Remembering Kristallnacht: The Importance of Today
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism
73 years ago yesterday, my father was arrested by the Nazis. He was a rabbi in Manheim, Germany, and his temple, like most other synagogues, was destroyed. So many synagogues and businesses owned by Jews were blown up, vandalized, shattered that November 9th became known as Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. It was also the beginning of the Holocaust that took the rest of my family, and so many of yours.
I tell you this because, especially today, there is urgency in the work that I do at the U.S. Department of State. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have given me the honor of being the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism – and they have elevated and integrated my position into the work of the State Department, because this is a fight they care deeply about. And I am motivated by my family’s story, your families’ stories, and my desire to ensure that my two daughters, Shira and Francie, and your children live in a world where a Kristallnacht, a Cambodia, a Rwanda, a Darfur, a Srebrenica … can never again happen. But we do not live in such a world, because hatred continues … and the future demands that we do something about it.
As Special Envoy, I am tasked with monitoring incidents of anti-Semitism around the world and regularly report my findings to the President, the Secretary, and Congress – and to all other interested parties. My office does this through our embassies and consulates overseas, and we get help from non-governmental organizations around the world that give us a picture of what is happening. And we get immense help from MEMRI, which we recognize today.
I have been on the job for almost two years, and I have observed several major trends in current anti-Semitism. I have found it on every continent, with increases in 75 of the countries, and dramatic increases in 38 countries.
The old, traditional forms of anti-Semitism are alive and well – from accusations of blood libel, to Jewish conspiracies to take over the world, from being blamed for killing Jesus, to poisoning the purity of countries. We have almost grown accustomed to hateful graffiti, to cemetery desecrations, to verbal and physical assaults, to signs full of incitement at demonstrations, to demonic cartoons, to old mythic canards, to old tired stereotypic Jew depictions in literature or art – these all abound.
But there are also newer trends that we must pay attention to. Especially today, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Holocaust denial is growing and being promulgated by some government leaders, by some faith leaders, by right-wing activists. In Europe, in Asia, in South America, in the Middle East. Not only is denying that the Holocaust happened an insult to history, it is like killing the victims yet again: Not only did they die, but if the Holocaust never happened, they never existed.
I couldn’t do my job at the State Department without the great work of MEMRI in tracking this phenomenon in the Middle East. MEMRI watches and listens to the voices (good and bad) in the region, and shines a light on what is being said, who is saying outrageous things, who is denying that the Holocaust happened, and, worse, who is glorifying the Holocaust – and calling for another Holocaust to finish the job.
In addition to Holocaust denial and glorification, some are revising history. Some say it is all an exaggeration, or compare the Holocaust to other dark, awful chapters in the history of human suffering. Let me be clear: I am not trying to get into dueling victimhoods. All stories of atrocities and other genocides and mass killings do need to be taught and understood. But to conflate them is historically inaccurate (and dishonest). More importantly, it misses the important opportunity to teach the particular lessons of each, so that we can truly understand the universal message of “Never Again.” The fundamental lesson of the Holocaust is that it represents the possible.
Two more trends bear mentioning: One is the growing wave of nationalism sweeping so many countries, from the Baltic to the South Pacific; the thing that they all have in common is that hatred of “the other.” Some leaders are even publicly stating that fighting immigration, forcing people to flee countries, or inhibiting the practice of some religions is done “to save the purity of our country.” We have seen that movie before.
There is an increasing tendency of blurring the lines between opposition to the policies of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism. I want to be clear – criticism of policies of the State of Israel is not anti-Semitism. But it crosses the line when Israel is demonized and blamed for all the region’s ills; or when it is held to different standards than any other country; or when Israel is delegitimized, denying its right to exist. We at the State Department work to fight anti-Semitism through diplomacy between countries; through public diplomacy, when we talk directly to the public; or through programming and supporting organizations and people who fight hatred and oppression – and promote tolerance.
And we do so, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also out of enlightened self interest.
Our fundamental American values call for promoting, reinforcing, and upholding universal standards that apply to everyone (including ourselves). No one has articulated it better than Secretary Clinton, who said: “We believe our values represent the greatest accomplishment in political history of the world – that our values are not just American values. We believe the U.S. has both an opportunity AND an obligation to make clear around the world that democracy and freedom, markets that are open, and providing support for people’s human rights and those fundamental freedoms…that’s who we are as a people.”
So when we look at this new era in the Middle East, we know what values we want to see and promote and help build in the emerging democracies. When Yigal asked me to speak here today, we had no idea that Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qaddafi would be gone, that the people of Syria would have bravely taken to the streets to demand that Assad step down. That a revolution with a young Muslim woman in a leading role would occur in Yemen.
This is an enormous and momentous year of change – and we are working hard to ensure that the hopefully peaceful transitions will secure human rights for all citizens. We need MEMRI to help the United States to embrace and help these new democracies with no history of democratic practices or tolerance to begin to adopt those practices.
This will not be easy or tidy or smooth. But helping the people of the Middle East and North Africa build the capacities for free and fair elections, supporting those pursuing the freedoms to assemble and to say want they want, freedom to worship or not worship as they please, belong to any group they wish, to establish conditions under which men and women are able to live in dignity and have a meaningful role in shaping their future. These are the values we are supporting there.
But getting better constitutions and laws that protect human rights is not enough. Getting governments that are committed to human rights protections isn’t enough. Because those achievements are improbable if not impossible without also tackling the intolerance that also tears societies apart and prevents people from working together. Sometimes when I talk about fighting hatred, I am dismissed as pushing a “soft” agenda. That is wrong. Those who dismiss it as soft will run up against the hard fact that unless we confront hate, unless leaders take it on as a threat to healthy politics and healthy societies, they won’t achieve either.
The proof is in the history of the last decade, or the last century, or of the human experience. Securing rights in law and establishing governmental institutions that enforce the rule of law is necessary, but not sufficient. Respect for human dignity of all must echo not only in the courtrooms, but also in the classrooms. It must be written not only into constitutions, but also into the sermons of the clerics. It must be felt not only in the rhetoric of leaders, but also in the hearts of citizens.
That is why we are all here today. To honor MEMRI and its important work to inform world leaders what governmental, civic, academic, and religious leaders in the Middle East are saying. They show us when courageous leaders are standing up against hate. They shine the light on hateful statements; they call them out; they give us the information so that we and other world leaders can condemn hate and demand better from people.
What happened on November 9, 73 years ago, was that very few people spoke up against the events of Kristallnacht. Very few governments confronted the hatred expressed; very few religious voices condemned the cruelty; very few editorial boards called out the beating, arresting, and killing of Jews. Let this remembrance of Kristallnacht remind us of our responsibility to end the silence when there is oppression of any sort, when there is inaction in the face of violence, when there is indifference to it all.
Thank you to MEMRI, for its critically important work. Thank you to those of you who are the voices and advocates for the vulnerable. And thanks to all of you, for allowing me to tell you about what a lucky person I am to have this job, to work in this country with this platform, to fight anti-Semitism and intolerance in all its forms. Thank you.