Former Canadian Minister of Justice, The Hon. Irwin Cotler: "We have a responsibility to unmask the bearers of false witness"
A panel session featuring leaders of Jewish institutions in the US, France, Argentina, Russia and Israel tackled the topic of how the Holocaust shapes contemporary Jewish identity
Young student leaders debate the challenges of Holocaust denial and anti-Israel activities on college campuses
Shai Abramson, Consultant at The Asper Foundation-Israel, gave the formal address at the Closing Session in Memory of Izzy and Babs Asper
29 December 2016
The last day of the Yad Vashem's extraordinary international Jewish Educators' Conference was packed with relevant information, hands-on tools and lively discussions relating to the place of the Holocaust in Jewish identity today. Participants gathered in the morning to watch a stimulating address recorded especially for the conference by world-renowned Jewish leader, philosopher and educator Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England. Rabbi Sacks spoke about "Being Jewish in a Troubled World": Calling the participants "our most important people," he explained that "to be a Jew is to know that we inherit a civilization whose heroes are teachers, whose citadels are schools and whose passion is education… you can only change the world by changing people, and you only change people by educating them." He urged the gathered assembly to pass on the Jewish ideas of hope and building a better future – so eloquently embodied by Holocaust survivors – through the fight against injustice, through not being defined by antisemitism, and through celebrating our differences upon which humanity itself depends.
Following Rabbi Sacks' address, Prof. Sergio Della Pergola of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem spoke about Jewish demographic trends in the 21st century and the recovery of the Jewish population over the past 70 years. Former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, The Hon. Irwin Cotler, then gave a talk on combating antisemitism and the BDS movement. "We cannot allow antisemitism to define our identity, but we cannot ignore the history of antisemitism," he said. "Antisemitism did not die at Auschwitz. We have a responsibility to unmask the bearers of false witness, and expose the criminality of the deniers as we protect the dignity of their victims."
A panel session featuring top executives of Jewish institutions in the US, France, Argentina, Russia and Israel tackled the topic of how the Holocaust shapes contemporary Jewish identity. Prof. Steven Katz, Slater Professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies, Boston University, presented his thoughts on the Shoah and Jewish Identity. "It's important to convey that when we teach the Holocaust, our students should not acquire a sense of shame, a loss of self-esteem. There needs to be an emphasis on the miraculous behavior of Jews during the Shoah; there needs to be a way of conveying the light amidst the darkness, to teach about the Jewish people who did remarkable things. As Jewish educators we need to advance Jewish identity and to situate Holocaust education in connection to the larger Jewish experience."
The afternoon offered participants the opportunity to hear one of five panels on contemporary issues: educational trips to Poland; coping with the "new antisemitism" in the classroom; teaching about Israel and Zionism to strengthen Jewish identity; reinforcing informal Jewish education through Shoah programming; and the challenges of Holocaust denial and anti-Israel activities on college campuses. "We are not dealing with Holocaust denial, but Holocaust minimization," said Evan Gottesman, from Rutgers University. "People throw around flagrant comparisons to the Holocaust, which serves to minimize it. We need to be careful how we employ Holocaust vocabulary, especially in political speech, and how we use that imagery." However, Yosef Tarshish, President of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) UK/Israel, added, "Jewish students don't let BDS define their experiences on campus."
Roundtable discussions on the implementation of ideas and tools acquired at the conference once again provided participants and organizers to share challenges and offer support and help to one another as they look towards their return home.
The day – and the conference itself – concluded this evening with the traditional Closing Session In Memory of Izzy and Babs Asper, with Shai Abramason, Consultant at The Asper Foundation-Israel, giving the formal address. "It is incumbent upon us all to continue to teach the legacy of the Shoah in a way that directly addresses our future generations," she said. "The Asper Foundation wholly identifies with this legacy, and we stand with you as we face – together – the challenges of Holocaust education, against Holocaust denial, against antisemitism and keeping Holocaust history relevant and engaging."
Candle-lighting for the sixth night of Hanukah was performed by Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky together with Robbie Waks and his wife. Waks' father ran a vocational ceramics workshop in a DP camp for Holocaust survivors established by the JDC [Joint Distribution Committee], the Jewish Agency and the Central Committee of Bavarian Jewry. The menorah they lit was among the first items made in the workshop in 1947: The truncated tree with a sprouting leaf symbolize the Shoah and the rebirth of Israel. Sharansky addressed the audience about the Jewish people, Israel and the memory of the Shoah. "The fact is that there is no better way to rebuild your Jewish identity or to rediscover your Jewish roots other than through Israel and your connection to Zionism," he declared. "A world without Israel is a world without optimism, without hope and without Jewish identity."
The evening was brought to an end with a performance by acclaimed Israeli singer David D'Or.
The International Conference is generously supported by The Asper Foundation, the Adelson Family Foundation, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Israel Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.