On November 9, 1938, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against the Jews of Germany and Austria. In the space of a few hours, thousands of synagogues, Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed .400 Jews were killed and for the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish. This event came to be called “Kristallnacht,” “Night of Broken Glass” or “Night of Pogroms” for the shattered store windows that carpeted German streets. These well organized nation-wide pogroms with ordinary Germans being involved and being silent or applauding witnesses, were an essential turning point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, and a significant event in Holocaust history.
There have been noble attempts to educate people about these unique events. In Canada, Holocaust Education Week has been running in Toronto for 33 years in various locations around the Greater Toronto Area with the objective of educating the greater community at large about the lessons of the Holocaust, so that they could be understood and never repeated again. Some have called this the largest annual education event of its kind in the world.
Now, with the 75th anniversary of The Night of Pogroms over the coming days, the effectiveness of Holocaust education is being called into question. Is it enough to have the remaining survivors tell their stories so we have an unbroken chain for future generations? Are we actually providing the right education or are we avoiding education on some of the root causes of the Holocaust, and by so doing, also missing reasons for the resurgence of anti-semitism in the form of anti-Israel boycotts, sanctions and divestment (like the BDS movment or current EU policies starting in 2014 towards Israeli goods from the disputed territorites) today?
Jews have been living in Europe for over 2000 years. Communities in Italy, along the Rhine, the Iberian Peninsula and elsewhere once thrived. The Jews served as merchants, physicians and later as advisers to the monarchies who recognised their value. Unfortunately their presence, beliefs, customs and success also sowed the seeds of their downfall when Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. While paganism was replaced by the ‘Good News’, various pagan elements were incorporated in the new religion such as yuletide as well as superstitions that have endured to this day.Many of these superstitions were (and in some countries still are) about Jews, such as using Christian children’s blood in the making of Passover bread, or the poisoning of wells during the Black Plague.
The Holocaust that ended in 1945 with about 70% of European Jews murdered was supposed to be the shameful end of European antisemitism. Indeed, for some decades it was not politically correct to be openly antisemitic. That taboo has changed. Experts are puzzled. How can it be that post-Holocaust Europe still retains its antisemitism? Why has post-Holocaust European education failed in this regard?
In 2012 the Bundestag-Report, commissioned by the German Parliament, presented findings indicating that 20% of Germans hold antisemitic views. It reported that even school children use the word “Jew” in a derogatory sense. The recent Bielefeld Study of eight European countries reported that about 40% of respondees indicated that Israel has genocidal policies towards the Palestinians. In Germany this is 48% and Poland 63%.
Concurrent with these studies are continuing attempts to ban Jewish religious traditions such as circumcision and ritual kosher slaughter (neither practised in the same way as Muslim customs).Jewish communities in Germany have been taken aback by the populist wave of anti-Jewish sentiments under the guise of ‘protecting children’s rights’. Despite a detailed brochure explaining facts and myths of circumcision, published by the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, medical and legal experts supported by some politicians, advocate a ban on ritual circumcision. Various explanations given, such as ‘causing’ psychological trauma are clearly absurd and unscientific, given that Jewish boys are circumcised at eight days.
There is a great deal of misinformation where circumcision is lumped together with female genital mutilation. Even those that do acknowledge differences, dark but vague warnings about permanent physical and emotional damage are disseminated. Countries such as Switzerland, Sweden and Norway have banned kosher slaughter, and Poland followed suit early 2013. Clearly there are attempts to snuff out Jewish traditions under the guise of human and animal rights. While Germans during the Holocaust used gas to kill Jews, Europe now seems to want to deprive Jews of their cultural oxygen by eroding basic Jewish traditions.
Additionally, about half of Europeans believe that Israel is a quasi-Nazi state despite the fact that the EU definition of antisemitism also includes drawing comparisons between contemporary Israel and the Nazis.Various explanations are given for such beliefs including ignorance, traditional prejudice and attempts to level the field after the Holocaust, thereby blurring distinctions between perpetrators and victims and projecting German guilt onto the Jews.
How is it possible that after the Holocaust, a country such as Germany, can still have a problem with significant antisemitism? Some researchers believe that more education about the Holocaust is needed. However in a country like the Netherlands where Anne Frank’s hiding place attracts many tourists apart from Dutch children learning about her tragic story, soccer crowds chant “Ajax (a Jewish associated team) Jews to the gas”. In Hungary, soccer crowds make hissing noises like gas whilst chanting ’Auschwitz’. The fact that they do so, indicates they are not so ignorant and know what Auschwitz and gas chambers existed. In Cracow, Auschwitz Tours are prominently displayed.
Others, such as sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer of the University of Bielefeld blame antisemitism on economic hardship. However Germany is relatively prosperous, yet all synagogues and Jewish community centres have police guards outside. Moreover, a country like Norway which has one of the highest standards of living and prosperity in the world, is also one of the most antisemitic, notwithstanding it has only about a thousand Jews. Portugal and Spain are amongst the most antisemitic European countries according to the Bielefeld study, yet have very few Jews. On the other hand, in non-European countries where there is significant poverty as in India and where Jews have lived for about 1700 years and sometimes attained prominent positions, anti- Semitism among the Hindu majority is rare.What then can explain Europe’s Jewish problem?
