Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, is our annual reminder of what antisemitism, racism and totalitarian extremism can lead to. CST’s work is driven by such lessons. We combat antisemitism. We help others combat varying types of bigotry and discrimination. We believe in helping to build a diverse yet cohesive society and in strengthening democratic values against extremism.
We commemorate the Holocaust because morality demands it of us. We oppose today’s antisemitism because it must be opposed, not because we believe that another European Holocaust is likely.
The recent terrorist attack on a kosher store in Paris focussed political and media attention upon today’s antisemitism. The question of Jewish feelings of safety, security, belonging and future, was understandably at the fore of such conversations. CST had insisted that “have you considered emigrating…due to not feeling safe as a Jew” be one of the key questions in the European Union survey of Jewish communities, conducted by the Fundamental Rights Agency in 2013. We have long stated that this question is fundamental to understanding how antisemitism and related phenomena are actually impacting against Jewish communal life. “Never Again” becomes less relevant if British and European Jews feel the need to emigrate in order to lead a “normative” life of their own choice.
For all the fine and sincere words about “Never Again”, a crime on the scale of the Holocaust does not come out of nowhere; and Jewish history is sadly littered with recurring rhetorical motifs, and resultant oppression and massacre. As ever, there are old Jewish jokes to wryly paint the picture. One is about the telegram that reads “start worrying, details to follow”; another tells how Jews will be blamed for the Titanic disaster, “iceberg, Golberg, what’s the difference?”.
Contemporary antisemitism may be modern in its motivation, perpetrators and method, but there is nothing new in any of that: nor in the fears it prompts. It is, nevertheless, inevitable that the Holocaust has become the prism through which contemporary antisemitism is ultimately perceived, discussed and referenced.
Rising levels of antisemitism give early warning of fracturing society, so in one sense post 2000 antisemitism echoes post 1930 antisemitism: but any comparison between now and then is not a philosophical exercise in political theory. Rather, comparisons between now and then evokes gut emotions and headlines of another Holocaust lurking in wait.
There is no doubt that British Jews are unusually worried at this time, but breaking down the reasons for this shows it to be a combination of many things. In briefest summary, it is the accumulative impact of antisemitism, anti-Jewish terrorism and anti-Israel rhetoric and action from 2000 to the present day. Each surge (eg 2014, 2009, 2006) brings fears that build upon pre-existing pressures, which cannot properly subside due to the short time spans between each outburst. The post 2000 trajectory is very clear and for many Jews it is deeply disturbing, with no obvious reasons why the direction should reverse any time soon. That this should occur during (in Britain at least) a period of serious Jewish communal regeneration and public confidence merely adds to the complexity of things. It also makes CST even more determined in its work.
If there is a comparison with the 1930s, it perhaps lies in the failure of democratic elites to seriously contemplate the murderous rhetoric and actions of openly antisemitic totalitarians. It is hard to shake the sense that this is at least partly due to European post-Holocaust values of anti-racism and what is often sneeringly summarised as ‘political correctness’. For Jews, the consequence of such inaction goes well beyond noting the irony of the situation. When French Jews are shot in a kosher store merely for being Jewish, there is an inescapable historical echo.
Nevertheless, the existence of Israel, political consciousness against antisemitism, strong support from Government and Opposition, and the sheer solidity of the UK state, all render comparisons between Britain (and France) today and Europe in the 1930s and 1940s as deeply flawed. This, before we compare the socio-political position of British Jews to the marginalised position of those Central and East European Jews who actually comprised most of the victims of the Holocaust: and to say so does not concede one inch in the struggle against modern antisemitism, nor the importance of France within that fight.