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Volpe speaks out on anti-Semitism at Yom HaShoah

Prominent community leader Chuck Volpe took the opportunity to unpack the issue of anti-Semitism while giving the Yom HaShoah address in Port Elizabeth recently
by CHUCK VOLPE | May 12, 2014

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the one of the final chapters of the Holocaust, the deportation to Auschwitz of the Hungarian Jewish community. By this time, the allies were well aware of the death camps but no one managed to stop the Nazis adding another half a million men, women and children to their already immense tally.

It is not my intention today to dwell on the horror and suffering of the Shoah, we know this only too well. What I want to speak about is anti-Semitism and I want to do so for two reasons:

1. Firstly, because it was anti-Semitism that brought about the Holocaust;

2. And secondly, because anti-Semitism is again on the rise.

So this is not just a historical exercise or mere commentary, it is a live issue, and it is an issue not only for Jews but for everyone, because as the logical outcome of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust places a question mark over the very notion of civilisation. If the most cultured and developed country on the planet, the apex of our civilisation, Germany, a country which produced some of the world’s greatest philosophers, scientists, musicians and writers, could, in a matter of a few short years, descend into the most shameful barbarity, what is our civilisation worth? Or to take it one step further: Is civilisation even possible?

There is another point worth noting. We believed, or at the very least we hoped, that the Holocaust would put an end to anti-Semitism once and for all. When the death camps were opened to the world revealing a hitherto unimaginable vision of hell, we believed that a signal lesson had been learnt and that anti-Semitism would forever be relegated to the dustbin of history. We worked hard to reinforce this lesson: we opened museums, built memorials, published books, showed documentary footage, and established courses in Holocaust studies, in the process making the Holocaust the most researched event in world history.

But now 70 years on we realise that maybe we were too optimistic. The deeply-embedded beliefs and practices of 2000 years were not to be so easily erased. We see the old habits returning even though this time they come in disguise. But the situation turns out to be even worse. Not only has the Holocaust failed to bring an end to anti-Semitism, it has in certain respects, become a liability in the fight against it.

I’ll give you three examples:

  1. Holocaust denial – the mind-boggling claim that the Holocaust did not happen. This is ultimate proof that hatred can thrive in spite of the facts. It comes as no surprise that the Arab world has swallowed this crackpot belief whole. Mahmoud Abbas, our partner in peace, even wrote his doctorate on it, claiming that the Jews invented the Holocaust precisely to elicit sympathy for the Zionist cause;
  2. Equivalence – an equivalence is drawn between Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering. This has multiple resonances: it elicits sympathy for the Palestinians, it enables those European nations who collaborated with the Nazis to point to Israel’s own shortcomings, and it chastises Jews for their stubbornness in not learning their lesson in suffering, an echo of an earlier accusation of stubbornness in their rejection of the Christian Messiah;
  3. And finally, because of its immensity, the Holocaust has occluded the long prior history of anti-Semitism. We have forgotten how anti-Semitism functions, how it builds, how it intimidates, how it distorts Jewish identity, and how it morphs and changes to suit time and place. We have, so to speak, dropped our guard and now that we face a new form of anti-Semitism – anti-Zionism – some of us are not quite sure how to deal with it.

So what is this new anti-Semitism and how do we deal with it? To begin with, I’m not speaking of what is sometimes referred to as golf-club anti-Semitism or the anti-Semitism of the schoolyard - a disdain or contempt for Jews and the wish to exclude them. This is anti-Semitism at its mildest, an expression of racist attitudes and prejudice, comparable to anti-black racism although this is where the similarity ends. I’ll get back to this.

I am referring here to anti-Semitism in its modern form – anti-Semitism as a political ideology – the anti-Semitism that incorporates a unique ingredient, a mythology surrounding Jews. The Oxford dictionary defines mythology as “a set of stories or beliefs about a [group] especially when exaggerated or fictitious.” This mythology is typically expressed in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an early 20th-century fabrication which depicts Jews as a powerful and malevolent force conspiring against all humanity in a fanatical drive to take over the world. It is pure fantasy but this does not stop the credulous, the ignorant and the stupid from believing it, for conspiracy theories have a special appeal for those who cannot or will not think.

