On Jan. 27 the world commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps by the Soviet Red Army troops. About 1.5 million people, 1.1 million of them Jews, were murdered there by the Nazis. The anniversary gives the world yet another opportunity to reflect upon the extent of human suffering and carnage caused by irrational and evil bias, bigotry and intolerance. It’s hard to believe that experts are reporting an uptick in violence against Jews throughout the world. To combat this rise in hatred, the United Nations convened a first-ever General Assembly meeting devoted to anti-Semitism.
The United Nations General Assembly agreed to the request by Israel to host this meeting devoted to the rise of anti-Semitism worldwide. This was all agreed upon before the killing of four French Jews at a kosher market during the three days of terror in Paris last month, but in response to a growing fear among many Jews in Europe following the killings at a Belgian Jewish Museum and at a Jewish school in France. The gathering was an important opportunity for many European leaders to speak out against anti-Semitism at a time when relations with Israel are tense and attacks against Jews have risen sharply across Europe.
“Whenever you attack a Jew for being a Jew, it’s all of us, the community of nations, who are under attack for the founding principles of the United Nations,” said Harlem Desir, the French minister of state for European affairs. Michael Roth, the German state minister for European affairs, said he was deeply alarmed at the attacks and slogans against Jews in Europe, including in Germany. “Scenes we thought we would never see again have become reality. Anti-Semitism is gaining ground in a loud and aggressive manner,” he said. A Russian envoy, Evgeny Zagaynov, denounced what he called the “glorification of Nazism and neo-Nazism.”
The United States pushed for the session at the U.N. and our ambassador, Samantha Powers, said, “When the human rights of Jews are repressed, the rights of other religious and ethnic groups are often not far behind. If we fail to expand dramatically the ranks of those fighting anti-Semitism, not only will we fail in our obligations to the Jewish people, but we will see the weakening in our societies of the rights and bonds that tie us all together.” She added that “the group that calls itself the Islamic State aims to kill Jews, but it also hunts down Yazidis, Christians and Muslims of different sects.” Her remarks were met with loud applause.
The Israeli envoy to the U.N., Ron Prosor said, “Europe is being tested. We don’t need any more monuments commemorating the Jews who were murdered in Europe, we need a strong and enduring commitment to safeguard the Jews living in Europe.”
One of the proposals to combat the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe was to enact new laws that would hold Internet companies responsible for hate speech. Companies like Twitter take down content when served with a valid government request. For instance in 2012 Twitter blocked Germans’ access to a banned neo-Nazi group’s Twitter handle. The French minister, Mr. Desir said, “Those networks, those Internet international networks, are used to promote violence, to promote discrimination, to promote hatred and there is a responsibility.” He added that France would also respect free speech concerns.
The statement that came out of this unprecedented meeting said in part, “The determination to eradicate the conditions that gave rise to the Holocaust was a guiding principle among the founders of this organization over six decades ago. Let us rededicate ourselves to that principle and endeavor to eliminate anti-Semitism in all its forms.”
Pope Francis recently echoed this same sentiment when he decried anti-Semitism as “madness” and said that “inside every Christian is a Jew.”
“Because of our common roots, a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic,” he added. Pope Francis explained that the church “firmly condemns hatred, persecution and all manifestations of anti-Semitism.”
As the world looks back at the horrors that took place at Auschwitz, let us not allow the bigotry and hatred that fueled the atrocities that took place there to ever rear its ugly head again.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.