Our duty to remember

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On Sunday afternoon, April 23, 27 Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, a few hours before the official beginning of Yom ha-Shoah, members of the Rhode Island community – Jew and non-Jew alike – gathered together at Providence’s Temple Emanu-El to honor the victims of the Holocaust and to celebrate the survivors. 

This year’s guest speaker was Ruth Bielski Ehrreich, daughter of Tuvia Bielski, leader of the Bielski Partisans, who managed to save 1,200 Jews in the forests of Belarus from 1941-1944.  Many readers of The Jewish Voice have seen these events depicted in the 2008 movie “Defiance.”

In 1953, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi proclaimed that Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, be observed yearly on 27 Nisan, unless – as was true this year – 27 Nisan is adjacent to shabbat, in which case its observance is shifted by one day. A half-century later, on Nov. 1, 2005, the United Nations General Assembly voted to observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day every Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by the Russian army. International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorates the Nazi genocide of approximately 6 million Jews, 200,000 Roma (Gypsies), 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people and 9,000 homosexual men.

This past Jan. 27, on the 12th annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the newly elected secretary-general of the United Nations, Portugal’s António Guterres, highlighted anti-Semitism in his speech to the General Assembly. 

In the third sentence of his address, Guterres stated, “The world has a duty to remember that the Holocaust was a systematic attempt to eliminate the Jewish people and so many others.” 

With these words, the secretary-general underscored the fact that while the Nazis persecuted many different groups, they singled out the Jews for “special treatment,” that sinister euphemism for mass murder.

Guterres went on to say that the Holocaust was made possible by centuries of deepening hatred of Jews: “It would be a dangerous error to think of the Holocaust as simply the result of the insanity of a group of criminal Nazis. On the contrary, the Holocaust is the culmination of millennia of hatred and discrimination targeting the Jews – what we now call anti-Semitism.”

Even though he is a practicing Catholic, Guterres condemned the Church’s “idea that the Jewish community should be punished for the death of Jesus – an absurdity that helped to trigger massacres and other tremendous crimes against the Jews around the world for centuries to come.”

While Guterres stressed in his talk that in the past the Christian religion has fanned the fires of Jew-hatred, he also made clear that “anti-Semitism, more than a question of religion, is essentially an expression of racism. The proof is that the converted Jews, the so-called ‘new Christians,’ faced discrimination by the old Christians, and suffered continued persecution by the Portuguese Inquisition.”

Guterres became prime minister of Portugal in 1995. In 1996, he pushed his parliament to revoke King Manuel’s 16th-century order expelling all Jews from Portugal – an order that Guterres called “a hideous crime and an act of enormous stupidity.”

While Guterres admits that the 1996 act of his parliament was primarily of symbolic significance, he nevertheless views it as the beginning of the long and difficult process of Portugal’s repentance for crimes committed 500 years ago. 

Toward the end of his address, Guterres quoted from Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom: “The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.” 

In his role as head of the U.N., Guterres has come to see that today’s rise in anti-Semitic activity is intertwined with “racism, xenophobia, anti-Muslim hatred.” 

This witches’ brew of intolerance in word and deed, fueled by a raging populism, poses a threat to all of the vulnerable among us – minorities, migrants, refugees, wherever they might be: “The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.”

Guterres concluded his remarks with a personal pledge: “I guarantee you that as secretary-general of the United Nations, I will be in the front line of the battle against anti-Semitism and all other forms of hatred.

“That is the best way to build a future of dignity and equality for all – and the best way to honor the victims of the Holocaust we will never allow to be forgotten.”

This past Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day on which the U.N. secretary-general delivered his stirring speech on the ongoing challenge of anti-Semitism, President Donald Trump issued a six-sentence, 117-word statement in which he chose not to mention the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. 

This baffling omission continues to weigh heavily on my heart and to trouble my soul.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.