Holocaust Commemoration with Rabbi Andrew Baker in Riga, Latvia
July 4, 2013
The Psalmist tells us that the span of a lifetime is “three score and ten.” By this measure the events which we commemorate today are receding into history. Those eyewitnesses to the crimes of the Holocaust are now few in number. The obligation to remember has now passed to their children and their grandchildren. Those first person accounts with their power and immediacy have been supplemented and will soon be replaced entirely by museums and textbooks and official ceremonies such as this one.
Those crimes—the attempted murder of an entire people on the European continent which came to be known as the Holocaust and for which a new term, “genocide,” was coined—were carefully planned and publicly announced. Hitler’s intentions were spelled out, and once in power anti-Jewish measures were imposed and stepped up day by day. In occupied or allied countries Germany’s “war against the Jews” was fought alongside its military campaign. There were resisters and even rescuers among the local population but mostly the Nazis could count on docile by-standers and the help of local collaborators.
Latvia was no exception.
In nearly all of these countries anti-Semitism was commonplace. It drew on a combination of conspiracy theories about Jews, traditional Christian hostility to Judaism, and xenophobic nationalist movements and was further inflamed by a powerful Nazi propaganda machine. Certainly this unprecedented mass murder could not have happened without the Nazis. But it would not have been so complete without this anti-Semitism.
In the lifetime that has passed since those dark days we have witnessed much that is good. The Communist oppression which replaced Nazi rule in this region of Europe has been lifted. Democracy has taken root. Membership in NATO and the European Union has knitted us together and provided security and optimism. Inter-ethnic conflicts have not disappeared, but peaceful means are the tools of choice to resolve them.
Yet while much has changed anti-Semitism has not disappeared.
Despite their small numbers, Jews still face physical and verbal harassment and even violent attacks in some European countries. In some places anti-Semitic sentiments come in the guise of anti-Israel or anti-Zionist rhetoric. In others economic uncertainty and political inability have opened the door to new right-wing extremist parties which are strongly xenophobic and openly anti-Jewish.
A recent survey of 6,000 Jews in nine EU countries (including Latvia) conducted by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found some disturbing results. Concerned about anti-Semitism, Jews in a number of countries ponder whether they should stay or leave. Forty-eight percent of Jews in Hungary, 46 percent of Jews in France and 40 percent of Jews in Belgium say they have considered emigrating. Twenty-two percent of all these European Jews say they now avoid attending a Jewish event or visiting a Jewish site for fear of encountering anti-Semitism.
Of course the nature and source of the problem may vary country by country. But the solution—at least broadly prescribed—is the same. We need to step up security. We need more and better education not only for tolerance in general but also on the specific challenge of anti-Semitism. And we need to encourage more voices to speak up and speak out in the political arena, on the Internet, in social media and in all those new and traditional venues where anti-Semitic and other hate speech have become endemic.
The lessons that we draw from today’s solemn commemorations are not only about the past. They are very much about our future.