Seventy years ago, the synagogues burnt in Germany. The German State had not only withdrawn its protection from the Jewish part of its population, it had appointed itself as the leader of all those who were out to take away honour, property and even the lives of Jews. Until this day, “Kristallnacht” symbolizes the failure of civil society and its institutions, and it was the beginning of the biggest crime in the history of mankind, the Holocaust.
In collective Jewish memory, the knowledge about how the Holocaust came about is deeply embedded, and centuries of our persecution have made our people very sensitive to signs of undesirable developments in society.
We quickly become worried because experience shows that Jews are often the first who suffer from discrimination. The slow erosion of tolerance and mutual respect between groups in society is worrying, and this often heralds a descent into exclusion and barbarism.
Today, many Jews are once again worried. It worries us that anti-Semitic crimes are on the rise in Germany. With recent German history, the question must be asked why 63 years after the end of World War II, there is still – or rather: there is yet again – widespread resentment again Jews.
Across Europe, we witness a shocking lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, especially among the younger generation. This ignorance makes for fertile ground on which intolerance and aggression can prosper. Particularly in some eastern European countries nationalistic and racist theories can now once again be propagated publicly and without hindrance by State authorities (sometimes even under their protection, such as recently in Lithuania) in marches and rallies. In Budapest, paramilitary guards are patrolling the streets in uniforms bearing symbols that deliberately resemble those of the fascist Arrow Cross regime during World War II. To the people, whom Jews, Gypsies, foreigners and other minorities are a thorn in their side.
Holocaust denial is getting fashionable again. Some, like the Belgian Senator and National Front leader Delacroix, even celebrate their disgusting theories by turning them into a song. In Austria, a member of the far-right FPÖ whose links to extremist groups are no secret, is elected deputy speaker of Parliament.
We also witness new aggression with the new anti-Semitism of Islamist origin. Often, violent acts against Jews are deemed isolated incidents with which each country should better on its own. That is a fallacy. Of course every country needs to act on its own, and each country has its own customs and laws. However, anti-Semitism and intolerance are now cross-border phenomena.
Especially on the internet, we can see the massive efforts of old and new anti-Semites. Some online retailers make a killing by selling Hitler T-shirts and reprints of Mein Kampf. Websites dedicated to promoting hatred and calling for murder and destruction are numerous. Anti-Semitism and intolerance therefore can only be contained by pooling forces, working together internationally, and pursuing a coordinated strategy. German politicians recently discussed creating the post of a special representative for anti-Semitism. I am asking: Shouldn’t this not be done in Europe, and by Europe?
Intolerance ignored or condoned by the State is bad enough. However, even worse is state-sponsored intolerance. We Jews are rightly concerned that with Iran anti-Semites around the world-wide have got a new impulse generator and financial supporter.
It was again the Jews who were responsible for the current problems in the world, the Iranian president recently said before the General Assembly of the United Nations. In many countries, scores of young Muslims with no good prospects in life are being mobilized by such rallying cries. Moreover, it is the repeatedly stated aim of the Iranian president to wipe Israel off the map.
Witnessing all this, which Jew does not get a feeling of déjà-vu? Who does not feel reminded of November 1938 and all that followed it?
Iran is also pursuing its quest for nuclear weapons. Independent of the question of whether or not such bombs would ever be deployed, the ability to threaten others would already create fear and despair in the region. Similar to Hitler’s Germany a nuclear Iran could be the epicentre of a sphere of barbarity and elevate the level of anti-Semitism to a new dimension.
Therefore, we need to stop the intolerance and aggression of the regime in Tehran. If years of diplomatic efforts have been blatantly undermined and if the only purpose of Iran is to win time, we must impose tougher sanctions.
Whoever is doing business with Iran without any qualms is downplaying the danger which this state poses. Whoever discards the threats constantly uttered by Iran’s president as mere rhetoric ignores the devastating impact they have. Spreading anti-Semitism is again becoming a means to pursue the national interests of a country. Whoever thinks that the financial support given by Iran to the Hezbollah terrorists in their fight against Israel is just an issue for the tiny Jewish state to deal with chooses to ignore that this is an evil strategy.
Europe needs to remember: What in 1938 was considered an internal German problem months later became one affecting Europe as a whole.
Those who always want to placate and appease should take note: We Jews are often the first who become victims. However, we are almost always not the only ones.
Because the history of the Jewish people is one of persecution we are today also worried when racism, chauvinism, xenophobia and intolerance spread. This is why, together with former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, I have set up the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation. We want to improve education as it is the very basis for understanding and mutual respect in society. Here, countries can learn from each other quite a lot.
I know that creating tolerance is not an easy task. There is no panacea, and it is not possible to take a pill and wake up “tolerant” the next day.
Learning tolerance can be a long and painful process. Quick and spectacular results are not to be expected. This is perhaps the reason why Jews are often so disappointed about the discrepancy between the speeches given on Sunday and the political actions undertaken on Monday.
After commemorating the “Kristallnacht” victims next Sunday, we will host a special event on Monday at the European Parliament in Brussels, which should pave the way ahead and which is dedicated to the promotion of tolerance and reconciliation.
It is reassuring to see that so many political leaders unequivocally support this objective and that they want to work together on a more tolerant world. Perhaps one day the events of 9 November 1938 will be looked at as a phenomenon that Europe managed to overcome. However, until then, a lot remains to be done.