Society

“To this day, many of us still wrestle with excruciating pain“

Interview with David Harris, AJC, on the liberation of Auschwitz 75 years ago
“To this day, many of us still wrestle with excruciating pain“ Photo: AJC

On the occasion of the liberation of Auschwitz 75 years ago, we spoke with David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, about the significance of this date for the Jewish community. Harris discusses the growing anti-Semitism today, the roots of which he sees among Jihadists as well as on the right and left  of the political spectrum. Both the state and civil society have a responsibility to take action against anti-Semitism, Harris says. He would like to see the EU take a clearer position on Iran and form a closer partnership with Israel.

75 years ago, Auschwitz was liberated. In the five years of its existence, almost one million Jews were killed there at the behest of Nazi Germany. What does the date of the liberation mean to the Jewish community today?

The anniversary evokes a range of intense, almost indescribable, feelings. Above all, for me, even after 75 years, I live with an anger that is quite primal, that wants to shout from the rooftops, how could people achieve such a level of bestiality and inhumanity? This is coupled with an enduring sense of incomprehension, as if to say it’s not possible that one human could commit such crimes against another. I still wonder how the administrators and the guards could go home after work, eat a normal meal, perhaps spend time with their family if their spouse and children were with them. How could they kill by day on such an unprecedented scale and live with themselves and their conscience by night? In other words, many of us still wrestle to this day with the excruciating pain and bewilderment, and questions about everything that Auschwitz-Birkenau represents. And yet, there is also a third feeling that necessarily coexists with the other two. Despite all the horrors and travails of Auschwitz, the few survivors found their faith, fortitude, and footing, built new lives after the war, and exemplified the indomitability of the human spirit, or, in this case, the Jewish spirit.

How could people achieve such a level of bestiality and inhumanity?

In Europe, but also in the U.S., populism is on the rise; anti-Semitic attacks have become a frequent occurrence. What should be done to counter this trend, by governments, but also by civil society?

I have to begin by revising the premise of the question. To be sure, antisemitism surfaces when populism mixes with illiberalism and xenophobia. That’s a real danger, as history has amply shown, and again poses a threat today. But there are two other sources of antisemitism in Europe (and beyond) that also threaten Jews. The first comes from jihadists. Indeed, with the exception of the attack at the synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur, just about every single violent act of antisemitism in recent years on European soil has come from jihadists, whether in France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Bulgaria, or elsewhere. And the other concerning source is the extreme left. Just imagine what would have happened had Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party won the recent election and governed the United Kingdom. Antisemitism, joined by anti-Zionism, is rife within the current Labour Party, starting at the very top. And what about all those other far left political parties and groups in Europe that would deny Israel, alone among the nations of the world, the very right to exist, much less to defend itself against those who seek its destruction? Therefore, any serious analysis of the menace faced by Jews in contemporary Europe must take into account each of these three sources: the extreme right, the extreme left, and jihadists. Otherwise, people are either living in denial or seeking to weaponize antisemitism for a larger political purpose, but surely not for the safety and security of Jewish communities.

In the U.S. in the last 18 months alone, we have had violent attacks from the extreme right, but also from other sources having nothing to do with populism or white supremacy, again underscoring the point that anti-antisemites must be open-eyed and swivel-headed in the fight against this age-old pathology.

Governments must acknowledge the serious and growing nature of resurgent antisemitsm.

In terms of the response, first, governments must acknowledge the serious and growing nature of resurgent antisemitsm. In some cases, this has proved harder than I would have thought. Second, they also need to recognize the multiple sources from which antisemitsm emanates today. Third, governments should work to adopt and implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, as this provides a common understanding of what constitutes antisemitism. Otherwise, there is no standard baseline for even defining the issue. Fourth, no one speech or statement by political leaders will solve the problem. Instead, what’s needed is a sustained, multipronged focus on combating a hatred for which no vaccine has yet been discovered. Fifth, prosecutors and judges need to get more serious in sending a message that a crime motivated by hate will result in severe consequences, and not just a slap on the wrist. Sixth, longer term, children, in our increasingly diverse and multicultural societies, must be taught respect for the other and mutual understanding. Again, this is not one lesson one time, but needs to be a consistent theme throughout their education. And seventh, governments cannot do all the heavy lifting alone. There is a clear and compelling need for civil society to stand up for pluralism and intergroup respect, and against hatred and antisemitism.

You have expressed your concern in the past that the Iranian regime will take advantage of diplomatic ties and agreements with the West, in particular the JCPOA, and intensify its threats against Israel. Now that US-Iranian relations have escalated, what could be a path forward?

I have long believed that every effort must be made to find common ground between the United States and Europe. Obviously, there remains a great deal of work to be done to achieve that goal. Meanwhile, Iran takes advantage of our own differences in the West, playing off one against the other to maximum advantage. By now, it should be abundantly clear that the notion prevalent in 2015, in the U.S. and Europe, that Iranian “moderates” would be strengthened by the JCPOA at the expense of the “hardliners” was a self-delusion. Rather, the JCPOA did not soften the regime, nor did it encourage the regime to turn inward and pursue reform and social development. Not at all. To the contrary, it only emboldened Iran, enriched its state coffers, and fueled Iranian expansionism from Lebanon to Syria, from Iraq to Yemen, and beyond. I believe that the U.S. and Europe, as a matter of priority, must redouble the search for common ground in encouraging Iranian protesters risking their lives today across the country, in sending a clear message that uranium enrichment and missile development will not be tolerated, and in challenging, not appeasing, Iranian interference in one nation after another. The threat posed by Iran centrally includes Israel, of course, but it doesn’t end there. Iran poses a threat to nations across the Middle East and North Africa, and its terrorist tentacles have reached into Europe, directly or through its Hezbollah proxy, on more than one occasion. And speaking of Hezbollah, how much longer will the EU continue the illusion of bifurcating the terror group into “political” and military” wings?

The hope is that Europe will become more clear-eyed when it comes to the threat posed by Iran, and the importance to European interests of a closer relationship with Israel.

 What is your hope for America’s European allies’ role in the unstable situation in the Middle East?

I have a short-term hope and I have a longer-term hope. The short-term hope is that Europe will become more clear-eyed when it comes to the threat posed by Iran, and, separately, when it comes to understanding the importance to European interests of a closer relationship with Israel. It is clear that there is no single view of Israel within European Union member states. That said, deepening ties with Israel should not be seen as a “gift” to Jerusalem. Rather, it serves the highest strategic interests of the EU.

I firmly believe that Europe can serve as a model for creating a new interstate paradigm in the Middle East.

Longer term, as far-fetched as it may seem today, I firmly believe that Europe can serve as a model for creating a new interstate paradigm in the Middle East. What’s needed are people today with the vision that Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet brought to post-WWII Europe 70 years ago. We are beginning to see the first elements of this in the Eastern Mediterranean around energy. Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt are forging closer links regarding natural gas, and at times they are joined by Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Whereas for Schuman and Monnet it began as coal and steel, tomorrow’s coal and steel could be energy, joined by electricity and environmentalism as the driving forces of a new era of interstate cooperation, replacing interstate conflict. Europe could and should be the North Star, the guiding light, for that alluring vision. Will it?

David Harris is the Chief Executive Officer of American Jewish Committee (AJC). Follow him on Twitter @DavidHarrisAJC.

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