On Holocaust Memorial Day, leaders must commit to protecting Jewish communities from hatred
Given the alarming rise of antisemitism in the West, this Holocaust Memorial Day is not a time for a passive act of commemoration of the past - but a platform for leaders to commit to protecting Jewish communities today, writes Baroness Deech
Today we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet forces in 1945. What confronted those troops were the remains of the world’s most horrifically efficient death factory, and a handful of skeletal survivors to bear heart-wrenching witness.
At its peak, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau gassed thousands of people per day – leading ultimately to the murder of more than 1.1 million individuals, the vast majority of whom were Jewish. Those who were not gassed were starved, brutalised or worked to death – including some who were medically experimented on. Since 1945, only 15% of Auschwitz staff were ever prosecuted.
The Holocaust is a collective trauma for the Jewish people. The unbearable knowledge of what occurred has affected, informed and inspired Jews and the State of Israel, which would become the only place of refuge for thousands of Holocaust survivors. A few years later many of them had to fight for Israel's existence and their own survival once more. However, this International Holocaust Remembrance Day must be about more than remembrance: it must be about action.
Antisemitism is on the rise again in the West. Latest figures show that in France violent antisemitism has risen by 74%, in Germany 60%, in Canada 16.5% and in the United States antisemitic assaults doubled. Across the world, antisemitic attacks rose 13% in 2018.
These alarming statistics have been tragically illustrated by increasingly terrifying acts of mass violence. In 2015 an attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris resulted in four deaths. Over the recent Chanukah December holiday, five celebrants were stabbed in the home of a rabbi by a knife-wielding attacker in New York State. In 2018 the largest attack against Jews in US history took place when a gunman invaded the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh leaving 11 dead. These incidents are only a few of the many cases of antisemitic attacks from all sides of the political spectrum and Islamists that worry Jewish communities.
The UK is hardly immune from these disturbing trends, witnessing a 10% rise in antisemitic incidents in the first six months of 2019. The institutionalised antisemitism infecting the UK Labour Party, the largest political party in Europe, has led to an investigation by the EHRC of hundreds of separate incidents of hate – this in a party whose mandate has historically been to combat racism.
Whilst some governments have taken action against rising antisemitism, others are indifferent or abetting it, as we have seen with the far right government in Poland seeking to whitewash Polish complicity in the Holocaust.
Previous commemorations of the liberation of Auschwitz and other remembrance occasions are often oriented around recognising the crimes of the past. However, as world leaders gather in Israel this month to remember, they must also commit to concrete action to fight antisemitism and redouble their efforts to stem the resurgence of race hatred in Western countries.
Substantive steps might include the further institutionalisation of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, especially at universities; more funding and training to secure Jewish communal institutions; and, more resources for effective education about the Jewish story in order to inoculate against antisemitism before it starts.
Jewish people are forever grateful for the courage of our liberators. We revere our survivors and recognise the impact their accounts of their lives have had today. And our memory of the six million is eternal.
However, given the alarming rise in antisemitism across the Western world, these must not be passive acts of commemoration, but a platform for leaders to commit to protecting Jewish communities from violence and hatred. It is not just a Jewish issue. The need for tolerance and understanding affects us all.