Remarks at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Remarks at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum



MAY 12, 2022


Stuart, you have been my friend, colleague, compatriot, and interlocutor for more years than either one of us probably wants to admit. I’m very grateful. But it is not just I who is and should be grateful. Anyone who benefits from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s multiple activities both inside and outside this building, anyone who was forced into slave labor by the Nazis, anyone whose property was confiscated… and so many others, owes a debt of thanks to you, Stuart Eizenstadt. You have left and continue to leave a mark on this nation. I feel blessed to call you my friend. Our nation is blessed to have you among its public servants.

Friends, I begin a talk about antisemitism in a strange fashion: with a joke, though one with exceptionally legitimate bona fides. It is one that I first heard in 1972 in Moscow on Rosh Hashana night, where I was spending the holidays with some of the earliest Refuseniks, those who had been denied permission to emigrate from the USSR. After a festive holiday celebration, they were walking me back to my hotel. It quickly became evident that we were being trailed by the KGB. They were acting in an obtrusive manner, with the apparent objective of “spooking” me and my traveling partner into telling other foreigners not to come visit Refuseniks.

I asked my hosts how they endured being followed and harassed, being fired from their jobs, having their children shunned at school, and having longtime neighbors suddenly too frightened to speak to them. Smiling, they said, “We are fighting for what we believe in, the freedom to emigrate.”

“Is that enough?” I asked. “Well,” they responded, “we also use humor” and told me this joke.

Word goes out in Moscow that GUM, the famed department store, which in the Soviet era had few consumer goods on its shelves, was to receive a shipment of shoes. Though it was the dead of winter, people immediately formed a long queue and waited overnight in the bitter cold. The next morning, anticipating the opening of the store, they were disappointed when nothing happened.

Finally, the manager stepped out and announced: “There will not be enough shoes for everyone in line. Jews don’t get shoes. Jews go home.” So, the Jews dutifully left the line and went home.

About an hour or two later he stepped out and said: “There will not be enough shoes for everyone in line. Non-communist party members go home.” So, they too left the line.

He subsequently sent all the non-veterans of the Great Patriotic War home. Then, all those who did not receive medals in the war and then, those who had not been wounded.

Finally, as darkness fell on this bitter cold day, with only a few medal-bedecked disabled veterans left, he announced: “No shoes. Everyone go home.”

As two medal bedecked elderly veterans, limped away from the store, one said to the other: “Those Jews. They have all the luck.”

I share this joke, not just because it came to me from two people who exposed themselves and their families to overt antisemitism because of their desire to emigrate, but it illustrates the irrational and absurd nature of antisemitism.

Antisemitism is a prejudice and all prejudices are, by their very nature, irrational. Think about the etymology of the word: pre-judge, i.e., don’t confuse me with the facts. I know nothing about you – other than your race, religion or sexual orientation. Yet, based on that I determine your worthiness, character, morals, who and what you are.

The prejudiced person attributes the bad characteristics of a member of the group to the entire group. If a member of the group does something that the prejudiced person finds unacceptable, he or she will declare: “Oh, the XYZs are like that.” The actions of one become the actions of all. If a few do wrong, all are held accountable.

And conversely, should the person in question not act in a manner supposedly “typical” of her group, the prejudiced person, opines, “Oh, she’s one of the good ones, she’s not like the rest.”

However, antisemitism also has unique characteristics, ones that make it different from other prejudices and, consequently, more difficult to combat.

First of all, there is its age-old nature. Antisemitism is often called the “oldest prejudice.” Few, if any, other prejudices have such ancient roots and consistent histories. The antisemitic charges are so old, that many people accept them as fact, e.g., “Jews are like that.”

Secondly, unlike most other prejudices, antisemitism comes from many different places on the political spectrum. It does not emanate from one particular place, orientation or political outlook.

Thirdly, unlike other prejudices, antisemitism is a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy is the prism through which the antisemite’s view of the Jew is refracted. Antisemites, convinced that Jews use their wealth, power, and smarts to wreak havoc on the non-Jewish world, find the Jewish hand in any deleterious event in history.

Antisemites begin convinced that Jews have engaged in a conspiracy and seek to determine the precise nature of that conspiracy. Today, with the atmosphere rife with conspiracies, we also see the mirror image of this. Many people assume that a conspiracy is at the root of some bad turn of events– whether it be COVID, political wrongdoings, or financial mishaps. Consequently, they seek a group they believe has the power, wealth, and malicious qualities capable of engineering this particular conspiracy. Unlike the antisemites, they do not begin with the Jews, but that is where they end up.

