This week, Mark Weitzman from the World Jewish Restitution Organization, joins us to discuss the links between the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the Holocaust, and how Holocaust museums worldwide and in Israel are grappling with the aftermath. As International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches, we also delve into the direct connection between Holocaust denial and distortion to the denial and distortion of October 7 events, and how both are rooted in antisemitism.

*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC. 

Episode Lineup: 

  • (0:40) Mark Weitzman

Show Notes:


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Transcript of Interview with Mark Weitzman:

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

One could easily say the October 7 Hamas invasion and massacre in Israel is one of the most well-documented terrorist attacks in history. Dozens of smartphone cameras and GoPros filmed Hamas terrorists crossing the border between Gaza and southern Israel murdered more than 1000 soldiers and civilians and kidnapped more than 200 others, the deadliest antisemitic attack since the Holocaust. But just like the scourge of Holocaust denial, October 7th denial is growing.

Mark Weitzman is the chief operating officer of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, a nonprofit that pursues claims for the recovery of Jewish properties lost during World War Two. 

He's also the lead author of the working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance known as IHRA, and chairs the IHRA Working Group on museums and memorials. 

As we approach International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mark has joined us to discuss how we can make sure the world does not forget or deny any atrocities committed against Jews. 

Mark, welcome to People of the Pod.

Mark Weitzman:

Thank you very much for the invitation to be here.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Mark, you are an expert on Holocaust denial and distortion. What does it have in common with the denial we’re seeing around October 7? 

Mark Weitzman:

I think there are clear connections between people who are downplaying or distorting the events of October 7, and those that engage in Holocaust distortion or hardcore Holocaust denial, because both are linked by an attempt to try to explain what is for them an uncomfortable historical reality that targeted Jews, whether the Holocaust or the events of October seventh, to justify their preconceived political agenda, which often includes an antisemitic conspiracy theory, either as its base or as its method to achieve their goals. 

One of the root causes of Holocaust denial distortion, from the antisemitic perspective, is the attempt to say that since the Holocaust, there is a certain sympathy for Jews as victims, and sometimes that turns into political sympathy or support for the State of Israel. Sometimes it turns into actions that are pro-democracy or anti-racist in terms of society and saying that we've seen what happened in Auschwitz, we don't want our society to go in that direction. So we're going to take certain positive steps. Those people who want to turn the clock back to a world where people could still be judged by their religion, their race or whatever signifier, often have to grasp with the Holocaust. It's the paradigm of what can happen when society turns evil. 

The same thing in the sense is at the root of October 7 denial. It's the attempt to say that, Oh, no, we don't want to allow any sympathy to Jews or Israelis, we have to justify it or explain it away in a way that allows us to accept the reality of what it happened, because denying it puts you in a really sort of cuckoo cage of denying what’s obvious to everyone what happened there. 

So in this sense, in a particular sense, it can be by saying that, Oh, yeah, it happened there. The Israelis were killed, but they were killed by the Government of Israel. The hostages were not really taking the Gaza, they're actually hidden in Israeli buildings or holdings. That, you know, this is all part of a plot by Israel and the US government, aimed at undermining the Palestinian narrative and drive for freedom.

But the goal there is similar, it's to grapple with a reality that most people would find repugnant. An antisemitic reality.

The latest poll in the US shows 80% of the US population support Israel versus Hamas. And in an attempt to justify their stance, their pure antisemitic stance, they have to deal with that reality. And so you can't ignore it, you can say it didn't happen. Since as you pointed out, it's one of the most photographed and verified actions in recent memory. So you try to twist it away, and turn it on its head.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

But how do people wrap their heads around this fantasy fiction?

Mark Weitzman:

These conspiracy theories are linked. And I don't think enough people have realized this or paid attention to it, that Hamas’s original charter, 1988, actually quoted, literally quoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is, as we all know, the Bible of antisemitic conspiracy theories. 

And they literally based their charter, it's the only western document quoted in their charter, their original charter. And it links the events of October 7, with the history of antisemitic conspiracy theories. This is not an anti-Zionist document, the protocols, it's an anti-Jewish, antisemitic document. So there's a direct connection there. 

The Holocaust is the most documented event in human history. There are films, there are millions and millions of pages of documents. There are so many archival records of survivors, of perpetrators, of war crimes tribunals that have, you know, judged and and entered into evidence, the effects of the Holocaust, the reality of the Holocaust, not just in the United States. 

But look at the David Irving trial, the famous David Irving trial. But all the war crimes trials in Europe as well, to say that it did not happen, or to twist, it requires an effort of will. And it's not just on the individual level. 

In our work at the WJRO, we see governments today that do not want to deal with restitution, and use manipulation of the Holocaust, to try to get out of it by claiming that it was all the Germans, the local collaborators had nothing to do with it, or that the numbers were inflated or that we don't know what the value was, what was really owned by by Jews at that time. 

All sorts of methods used to evade trying to make some payment, some form of restitution, and then to survivors and part of our mission is to set forth and ensure that the historical record, even in terms of the theft of Jewish property, is well established. 

