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The International Conference on "The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors" 8-11/4/2002

Per Ahlmark, author and former Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, addresses a morning session during the International Conference that took place at Yad Vashem. Seated are Serge and Beate Klarsfeld. The morning session, chaired by Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, dealt with combating antisemitism, denial, racism and genocide. For more about the conference Per Ahlmark, author and former Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, addresses a morning session during the International Conference that took place at Yad Vashem. Seated are Serge and Beate Klarsfeld. The morning session, chaired by Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, dealt with combating antisemitism, denial, racism and genocide. For more about the conference

Combatting old/new antisemitism

Speech at Yad Vashem, April 11, 2002

The international conference ”The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors” at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, April 8-11, 2002

By Per Ahlmark

Some people have a feeling of emerging anti-Jewish threats before the rest of us realize what is in the offing. We know who they are, those women and men sensitive and knowledgable enough to recognize the first signs. Why do so many Survivors of the Shoah sense before they see?

From their past they know how so called ”innocent” insinuations about Jews quickly grow into accusations. And accusations – if we do not combat them - could later on become discrimination and legislation and separation. Then the road to violence and murder and annihilation is open. 

That is the terrible process which  thousands of Survivors always remind us of. A major legacy of the Survivors: they try to make us avoid the fate that destroys not only a people but  civilization and humanity itself.

A great mentor of mine, and of all of us here, and of millions more, will be at Yad Vashem today.  He survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald. When I first met Elie Wiesel in the 70´s he told me: the deniers of the Holocaust try to kill the Jews a second time. Not only that, he underlined. Rehabilitate the murderers and they can murder again.

In a speech Elie Wiesel once said: ”Let us remember the heroes of Warsaw, the martyrs of Treblinka, the children of Auschwitz. They fought alone, they suffered alone, they lived alone, but they did not die alone for something in all of us died with them”.

What died with them? My answer is: what died was the creed that there are limits of human cruelty. Now we know: THERE ARE NO LIMITS. The Holocaust proved that evil ideology, built on hateful fantasies, combined with total power, and met with appeasement could bring our societies to atrocitities never seen before.

Survivors have often sounded the alarm because they know what is at stake. By doing so they have strengthened democracy in a way no others could. We listen to the Survivors in order to survive.

They have also taught us two other truths. First, antisemitism always starts with Jews, it never stops with Jews. Jew-hatred, if not contained, almost always develops into assaults on other groups and minorities and finally undermines democratic institutions and the rule of law.

So the struggle against antisemitism is a task for Jews and non-Jews together. Antisemitism is a prejudice among non-Jews – therefore it is a duty for us non-Jews to resist it. However, Jews are the first victims of this non-Jewish disease, and they usually know much more about it than non-Jews. Consequently, it is an obligation for Jews to combat antisemitism in order to defend themselves and our societies.

Thus,  Jews and non-Jews  have to be standing here shoulder to shoulder.

And, secondly, always take the antisemites seriously! Do believe that they believe in what they are saying! The most catastrophic mistake of the 20th century was that tens of millions of people did not think that Hitler actually meant what he wrote and said.

Our assumption therefore must be that the Jew-haters of the 21st century are not pretending.  The non-Jewish world must now realize that current anti-Jewish charters by individuals, organizations and countries are documents you should study and be prepared to encounter.

It might not be just rhetoric – or rather: rhetoric could, when circumstances permit it, explode and become guidelines for actions.

And now let us together tell and teach people around the world that one astonishing thing with antisemitism is its flexibility. Minister Melchior did so in a brilliant and blistering speech in Geneva three weeks ago, when addressing  the UN Human Rights Commission. You know of course that the UN has elected to this commission - the purpose of which is to strengthen human rights – several nice, liberal, peace- and freedom-loving  countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria, and of course Cuba and China (and some other tyrannies) ! At the same time they have kicked out the United States of America,  the most important democracy in the world.

Rabbi Melchior in his speech in Geneva underlined the adaptability of antisemitism. Of course it cannot change its goal: to attack the Jews. But it can change its face, its strategy, its rationalization and part of its vocabulary.

Antisemites of different centuries have usually aimed at destroying the then centre of Jewish existence. Once Jewish religion was the target. When Judaism did not surrender Jews were expelled or killed. In the 19th century, when race became the word of the day, the Jews were attacked for being an evil race – that propaganda peaked with the Nazis.