Finally, there is the phenomenon of “punching up” and “punching down.” Most prejudices posit that the reviled group is “lesser than” the rest of society. For example, the racist opines: should people of color move into our neighborhood, “there goes the neighborhood.” If their children go to our children’s schools, “there go the schools.” The racist, reviles the person of color as of lesser value than themselves. They punch down in order to keep them down.

So too, does the antisemite “punch down” – saying that, “Jews are dirty, Jews are revolting, Jews spread disease.” But he also “punches up.” Let me explain. Jews, the antisemite is convinced, are richer than, more powerful than, and more able to control matters than “the rest” of us. They revile the Jews, but they also fear them. And it is this fear of the Jews’ putative ability to control society and cause harm to the non-Jewish world, that determines for the antisemite that the Jew must be fought assiduously.

Against this framework, let me turn to contemporary events. No one in this audience will be surprised by my observation that there has been a noticeable spike in antisemitic events.

But it is not just antisemitic events and incidents that are a matter of concern. Too many people, organizations and institutions do not take antisemitism seriously. They fail to include it in their litany of legitimate prejudicial hatreds. They wonder what is it that Jews are complaining about? After all, they are wealthy and powerful.

Conversely, too often when there is an act of antisemitism, those who condemn it cannot bring themselves to focus specifically on this particular prejudice. They condemn antisemitism, together with all other acts of prejudice. It is as if antisemitism is not a true outrage and cannot, therefore, stand alone as something of real concern.

We must acknowledge, as I noted earlier, that antisemitism does not come from one end of the political spectrum. It is ubiquitous and is espoused by people who agree on nothing else or, better put, disagree on everything else. That does not mean that all threats are of equal severity. Sometimes, the threat from one group might be more severe than from the other.

One of the striking features about this ubiquitous nature of antisemitism is that, irrespective of where it is coming from, it relies on the same template of charges.

Too often, antisemites use Israel as a foil for their antisemitism. They couch or camouflage their antisemitism in attacks on Israel. “We are not attacking Jews; we are criticizing a sovereign state,” they assure you. Let me state something, that which the United States government has repeatedly affirmed: criticism of Israeli policies is NOT antisemitism.

But when there is an imbalance in the criticism, a failure to see the wrongs of others, an attributing of blame to only one party and double standards, one is compelled to ask: what is the basis for this imbalance? When Jews are denied rights that are accorded to every other group, one is compelled to ask: why this imbalance? The answer is often self-evident.

In recent months thinly veiled, as well as some not-so-thinly veiled, antisemitic tropes have been utilized to stir nationalist sentiment. Russia’s leaders have repeatedly engaged in egregious Holocaust distortion.

Their blatant fabrications and lies abound. They justify an invasion with the reprehensible accusation that the Ukranian leadership constitutes “Nazi filth,” fanciful assertions about Hitler’s origins and other overt exploitations of the Holocaust and the suffering of World War II.

I, who has spent a lifetime studying one of the most shocking events in history, who has been forced to defend herself in court against the lies of Holocaust deniers, who thought there was nothing in this arena that could surprise me, has been stupefied and, more importantly, outraged by this exploitation of the history and suffering of the Holocaust and World War II for a coldblooded war of choice.

What we are hearing from Russian leaders is a form of Holocaust denial, not “hardcore” denial, the denial of the facts themselves, but “softcore” denial, the rewriting of the facts to serve other ends. This twisting of the facts, the turning of victim into victimizer or perpetrator into victim, is equally as dangerous as denial of gas chambers and mass annihilation.

Turning to the rest of the European continent, something is very wrong in our world when, according to European Commission (EC) data, nine out of ten European Jews consider antisemitism as a serious problem. France, Germany, the Czech Republic together with other European countries too numerous to enumerate have all witnessed upticks, if not surges, in antisemitism.

Conspiracy theories – whether they concern Covid-19 or an array of other charges – abound. In many countries Jewish parents whose children attend Jewish schools instruct their children to remove their school uniforms when walking in the street.

But we must also recognize that not all threats to the viability of Jewish life come in the form of antisemitic attacks. Legislatures and courts in various parts of Europe are on the verge of adopting laws banning brit milah, ritual circumcision, and shechita, ritual slaughtering of animals. The dismaying irony of some of these developments is that they occur in countries that treat freedom of religion or belief as a bedrock principle. But if a select group of people – in this case both Muslims and Jews– cannot live a viable religious life, can we say there really is freedom of religion or belief?

But my – our – eyes should not just be on the European arena. In Latin America, antisemitism prospers, it thrives. It is to be found on the internet and on the ground. Chile’s relatively small Jewish community feels particularly vulnerable. The lack of accountability for the 1994 AMIA bombing has long disturbed the Argentinian Jewish community and Jews worldwide.

