On November 1 2005 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution establishing January 27 as international holocaust remembrance day. That date was chosen because it was on that day in 1945 that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most infamous of the death camps set up by the Nazis during World War 2. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation.
While Jews were not the only people singled out for destruction by Nazi Germany, they were the primary targets. By the end of the war, about two-thirds of European Jewry, perhaps more, had died. However, anti-Semitism — the ideology of hatred for Jewish people that had led to the genocide — evidently did not die. The question posed by many speakers at 2020’s commemorative events was, what to do about the global upsurge of this age-old prejudice?
In the 1990s, many Jewish leaders believed that anti-Semitism no longer posed a serious threat to Jewish safety and wellbeing, and confidently predicted that it would decline further. By then, the Cold War was over, liberal democracy was apparently triumphing everywhere and progress was, at last, being made towards achieving a final status peace agreement between Israel and its neighbours. However, the new century was hardly under way when the violent unravelling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ushered in a new era of hostility not only towards the Jewish nation state but against Jews everywhere.
Every year since then, global anti-Semitism levels have been progressively rising, with attacks increasingly taking a violent, sometimes lethal form. While many minority groups experience hate crimes, Jews are targeted to a greatly disproportionate extent. Bizarrely enough, it is primarily in liberal democratic countries that such attacks are taking place.
Part of the problem has been the persistent denialism by the ostensibly antiracist Left regarding anti-Semitism within its own ranks, as well as among those, particularly hardline Islamist movements, whose anti-Western ideologies it broadly shares. While happy to denounce anti-Jewish prejudice when it emanates from the white supremacist far right, leftists have been notably silent when their fellow travellers have engaged in the same kind of rhetoric.
More than that, they have tended to scoff at Jews who raise the issue, accusing them of deceitfully playing the anti-Semitism card to silence legitimate criticism of Israel. Such thinking has largely stymied efforts within the UK’s Labour Party to address the party’s very real anti-Semitism problem.
One of the things that make anti-Semitism so hard to get to grips with is how frightening illogical it is. On the Right, Jews are depicted as “rootless cosmopolitans” seeking to abolish the traditional nation state whereas on the Left they are denounced for their adherence to a supposedly “outdated” ethnic nationalism.
Right-wingers charge Jews with plotting to destroy the white race through promoting mass immigration and miscegenation, while leftists insist that Israel (uniquely among other nation states) is a “racist” endeavour and that Jews who support its existence are by implication racists. Jews are excoriated as bloodsucking capitalists by some and as subversive communists by others.
What anti-Semites of all stripes agree on is that Jews have excessive power that they use to secretly manipulate global events for their own nefarious purposes. “The Zionists’ Wicked Tentacles have spread over most world Governments” is how one member of the twitterati charmingly put it recently. The fact that the term “Jews” has simply been exchanged by the Z-word shows how easily excessive antipathy towards Israel can spill over into overt anti-Jewish racism.
Bigotry thrives when the demonisation and defamation of “the other” is allowed to go unchallenged; exposed to critical scrutiny, it is quickly discredited, and repudiated. A generation ago, it was possible for such theorising to be confined to the fringes of society, the preserve of assorted cranks and misfits unable to propagate their noxious ideologies much beyond their own immediate circles.
It required going to a fair amount of trouble and expense to distribute antisemitic literature, for instance. Such screeds typically required a laborious process of retyping, printing, filling, addressing and stamping of envelopes and finally physically posting them off. The electronic communications revolution has obviously changed all that. Never before has it been so easy, cheap and quick for haters to propagate their views and theories, whether against Jews or against anybody else. Unsurprisingly, an increasingly high proportion of antisemitic incidents today, including hate mail and threats, occur in the cybersphere.
To its credit, SA has to date consistently bucked these trends. As measured by direct attacks against Jews — in addition to physical violence, this would include hate mail, verbal abuse, offensive graffiti and vandalism — incidents in this country on a year-by-year basis can generally be measured in the dozens rather than the hundreds, or even the thousands, as is the case elsewhere.
Indeed, in 2019 the tally of incidents recorded fell to a 15-year low. Moreover, incidents seldom involve physical violence. Whereas there were 123 such incidents in the UK in 2019, SA recorded just one. One reason for this might be the sincere respect that most people have for different religious traditions in this country. From all the hopeful idealism with which SA’s new democratic era was launched back in 1994, this spirit of tolerance at least would appear to have endured.
• Saks is associate director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.
This article was originally published by Business Day