So when we get to the events of October 7, particularly in an era where fake news, where people claim to believe all sorts of conspiracy theories, whether it's related to COVID, whether it's related to American election results, and a lot of these people kind of bond together. The underground of election denial and some of the anti-COVID extremists, and some of the Hamas or some of the October 7 deniers or distorters. Very often, they live in the same atmosphere, in the same basement, they imbibe the same fumes, they're in touch with each other. Very often they're cooperating or believe in similar conspiracy theories. 

And this is one of the problems that we have as a society, amplified by social media, is to separate the real from the fake, and to try to limit and minimize the impact that the fake has on real life, on mainstream society, and politics, and culture, and so on.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

So as I mentioned in the introduction, International Holocaust Remembrance is January 27. You just returned from a meeting with representatives of Holocaust institutions around the world. How did these museums come to be? I mean, was it a bricks and mortar movement to counter Holocaust denial, was it seen more broadly as a tool to fight antisemitism or something else entirely?

Mark Weitzman:

Well, I think that most of these came to be, first of all, through the efforts of survivors. In so many cases, it was the survivor community that were the driving force behind it. And yes, it was in response to antisemitism and to Holocaust denial. But those movements were not, in a sense, the dominant factors that we may think today. 

It was a sense, I think, more of trying to pass on what they went through, both to the Jewish community, their children and grandchildren, and so on, but more importantly, to the community writ large, meaning that to the world at large, whether it's the US or the UK or Canada. They wanted people to learn the lessons from what they had gone through and survived. They wanted people to not to have to deal with the same things that they dealt with. 

And it's fascinating to me, one of the most interesting things that I find in the field is that today, and not only a majority of visitors to Holocaust museums, the vast majority, are not Jewish. But the majority of people who work in these institutions are not Jewish either. There are people who have dedicated their lives to some second career, some it's, you know, a career long commitment to both studying and teaching and passing on lessons of the Holocaust. 

So what began sometimes within the Jewish community, as a survivor-led effort, at this point, there are very few survivors still actively involved in this, especially, you know, on that level, and it's evolved into something that is broader and larger than just the Jewish community.

Manya Brachear Pashman:   

We had your colleague Rob Williams at the USC Shoah Foundation join us at the end of last year, and the Shoah Foundation is collecting testimonies from October 7 now. And I'm curious, are other Holocaust Memorial institutions developing programs or adding evidence from October 7, to their collections?

Mark Weitzman:

I think one of the things that came out at the meeting, which was at the Holocaust Museum in Washington about a month ago, was that these institutions are grappling with October 7, and it was very clear. And part of it is that most of these institutions had not tried to be politically based. In other words, they did not conceive of themselves as taking a political stance one way or the other. And the supercharged atmosphere of October 7, the events of October 7, the atmosphere post October 7, caught them, I think, by surprise, and they're still grappling with how to respond and how to react to it.

There has been a tremendous amount of interest, of support. USC is leading the way with a tremendous effort of taping the survivor accounts and making them available. But I saw conversations, we had conversations from certain speakers in how to address October 7, how to deal with antisemitism in the wake of October 7. Because again, these are people who are not necessarily the the you're an expert in the Holocaust is that's really mean you're an expert in what's happening with Israel and Hamas and the Middle East, and, and so on. And it's a very different field, a very volatile field.

And they're in a position that they had not anticipated. So I think that there was a shock. There's a strong sense of moral support, moral based support for Israel and the victims there, there is a strong commitment to, I think, keeping the message of releasing the hostages first and foremost in people's minds. 

But how exactly to go about it, what the best way to achieve those goals is still something I think some of them are wrestling with. Some are doing even little things like one museum that I know of, has in their gift shop, a sort of small section of Israeli objects for sale, that the proceeds will go back to, you know, to some of the communities or some of the people in Israel who have been evacuated or need support. So it can be a small thing like that could be educational programs. It can be public statements that could be hosting events, it could be showing the testimony. It could be learning more about the background that led up to it. There are a lot of potential paths and ways that they're engaging with. And I think each of them are finding their own path right now. But they were in the process of grappling with something that they had not anticipated. And this is somewhat novel, for them to have to deal with.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Generally, do Holocaust institutions try to avoid Israel or kind of leave Israel out of their exhibitions, their collections, and really focus on the Jewish communities of their particular country?

Mark Weitzman:

I think it varies. I think that, you know, in a broad sense, they're not necessarily want to be seen up till now at least, as partisans in a political struggle or political battle. But there was clear recognition in so many of them you that you can't leave Israel out of the story, because you had survivors going to Israel. You had the Zionist youth groups, let's say in the Warsaw ghetto, and other places that It helps spearhead some of the revolts you, if you ignore those parts of the story of the narrative of the Holocaust, then, you know, you're not being true to the history of it. Would you show where survivors ended up after the war? Certainly, you know, a huge number of them, percentage wise ended up in Israel is one of the, you know, the prime spots for survivors to go to. You have many of them worked with Yad Vashem, for example, and have a relationship there. You have the righteous among the Gentiles, which is a story that almost all Holocaust museums wanted to have some focus on, because it's a prime example of non Jews responding in a positive way in the most dire circumstances, but the certification of who is a righteous Gentile came from Yad Vashem, in Israel. So there are, you know, inextricably linked to it, but you went, you didn't, and what they try to avoid, was taking a, you know, sort of a partisan position, should Israel do this action? Should this Israeli Government be supported against that Israeli government or, you know, so on and so forth. 

