By World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder
On October 9, 2019, an armed right-wing extremist attempted to break into a synagogue in Halle, Germany, to murder worshipping Jews on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. He shot and killed two innocent bystanders in the process. Two weeks later, I stood in solidarity alongside the Jewish community of Halle to call upon Germany and governments around the world to implement stricter legislative action to fight the global scourge of antisemitism. And one year later, the day after Yom Kippur this year, the World Jewish Congress convened Jewish leaders at the synagogue in Halle, to mourn the deaths of Jana Lange and Kevin Schwarze and to push for concrete action to fight antisemitism.
At this time last year, we could not foresee the social upheavals caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but as societal norms have been twisted and fragmented, the scourge of antisemitism has remained constant. The world has turned to technology for social interaction, and antisemitism has found a new home on the internet like never before. Its continued proliferation poses a real and tangible danger to Jewish communities around the world.
For the vast majority of history, the Jews have been at the mercy of local leaders or national authorities, who were guilty of permitting or encouraging antisemitic ideology. For example, the pogroms of the late 19th century were ordered by the leadership of the Czarist Russian Empire, forcing thousands of Jews to flee or risk being killed.
At around the same time, the Dreyfus Affair – during which French authorities accused French Jew Albert Dreyfus of passing military secrets to the Germans solely because he was Jewish – became a defining moment in European history as France was forced to address the role of antisemitism in French society.
Less than half a century after the Russian pogroms and the Dreyfus Affair, the newly-empowered Nazi party organized and executed the 1938 pogrom of Kristallnacht throughout Germany and annexed territories in Austria and the Sudetenland. Jewish businesses were destroyed, local synagogues went up in flames, and tens of thousands of Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps – all with the legal and physical support of the Nazi government.
These examples of antisemitism originated from the highest echelons of government. The Russian Empire, France, and the Third Reich were able to utilize state apparatuses and resources to carry out their respective regimes’ antisemitic wills. From the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE until 1945, antisemitism was propagated and reinforced largely by systems of government.
Almost two millennia of purposefully reinforced European antisemitism culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust. From World War II onward, it became incumbent upon the leadership of each country to undo and ameliorate the ideological harm caused by antisemitism.
The United Nations and its legal frameworks established over the last 75 years are a direct result of World War II. The world bore witness to the sheer magnitude and scope of Nazi brutality and barbarity through the horrific pictures and videos taken at the concentration camps; for many, it was the first time people saw how these instruments of the state could be manipulated into weapons of terror.
The evidence of these crimes was too great and the pictures too graphic for the world to ignore.
In the 75 years since, Germany has emerged as a leader in rooting out the remnants of antisemitic sentiment. German students are required to visit former concentration camps to bear witness to the crimes committed on their soil in their name. The Nazis’ campaign of brutal violence against European Jewry was carried out and justified as necessary for the survival of the German nation – for the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Germany – the same posterity who now tour the camps in horror and disbelief. Germany’s active approach to combat antisemitism through education has peeled away the layers of ignorance and reinforced the universality of all humankind.
However, it has proven impossible to rectify two millennia of antisemitism in a 75-year period. That there was an antisemitic attack on German soil just one year ago reinforces the notion that we must never lose focus on the possibility of evil, that we must, again and again, remind ourselves of the horrific truths of the Holocaust and the realities of modern-day antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, and other forms of hate.
Following the attack in Halle, I called for “action, not words” in building a unified front among Jewish groups, international organizations, and national governments to combat both violent and non-violent forms of antisemitism, and pledged millions of dollars to halt the metastasizing threat posed by far-right and neo-Nazi groups.
While the Jewish community of Halle is a small one, the terror that the attacker created reverberated throughout the Jewish world. From online antisemitism to violent, targeted attacks on synagogues, governments and international institutions must demonstrate leadership and accountability in preventing and prosecuting such heinous actions, and the best prevention tactic is education.
Jewish history is plagued with hostile governments who viewed their Jewish communities as possible threats, but today, Jewish voices are being lifted and amplified by those with the power to do so. In the 21st century, Jewish communities have for the most part found that their respective governments are allies, as they partner together to eliminate the world’s oldest hatred that continues to rear its ugly head. And we need to see more of this.
Local governments and Jewish communities must work together in the shared fight against hateful dogma both online and in-person because the world has already seen where this dangerous ideological path leads – and this fact itself should be enough deterrence for the world to stand up and hold assailants, proponents, and ideologues accountable for their actions.
One year since Halle, as we begin a new year Jewish year, we move forward, together, with renewed cognizance of the work that still must be done to increase tolerance and to make this world a better, safer place that our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will be proud to inherit.
Ronald S. Lauder is President of the World Jewish Congress.