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The welfare of European Jewry is American responsibility - opinion
Last week marked the 80th anniversary of one of the greatest atrocities of the Second World War. On September 29-30, 1941, Nazi commandos and their Ukrainian collaborators rounded up the Jews of their capital city of Kyiv and marched them to a ravine called Babyn Yar. There, the 33,771 men, women, and children were stripped, beaten and then machine-gunned to death. Because they were Jews.
The anniversary, of perhaps the single biggest mass killing of Jews in the entire Shoah serves as a chilling reminder for us to be forever vigilant in preserving the memory of the Holocaust so that the promise of “Never Again!” remains true. For years, the site was barely marked. But the Ukrainian government has made it a priority to mark the anniversary and keep the memory of what happened there alive.
Commemorating the terrors of Europe’s past – as will be again this week in Kyiv – is important because in recent years European antisemitism, which never completely disappeared, has returned with a vengeance. The murders of elderly Jewish women in France. Attacks on our houses of worship in Germany. Neo-Nazi marches in the streets of Poland unabated. The longtime hold of antisemitic ideas on a whole mainstream political faction, in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s wing of the British Labour Party – or among the rising tide of neo-fascist political parties across the continent.
The Holocaust for many decades served as a dark warning to Europe, a sign of where antisemitism can lead. But as its very last survivors approach the ends of their lives, the memory of the atrocity has lost much of its power as a deterrent.
The new European antisemitism is now a composite – if you will – a hodgepodge combining age-old racial and religious enmity toward Jews with two new elements. The first of these complains that Holocaust memory itself is excessive, obscuring atrocities committed against other groups, serving the interests of an imagined Jewish lobby; the second, appearing under the guise of anti-Zionism, proceeds to heap upon the State of Israel accusations that were once leveled against Jews. While this new antisemitism rears its head all around the world, Europe has proven to be a most propitious environment; as the continent grapples with mass migrations and the legacy of World War II, it also hosts inordinate protest against the Jewish state.
American Jewry has a long and proud reputation of coming to the aid of our co-religionists in Europe, and it still has an important role to play today. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and many of our member organizations, continues this work by partnering with and lending assistance to national Jewish umbrella organizations across the continent. More than a million Jews still reside in Europe; the world’s third-largest Jewish community is in France. While world Judaism increasingly looks like an affair divided between two poles, America and Israel, we have not lost sight of Europe.
One of our greatest priorities in Europe is to preserve and increase awareness of the Holocaust by means of educational programming. A recent survey by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the Claims Conference), the organization handling reparations for Jews despoiled by the Nazi state during the Holocaust, finds a woeful lack of Holocaust awareness even in the United States. Fully 30% of Americans – and more than 40% of millennials – averred that the number of six million murdered Jews was doubtful or exaggerated. Frequent polls conducted in Europe by the Anti-Defamation League find significant percentages of European populations claiming that Jews have too much power and care too much about the Holocaust. Our work is clearly cut out for us. We will not be remiss in our duties.
The American Jewish community has several tools to advance education, awareness and/or prevention around antisemitism and the Holocaust. We work with our partners in government, including the US Department of State’s Special Envoy on Holocaust Issues. We advocate for mandatory Holocaust education in various American states and in European countries. And we championed the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which among other insightful examples, draws a link between extreme forms of anti-Israel activity and antisemitism. Our member organizations operate offices in Paris, Berlin, London, Brussels, Warsaw and in other European cities – and we are on a constant lookout for new partners in these places and to deepen our collaborations with existing ones.
Last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Babyn Yar was “a black page inscribed in the common past of the Ukrainian and Jewish people. We bow our heads before all the victims of Babyn Yar. And we have no right to forget these terrible crimes,” he said. And his government is hosting a commemoration of the 80th anniversary of that barbarism.
I am honored that I will be present to join him in Kyiv this very week for this solemn occasion, and I hope to return home with an even deeper understanding of the atrocities that befell our people during the horrific period it will recall. But sadly, as the ongoing threat of antisemitism still plagues us to this day, we must continue to fight with all we have and with all the true allies we can muster.
The writer is CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The Conference of Presidents is the central coordinating body representing 50 national Jewish organizations on issues of national and international concern
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