But the broad idea of Israel's right to exist of Israel as a place of refuge for the survivors as Israel, a change in the narrative of the history of the Jewish people in the 20th and 21st centuries, all those had to be part of the story and are dealt with, but in different ways in in many of these institutions.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

So you also traveled to Israel at the end of last year. And I'm curious up until now, how have Israelis talked about the Holocaust? Is it a cornerstone of their history as a modern nation, maybe not so much for the younger generations, and could October 7, connect some dots and change that?

Mark Weitzman:

Well, I led a small mission for the WJRO, and went down south to Kfar Aza. And also met with evacuees. And it was an incredibly moving experience. And the reality of what happened there, going to the exhibition on Nova, music festival is something that I don't think any of us who participated will ever forget. 

And it was interesting, because we had two guides, from the Israeli army, from the spokespersons office from the Israeli army, two young women who were with us in Kfar Aza down at the border, one of the worst hit places. And they made the connection. And we had a Holocaust survivor with us, as well. And she made the connection. 

And there was a resolve that, you know, this is something that we didn't think we would ever have to face firsthand. This kind of targeted destruction of Jewish civilian life. I don't think Israelis have fully come to grasp and understandably, with the implications of what happened, I think it may take even a generation or two, to kind of work this through in some ways, and I don't think…it may be premature to make judgments. 

But I think that there's no question that hearing over and over again, the worst act of violence since the Holocaust, gives a frame and a context that is going to keep the Holocaust as part of the conversation about this. Israel prior to this, there have been a lot of efforts. I mentioned Yad Vashem earlier, it's certainly one of the cornerstones of a historical, cultural life in Israel. But it wasn't the only place, there were other kibbutzim, such as up north, Beit Lohamei Ha-Getaot, the ghetto fighters kibbutz that had the same similar mission of educating about the Holocaust.

The Israeli government that no matter which party the Prime Minister belongs to, has always been very strongly supportive of Holocaust education. Has been a partner key partner of WJRO, and its work on restitution issues and efforts. 

So the Holocaust has been, I think, part of the Israeli consciousness. But I think it was viewed as historical in many ways, this is what our grandparents went through. This is what happened over there in Europe. And now that reality is shifted a little bit, that, Oh, something that can be spoken about in the same sentence, not the same, not comparable in many ways. But it's here, and it's now. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

So how do the events of October 7 alter this year's observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day?

Mark Weitzman:

Throughout the world, I think you're going to hear a lot of linkage in a way of people saying that, we can't forget that, you know, what happened, the victims. So many places are involved, for example, in the reading of names of victims names. And yet, for many of us on a weekly basis, or whenever we can, we still read the names of the hostages, and try to get them returned in those efforts. So there are going to be you know, connections like that connections made about the threat, the ongoing threat to the Jewish people. The fact that since the Holocaust 80 years ago, we haven't faced anything like this, like we're facing today. Um, certainly in the West, the in the United States, the conversation is certainly going to include the fact that Jews are in an unprecedented situation in this country in terms of antisemitism. 

The questions of the people trying to erode support for the existence and legitimacy of Israel take on much more significance, especially as they become much more high profile, the attempts. I'm sure there'll be part of, they are part of the political landscape for the forthcoming elections. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:   

AJC often cautions against comparing tragic events to the Holocaust because it risks trivializing the genocide of 6 million Jews. But I have heard well-meaning people make that comparison. In this case, is it a legitimate analogy?

Mark Weitzman:

Israel as a state, was able to strike back and respond in a way that Jews could not do during World War Two. Governments in the West–the UK, France, Germany, and so on the United States, of course, first and foremost, have responded forcefully defending Jews align themselves with Israel. Whereas governments in the West prior to World War Two, basically ignored, accepted or complicit in the Nazi actions. You know, those kinds of differences are significant. And the fact that as I said public opinion in the United States is firmly on the side of Israel compared to on the side of Hamas is also significant. 

So I think we have to be careful about making kind of glib historical comparisons. We're not powerless today. We were powerless in the 1930s. But that doesn't mean that our situation is not problematic and dangerous for us today it is. And we have to recognize that. But we need to do that, factually and calmly and realistically, we need to find our allies. And they're our allies, in many places, and to work together with them. Because the threat to us, particularly today, from Hamas, and allied groups like that, and their supporters, whether from the extreme left, the so called progressives, or the extreme right, is a threat to liberal society, in general. And that's something that we need to be able to share, and to work with our allies to turn that thread back.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Mark, thank you for sharing your expertise and cautionary advice. 

Mark Weitzman:

Thank you very much.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

If you missed last week’s episode, be sure to tune in for my conversation with Dr. Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute as he helped us make sense of the renewed terror threat, how Iran’s terror proxies Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis are coordinating their strategy and attacks, and what the U.S., Israel, and its allies are doing to fight back.