber of their being. Unfortunately, arming every European Jew would not have been enough to stop an evil force that was only overcome by the military might of the Allies.

Americans are entitled to express strong opinions about divisive issues. But Dr. Carson and others should stick to the facts. When you manipulate the history of the Holocaust and use it to score political points, its wholly inappropriate and offensive. Especially for the sake of the victims of the Nazi onslaught and their memory, it must stop.

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