And today, when the Jewish state has become a centre of identity and a source of pride and protection for most Jews, Zionism is being slandered as a racist ideology.

Naturally, I do not regard criticism of Israel as antisemitism. It is as legitimate to oppose certain Israeli policies and decisions as it is to scrutinize any other nation.

But anti-Zionism  today has become very similar to antisemitism. Anti-Zionists accept the right of other peoples to have  national feelings and a state, and to defend that state. But they reject the right of the Jewish people to have its national consciousness expressed in the State of Israel, and make that state secure.  Thus, they are not  judging Israel on the basis of the same values as when judging other countries.  Such discrimination of Jews is called antisemitism.

Also, they are often exploiting antisemitic stereotypes when condemning the Jewish state. Anti-Israeli incitement with anti-Jewish connotations is repeatedly expressed in for example the press, mosques, radio-TV and textbooks in the Arab world. Islamists very creatively borrow images from the Middle East conflict and give them a new twist or spin when illustrating why Jews can never be trusted. Jews seek world or regional power. The Jews conspire. Jews deceive other people and are cruel when it comes to both ends and means. Jews are strong in the art of bluffing and weak when it comes to character and truthfulness. And, as usual, the ”Protocols of the Elders of Zion” has proved what Jewish strategy is about.

Holocaust denial has become routine, so have parallells between Israel and the Third Reich. We have ”to confront the new Nazi plague which is nesting in Israel”, wrote a Syrian paper. Palestinian TV portrays Israeli soldiers as rapists and cold-blooded murderers. The Mufti of Jerusalem stated that ”it´s not my fault that Hitler hated the Jews, they hate them just about everywhere”. Another Friday sermon on Palestinian TV told Muslims ”to have no mercy on the Jews, no matter where you are…. kill them…. and those Americans who are like them”, etc.

We must take such outbursts seriously!  When new generations of Arabs and Muslims are  contaminated  with this hatred,  it also makes peace and trust and cooperation between Israel and its neighbours increasingly difficult.

Anti-Zionists, explicitly or implicitly, question the entire existence of Israel, which means  that millions of Israeli Jews have to be fought and probably killed. And deliberately suggesting massmurder of Jews - openly or in vague formulas - has always been seen as the most extreme form of antisemitism. Those anti-Zionists, who advocate the destruction of the Jewish state, should be put in a similar category.

Sometimes anti-Zionists claim that they are not against Jews but ”only” against the Jewish state. Suppose that someone said: ”I am only against the existence of Great Britain but I am not anti-British!” Or if somebody told me that ”I love Swedes, but Sweden should be abolished”. None would take such statements seriously. It is hard to love or respect a people and  hate their state.

And never forget Durban!  Several of the draft statements preparing the Durban meeting, which should have been an anti-racist conference, were in fact part of an ideological pogrom against Israel. They suggested that Jews were not primarily victims of the Holocaust but perpetrators of another holocaust, against the Palestinians. Antisemitism did not mean hostility against Jews but ”Zionist practices against semitism”. It sounds ridiculous, but that crap was part of the program from the other side.

In spite of the shameless demagoguery of these drafts, most democracies did not react with any energy at all, until very late last summer. I salute the systematic efforts to inform and warn EU nations and other free countries through a diplomatic campaign  passionately carried out by Minister Melchior and his collegues. They could not prevent Durban from becoming an antisemitic festival, but they totally changed the outcome of the final, official Durban declaration.

How come that the democracies – except Israel and the United States and maybe Canada –  did not immediately realize what was going on? There is a paradox here. Today there are more democracies in the world than ever before. An increasing number of UN members have governments, which got their power through free elections and free speech.

This is not 1975: no Communist empire – instead a democratic Europe from west to east. Latin America has experienced surprising victories for freedom; so have parts of Africa and East Asia. And the United States is today the only superpower. These facts suggest that it would be a fairly easy match for the free countries today to resist Arab and Muslim verbal anti-Jewish aggression in the international arena.

Yet, the Durban humiliations did occur. And our adversaries will strike again. In several agencies of the United Nations, Israel-bashing has become a political ritual. That has been monitored in detail by for example the UN Watch, an independent institution in Geneva, and in outstanding lectures by Law Professor Irwin Cotler, also member of the Canadian Parliament. They have proved that the demonization of the only democracy in the Middle East is a central part of the new anti-Jewishness. Israel is branded by the dictatorships as a systematic violater of all sorts of human rights. When this country is described  ”as the enemy of all good and the repository of all that is evil”, Cotler says in his analysis, it becomes a ”teaching of contempt” within the UN.