Mythology on Jews a product of imagination

One can easily see how this differs from anti-black racism and similar prejudices. No one accuses black people of conspiring to take over the world or of manipulating the world’s financial systems, the media or American foreign policy. Nor does anyone speak of blacks as being inherently evil and in league with the devil.

Since this mythology around Jews is a product of the imagination and not grounded in reality, it constitutes a one-size-fits-all ideology capable of adaption to any programme. Hence Christians at one time were able to cast the Jew as a God-murderer and well-poisoner, communists at another time to cast him as an exploitative capitalist, capitalists like Henry Ford to cast him as a communist revolutionary, and the ideological Left and the Arab world today to cast him as a coloniser and ethnic cleanser. Each group creates a mythology of the Jew in an image of its own convenience.

This is anti-Semitism at its most dangerous with the Jew as the perennial other, a sinister force forever plotting against the right and the good. It is not difficult for the anti-Semite to rally followers against such an enemy, raising emotion, paranoia and eventually panic to such a pitch that genocide becomes possible, a possibility that has on more than one occasion been actualised. Therefore, it is unsurprising that anti-Semitism as an ideology outdid both its rival ideologies in the 20th century – Nazism and Communism. While the latter both failed and were emphatically discredited, anti-Semitism came within a hair’s breadth of achieving its stated goal, the annihilation of the Jewish people. And rather than being totally discredited as it should have been, it has been discredited only in part, in its racist form, and persists today in a new form which I will discuss in a moment.

Could this happen again?

In respect of the Holocaust, we often ask the question: how could this happen? But the question we should be asking is: Could it happen again? Are we adequately equipped to predict the future in this matter? In my opinion, not very. Let me read you an extract from an essay by a 21-year-old Polish Jew, a dedicated socialist and member of the Jewish Bund, written for a competition organised by the Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna just before the war. It goes as follows:

“I am deeply convinced that thanks to the Bund… Jewish life has emerged from the dark alleys of the mediaeval ghetto… Young people live with hope and faith in a bright future… But there is a question as to when that day will come. No one has determined this yet. I have set a limit, you might say, on my hope. I think that the old ways will persist until the 1950s, certainly no longer. And then the day of true brotherhood among nations will come, the day of our ultimate belief in a completely classless society will arrive, and people throughout the world will be free - they will be free.” ”

This was Poland 1939, just months before Hitler invaded. It is almost certain that this young person was dead within months of writing this.

There is an irony that when danger is at its greatest, hope is at its strongest. It is not religion that is the opium of the people, as Marx said, it is optimism, and this is as true today as it was then. Thankfully the situation for Jews now is radically different to that of 1939. We have our own country and a powerful military, and that alone, I should remind you, is why we are flourishing.

But we should not forget that anti-Semitism starts with ideas and words and the old weapons of mythology and rhetoric are still at work. What is more the Palestinians have stolen the Zionist narrative - 'homeless Palestinian' replaces ‘homeless Jew’ , ‘Palestinian suffering’ replaces ‘Jewish suffering’ , ‘Palestinian racism’ gives way to ‘Jewish racism’ , and the genocide attempt by the Arabs in 1948 and 1967 is replaced by an alleged 'genocide of the Palestinian people' by the Israelis. Where once anti-Semitism sought to dehumanise the individual Jew, now it seeks to delegitimise the Jewish collective, the Jewish state. Its intention is to sap our spirit and destroy Jewish self-belief, and in some cases it is succeeding.

Campaign to deligitimise Israel

A few months ago I was at a friend’s Shabbos table and an Israeli woman sitting next to me spoke at length about her shame regarding Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Israel was entirely to blame for the failure of the peace process, she said. Not a word about Palestinian incitement or rockets or suicide bombings or their blank refusal to recognise a Jewish state. This narrative, of course, runs straight into the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign to delegitimise Israel.

Natan Sharansky, the former Russian Refusenik proposed a convenient rule-of-thumb for distinguishing valid criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism. He called it the 3-D test – demonisation, delegitimisation and double standards. Any one of these points to anti-Semitism. To elaborate:

  1. Demonisation is when Israel is called evil or compared to Hitler or the Nazis or when it is accused of perpetrating a genocide or even Holocaust on the Palestinians;
  2. Delegitimisation is when Israel is called an ‘illegitimate’ , ‘a pariah’ , an ‘apartheid’ or a ‘Nazi’ state implying she has no right to exist. The refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state is also intended to delegitimise her;
  3. Double Standards is when Israel is singled out or judged by different standards to other countries in similar circumstances.