Governments and civil society must openly and vigorously fight antisemitism. It must be fought for the sake of the welfare of their Jewish citizens. That alone would make the fight against antisemitism an important goal.

But there is another significant reason for any government to be concerned about the existence of Jew-hatred within its boundaries – irrespective of what particular segment of society it emanates from. Jew hatred, antisemitism, is a threat to the stability of all governments. History has shown that there is virtually no government, irrespective of its political orientation, that can thrive when it harbors deep-seated antisemitism in its midst.

My appointment is to the State Department, which means I must cast my glance outward, across our borders. However, it would be wrong to assess antisemitism in foreign lands without acknowledging its existence within our own country. The litany of places that have witnessed antisemitic attacks in the United States in the past three years is known to all of us: Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Monsey, Colleyville and virtually daily on the streets of Brooklyn.

And then there was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, the event that President Biden points to as prompting him to run for president. From the chants, “Jews will not replace us,” to the beating of Black bystanders,

Nazi symbols and ideology were evident everywhere. It was a stunning example of how antisemitism and racism, hatred of Black Americans and hatred of Jews are inexorably intertwined. The accusations by the Charlottesville organizers that Jews were behind an attempt to destroy white America have been adopted and adapted by racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists in Europe and beyond.

It is increasingly hard to differentiate between antisemitism that is foreign and that which is domestic. The hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas took place at a synagogue in the United States. The hostage taker was radicalized abroad. The Biden-Harris administration is fully committed to fighting antisemitism wherever it occurs: in the classroom, on the campus, online, in political venues within our border and abroad.

But I would be remiss to conclude this talk without taking note of positive developments, something we too rarely hear when the topic is Jew-hatred.

The Abraham Accords constitutes an important initial step in the normalization of relations between some Muslim-majority countries and Israel. Working together with the countries that have signed on to the Accords and the normalization agreements, we can address some of the violent extremist antisemitism which often has had lethal consequences. We can also forge partnerships with these and other governments in the Middle East and beyond to foster interfaith dialogue and reduce the misunderstanding and intolerance that have tragically characterized relations among the Abrahamic faiths in the region in recent decades.

Secondly, we must recognize the significance of the fact that there exists an office such as mine and has been one for four administrations. We sit but a few feet from a compelling exhibit on Americans and the Holocaust. The American government of that era — the Executive, the Congress and of the very Department for which I now work — reacted very differently to antisemitism than has the Biden-Harris administration and its recent predecessors.

Imagine if, when the ship St. Louis was being turned, there had been an office such as mine with someone empowered to speak truth to power and say: we must do more, we condemning people to unimagineable suffering and enabling Nazi antisemitism.

I have been so encouraged by the fact that in recent years so many countries and international governmental organizations have, not only recognized the seriousness of this problem, but have taken proactive steps to combat it.

In October 2021, the European Union announced its first-ever Strategy on Combatting Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish life. Netherlands and Romania have joined Germany, France, the United Kingdom and so many other countries in appointing national antisemitism envoys and coordinators. The Organization of American States has appointed its first-ever Commissioner to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. Other countries are actively considering doing so.

Some of you may be familiar with the semi-jocular concept of “half a consolation.” These new and existing appointments are a welcome sign and we celebrate them, even as we regret – deeply and profoundly – their necessity. It is akin to having an office to monitor and coordinate the fight against Covid. We are glad it exists, but sad that it is necessary.

We yearn for the day when positions, such as the one I am honored to occupy and the many others like it, become moribund and are legislated out of existence because the problem they have been delegated with combatting has been resolved.

Until that day – and I am too much of a historian and a realist to imagine it will come in my lifetime – I resolve to fight this plague with every fiber of my being. I am deeply encouraged by the support my office has received from the President and Vice President of the United States, the leadership of the State Department and a remarkable bipartisan affirmation by the United States Congress.

Though that support fills me with gratitude and resolve, I am even more strengthened and encouraged by the knowledge that a multitude of people are hoping and, dare I say it, praying for me to succeed. This past Shabbat, my first as Special Envoy, in synagogue the Rabbanit introduced the prayer for the American government and its officers and leaders by noting my presence and that I too was among those being prayed for. I thought I could ask for nothing more.

But in truth, there is something more that I ask for. A few days ago, State Department officials asked if, when I took my oath of office, I wanted the phrase, “so help me God” to be included. Without a nanosecond of hesitation I said: YES. I subsequently explained that with the task facing me, I needed every bit of support I could muster, irrespective of whether it came from earthly or heavenly venues.

I know I have the former. I pray for the latter.

Thank you very much.