He regards this a parallell to the medieval indictment of the Jew as the ”poisoner of the wells”. Portraying Israel as a leper state makes it the ”poisoner of the international wells”. And Professor Robert Wistrich´s summary is that ”the accumulation of anti-Israeli resolutions (at the UN) is liable to cause the complete delegitimization of the Jewish state”.

The constant singling out of one nation as the enemy of humanity  is in fact a campaign directed against the Jewish people. We have seen that many anti-Jewish outbursts in a number of countries have been rooted in condemnations of Israel exploiting an antisemitic terminology. Attacks on synagogues have  been triggered by a defaming language about the conflict in the Middle East.

Words lead to actions. And  propaganda lines by Muslim radicals have been supported and repeated by extremists both on the Right and the Left in the Western world. And yet the media in the West, especially in Europe, are reluctant to link violence and terrorist acts to their ideological inspirations, including antisemitic obsession. Do always bear in mind how the journalist Daniel Pearl was murdered. His last reported words were: ”I am a Jew, my mother is a Jew”. Then they cut his throat.

Such acts of murderous barbarism should not make us forget the vulgarization of language in quarters assumed to be civilized. It very often happened in the 20th century that people who regarded themselves ”intellectuals” became fellow travellers of fascism or communism without being members of  political parties based on those  ideologies. Now in the 21st century - in the chattering classes often linked to massmedia, politics, government administration or universities – we quite often encounter people who condemn Israel with an excistement, that reminds us of anti-democratic movements. I am not referring to majorities in the Western world but to often significant and influential minorities.  

The French Ambassador to Britain, at a dinner party in London recently, described Israel as ”that shitty little country”.  He has not been removed by his government, and he has many allies in the European elites. Ambassador Bernard has helped us to realize how widespread this new anti-Jewishness is. ”That shitty little country”! The columnist Andrew Sullivan was right when saying that Israel has become ”the object of hate that dare not speak its name”. We here at Yad Vashem dare speak its name: antisemitism.

Not only dare we, we have an obligation to do so. Never, never be silent about the daily attacks in France now against Jews and synagogues. It is a shame for all of Europe that many French Jews today cannot send their children to school without beeing deeply worried about their security. I look forward to the words on this from Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, whom many of us admire so much.

Also a fairly large number of Christians in several countries are still influenced by the legacy of anti-Jewish theology. Resist and reveal them when they, for religious reasons, express their hostility against Israel!

And when the Radical Left in Britain  reacts to antisemitic statements in their country´s mosques by not reacting, by hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, we have to tell the ugly truth.  Them and other anti-Zionists we refute by quoting Martin Luther King Jr: ”When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews – make no mistake about it”.

And finally we should not hesitate to describe the fanatic and determined danger to democracy that comes with totalitarian Muslim fundamentalism. Professor Yehuda Bauer has called it ”the greatest antisemitic threat of the start of the 21st century”. His conclusion is that it does not resemble ”old” Arab antisemitism; it is closer to Communism and Nazism as it longs for a global rule and the destruction of the old value system, the civilization of ”the Jews and infidels” as they call it.  This fundamentalist Muslim ideology, Bauer says, ”uses the unmistakable language of genocide, of annihilation”.

So, we have a number of very good reasons to support Rabbi Melchior´s idea of creating The International Commission to Combat Antisemitism (ICCA). That body should learn from the Survivors of the Shoah to  make the necessary wake up calls. I hope this  organization will be clear in defining the increasing threat of the old/new antisemitism. To wind up: compared to most previous anti-Jewish outbreaks this one is often less directed against individual Jews. It attacks primarily the collective Jew, the State of Israel. And then such attacks start a chain reaction of assaults on individual Jews and Jewish institutions.

We certainly could say that in the past the most dangerous antisemites were those who wanted to make the world Judenrein, free of Jews. Today the most dangerous antisemites might be those who want to make the world Judenstaatrein, free of a Jewish state.


Per Ahlmark - writer and author, former Leader of the Swedish Liberal Party and Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, founder of The Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism, columnist in Dagens Nyheter (Stockholm), has published a number of books on politics, ideology, international conflicts, and poetry. E-mail: per.ahlmark@chello.se