My dinner table friend fell afoul of all three Ds in the process making common cause with those calling for Israel’s destruction. Notwithstanding the fact that she was a committed Jew and self-described Zionist, do I call her an anti-Semite? If the answer is no, in what way does she differ from an anti-Semite? Difficult to say. It seems as if I may be forced to admit that some of my best friends are anti-Semites, an interesting variation on the anti-Semite’s assertion, not necessarily disingenuous, that ‘some of his best friends are Jews’ ? I leave this to you to ponder.

Jews not responsible for anti-Semitism, full stop

However, this type of Jew is not rare nor is this thinking unusual. Psychologists will tell you that victims of abuse habitually blame themselves, taking responsibility for the hatred directed at them. So certain Jews take responsibility for anti-Semitism and believe that it is their responsibility to deal with it in the hope of stamping it out. Nothing could be more mistaken.

The Jew is not responsible for anti-Semitism, full stop. He cannot eradicate it by going to charm school or by explaining, clarifying and pleading. When he does so he merely places himself on a treadmill of never-ending explanations which serve only to demean and humiliate him further and encourage the anti-Semite.

The solution to anti-Semitism lies entirely in the hands of the non-Jew. The phrase “the Jewish problem” used by Hitler and others in the 19th and 20th century is an unfortunate misnomer; the correct phrase should be “the non-Jewish problem”.  It is the non-Jew that needs therapy, it is he and he alone that can act to end anti-Semitism.

We should never waver on Israel. Israel is not perfect, no country is, but fixing its imperfections will not stop anti-Semitism nor will it solve the Middle East conflict. The Arabs will never tolerate a Jewish state in the heart of the Islamic world. Nothing but the complete disappearance of Israel would satisfy them.

But the eternally-optimistic left-leaning liberal Jew believes otherwise. His criticism of Israel, he tells us, is made in the spirit of the Hebrew prophets on whom he models himself and, in any case, it is for Israel’s own good. Ironically , more Jews have converted to this religion of liberalism in the last hundred years than have converted to Christianity over hundreds of years. The siren call of salvation from the anti-Semite beckons them.

Rhetoric is anti-peace, even genocidal

They do not see that their utopian belief in the brotherhood of all men is contradicted at every historical turn. Nor do they hear the rhetoric coming from Palestinians, a rhetoric enshrined in their Charter and broadcast daily in their newspapers, on television and from the pulpit of mosques. The rhetoric is always anti-peace, and at times, it is genocidal.

When people say things we must take them at their word. Since the Holocaust, every word counts. When the cry of “Kill the Jew” was raised during the Dreyfus case in the 1890s, one could still put forward the ‘sticks and stones can break my bones’ argument. But not so since the Holocaust. The line between rhetorical anti-Semitism and the murderous act has been erased. Just as beliefs and words in the 1930s led to the Holocaust, so beliefs and words can lead to murder today.

It is said that Jews walk into the future facing backwards. This means that we are always aware of where we’ve come from, what our tradition is, what our values are. Similarly, we should take note of the lessons of Jewish history especially those relating to anti-Semitism. We dare not step into the future without looking back. As Yankel, a character in one of Ellie Wiesel’s plays, says: “when I think of tomorrow I remember yesterday.”

As we mourn today we must also be resolute, for as much as we wish it were not so, we will always face enemies, there will always be anti-Semitism.

What can we do?

We must make the teaching of anti-Semitism a formal subject of study at schools and universities. It should be incorporated into the syllabuses of political science, sociology, and maybe even psychology. Furthermore, it should be made clear that its dangers threaten not only Jews but society at large. No society that allows anti-Semitism can be regarded as healthy let alone moral. That is the lesson of the Holocaust.

  • Chuck Volpe is a leading PE businessman and a member of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies looking after the Eastern Cape. He is also a student and writer on Jewish history and, particularly, anti-Semitism - a topic he has addressed at several appearances at Limmud

2 Comments

  1. 2 Zionist 13 May
    What an eloquent well reasoned article this is.
    Mores the pity that some of our brethren refuse to take notice of the lessons to drawn from such an article
  2. 1 Ted Cohen 13 May
    A very meaningful address full of wisdom 

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