The longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League considers what is possible after the Shoah
I’d like to begin with an honest comment about the title of this column: “Justice after the Holocaust.”
I don’t believe there truly can be justice after the Holocaust. How can there be justice for the six million innocents who were murdered?
How can there be justice for the one and a half million slain Jewish children, who never experienced adulthood?
How can there be justice when we think of all the scientific discoveries, the symphonies, the works of art, the beautiful books that never became real because of the death camps?
How could there be justice when millions not only were murdered but were humiliated before they were killed? How could there be justice when so many societies and governments around the world either collaborated with the Nazis or stood idly by when the Nazis engaged in the extermination of European Jewry?
So we need to be more modest. Let’s talk about a measure of justice, which is necessary to pay tribute to those who perished. It is necessary for the families of victims, for those who survived.
It is necessary to move forward to try to learn the lessons of the Holocaust if we are to make this a better world and to protect Jewish life going forward.
Achieving a measure of justice and identifying the things that can be done never was simple and it gets even more complicated as the years pass. To many, the Holocaust seems like ancient history.
We start with the most basic element — prosecuting Nazi war criminals. There isn’t a great record here. Fewer and fewer of them still are alive, and when a 90 year old is put on trial, as just happened in Germany, there is an air of cruelty about it.
I believe it is vital to do it. It was vital in the case of Reinhold Hanning, 94, who admitted that he was a guard at Auschwitz and apologized for having done nothing about it. Yes, that is a necessary measure of justice, but that’s all.
Then there’s the issue of restoring stolen property to Jews. This issue was raging 10 or 15 years ago. As a survivor and a professional who spent his life fighting anti-Semitism and protecting Jews, I found myself ambivalent about those activities.
Of course, Jews had every right to demand that valuable family possessions be returned, insurance policies paid, bank accounts fulfilled. There undoubtedly was a measure of justice here.
Ultimately, however, the Shoah was not about money and thievery, though that took place everywhere, and Jews do not remember the Holocaust in a search for money.
The Holocaust is a sorry tale of where bigotry can lead. Remembering it is in order to respect the victims and to learn from the tragedy. I always worried that the focus on money would distort what happened, and play into the old stereotype of Jews and money.
I also worry about putting Europeans on the spot today for what their countries did in those days. Again, there is a measure of justice in it — but it also produces a backlash.
I think of that backlash every time I hear the obscene comparison of Israelis to Nazis. It’s as if the accusers are trying to relieve themselves of the guilt projected onto them for the Holocaust. Yes, we Europeans had our Nazis back then, they seem to be saying, and today you Jews have your Nazis in the form of the Israelis. So to them there is a moral equivalence, with one thing cancelling the other out.
Other manifestations of a measure of justice leave me more satisfied. The international observance of Yom Hashoah, beyond Israel and the Jewish world, is important. Teaching about the Holocaust to youngsters in many countries is another measure of justice. We need more of that. And the recognition of those non-Jews, the righteous among the nations, who rescued Jews during those terrible years is a good thing. It should be encouraged.
My very existence depended on one such person, so I am emotionally attached to this theme. But the idea that honoring such individual projects — that people could make a difference even in the most challenging of times — has to be reinforced time and again.
Clearly, as you can see, I think that the concept of justice after the Holocaust is complicated. I think of attaining justice more in terms of remembering and changing people’s attitudes and behavior, than in exacting some kind of metaphysical revenge for the horror that was.
Which leads me to the measure of justice that is most desired but which is least fulfilled — eliminating anti-Semitism from the world.
We cannot begin to understand the Shoah without understanding the 2,000 year history of anti-Semitism. Of course, the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews went far beyond anything that preceded it. — but it could not have happened if the anti-Semitic idea had not been embedded deeply within Western civilization. This underlaid the Nazi demonization of the Jews and enabled millions of others to be collaborators or bystanders in the slaughter.
In the years following the first pictures of Auschwitz, people felt shame about what long-held anti-Semitism could lead to. Anti-Semitism was by no means eliminated, but cultural embarrassment about anti-Semitism curtailed its emergence. Today, that shame about anti-Semitism is disappearing.
There are two reasons for that. First, the passage of time. New generations feel removed from the Shoah, and even when they learn about it, it doesn’t have the same emotional impact it once had.
Second, the non-stop assault on the good name of the state of Israel. These assaults often are a cover for anti-Semitism.
Without getting into the question of when anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, it must be said that the attacks on Israel dramatically weaken the resistance to anti-Semitism. It is no accident that anti-Semitism’s dramatic upsurge coincides with growing efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state.
A measure of justice that would matter most for me, therefore, would be the international community’s serious commitment to combat anti-Semitism. That would involve several initiatives. One, which already is ongoing, is teaching young people about the Shoah. But don’t just tell them about it. Get them to relate to it.
Rita Sussmuth, once head of the Bundestag in Germany and a remarkable woman, told an ADL group that we have to find different ways to teach each generation about the Holocaust. Young people today are so far removed from it that creative approaches must be developed. The facts of the Shoah must be relevant to those young people. They cannot be just dry words in a book or on a computer screen.
Second is an understanding that an assault on Israel’s legitimacy or the demonizing of the Jewish state should be illegitimate because it generates the very anti-Semitism so many protest they are against. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting Israel is beyond criticism, nor do I see this as a tool to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel.
One of the most important lessons of the Holocaust is that Jews can never again afford to be powerless. The horror of the Shoah was that a regime committed to the destruction of the Jews came to rule not only Germany but most of Europe, at a time when the Jews had no power at all — no army, no place to go, no political influence to speak.
Thank God, today Jews have an element of power — Israel, the IDF, American Jews and their friends.
With power, however, comes responsibility. So Israel is not beyond criticism. But the demonization and delegitimization of Israel have nothing to do with legitimate criticism.
Whether or not anti-Zionism is always anti-Semitism, one damaging concept we sometimes hear and must combat is the idea that anti-Zionism never can be anti-Semitism.
We need international recognition that often anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, and even when it’s not, it generates an enormous amount of anti-Semitism, and legitimates it.
I’ll close where I began. I don’t want to be caught up on the concept of justice after the Holocaust. It’s an impossible endeavor. There are, however, many opportunities for the world to show that the Holocaust was a seminal event and that we can learn something from it.
We must recommit ourselves to the never-ending struggle for remembrance and learning, for the sake of those who perished, for the sake of us living today, and for the sake of those who are yet unborn.
Abraham Foxman of Bergen County is the director and chairman of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Jewish Heritage Museum and national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League.