The Holocaust has been described as a Jewish tragedy. It is not generally discussed as a failure of all that Christianity is supposed to stand for. And yet, therein lies the nucleus of Europe’s Jewish problem.
The founders of Christian thought are to be found in the Gospels where Matthew teaches that ‘His blood be upon us (Jews) and upon our children’ (27:24–25). In John (7:1–9) the Jews are referred to as the enemy of Jesus and compared to Satan. John is also the most popular gospel and the most anti-Jewish. While the Vatican has made attempts to reinterpret these texts, it needs to go further. One of the great founders of Christian thought was Augustine, who introduced the term “eternal witness” as the fate of Jews for rejecting Jesus as the messiah. Jews were doomed to be impoverished, homeless and wandering the earth unloved by their hosts. Augustine’s theology has been the basis of Christian oppression of Jews throughout the millennia. The story of Jews in Europe is mostly about forced conversions, pogroms, being expelled, cast into ghettoes and burned.Significantly, Jews became the stereotypical undesirable ‘other’ of European thought as well as in art, literature and music. For instance, the crusaders on their way to the holy land, wiped out Jewish communities in Germany. Later, Martin Luther advocated the expulsion of Jews and the burning of synagogues and Jewish holy books. Some 400 years later, his wishes would be carried out on his birthday on “Kristallnacht” in 1938. Luther’s theology would also be used in the defence of the Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg trials after the war. In the 18th century, European Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire, argued for the liberation of mankind, but maintained their hatred of Jews.
With the advent of German nationalism, the hep-hep riots in Germany targeted Jews while Wagner’s opera ‘the flying Dutchman’ played on the theme of Jewish homelessness and wandering through metaphor. Wagner’s irrational hatred of Jews – despite his support from Mendelssohn and conductor Hermann Levi – is well known. In literature, Grimm’s fairy tales, enjoyed by many children, included some antisemitic stories such as “The Jew in the bramble.” Indeed, Germany’s Nobel Prize literary icon, Gunther Grass, who belatedly admitted his membership of the SS, wrote a poem in 2012 that demonised the Jewish state, Israel. Most Germans in a survey agreed with him.
Musical celebrities, like former Nazi party member, conductor von Karajan, are highly idolised, his conduct during the war ignored .The Karajans and Grasses of Europe are glossed over at best. At the Berlin Film Festival the movie ’Paradise Now’, won several awards. The movie is an apologia for Palestinian suicide bombers. The sole Jew in the movie is one who gets paid for smuggling the suicide bomber across the border. These examples are a mere drop in the ocean. The Jewish problem in Europe is pervasive. It is therefore understandable that post-war Germans have transformed or integrated most of their old hatred of Judaism and Jews to resentment of the “collective Jew,” the Jewish state. This is reflected in a very biased media and cartoons.
For instance the highly respected Sueddeutsche Zeitung, abused a cartoon (made for another story with no connection to Israel or Jews) depicting a beastly looking god Moloch representing Israel, being served by Germany. Its resemblance to the cartoons of Nazi publication, Der Sturmer was remarkable.
While classic antisemitism is mostly a thing of the past, it is not always so. The anti-Judaic stance by traditional churches such as the Church of Scotland, stating that G-d’s covenant with the Jews has lapsed (and hence its link to the holy land), as well as the promotion of Israel boycotts by other churches and clerics such as Bishop Tutu continues to persist. The Lutheran churches in Germany and Scandinavia host radical anti-Israel guest speakers, many advocating boycotts and divestment of Israel and supporting radical NGO’s to undermine the democratically elected government of the Jewish state.
On the other-hand, Europe, including Germany has been largely indifferent to the persecution of Christians in Arab countries. It appears that the obsession with the Jewish state – where all non-Jewish citizens enjoy freedoms that can only be dreamed of in Arab countries – trumps genuine concern for their Christian brethren in Egypt and Iraq.
The difficulty with Europe is that it cannot reconcile its traditional antisemitism with modern developments and the unexpected course of history.It is ambivalent at best towards the Jewish state, and understandably so, for the stereotype of the Jew, who has been forced to wander unloved, homeless, and impoverished over 1800 years has now, not only a home, but a prosperous home that is a remarkable success story, exceeding hopes and expectations. Israel has won many Nobel prizes that Europe envies. In the last decade, Israel has won 7 science based Nobel prizes compared to Germany’s 4 and France’s 6. It is called the start-up nation because of its cutting edge research and development in bio medical, engineering, pharmaceutical, water and clean energy technologies.
All this, after the Holocaust and being in a state of constant war. In contrast, much of Europe is struggling economically and also demographically.It is no wonder that the EU invited Israel to participate in the Horizon 2020 program in scientific research – the only non-European country to be invited. Europe desires the know-how of the Jewish state, while resenting it at the same time.
This is reminiscent of the Jews in medieval times when they were needed in trade and medicine, but also resented as people who did not accept Jesus as the messiah. Importantly, the Jewish state’s existence and success, has put the theology of Augustine and stereotype of the Jew on its head – hence the resentment and envy of Europe. It is this cognitive dissonance that Europe must deal with. Reinterpreting the basis of traditional Christian thought that would be in harmony with 21st century reality is the challenge Europe needs to face. Would Europe have the courage or will to do so? Or, are Augustine and Luther so deeply ingrained in the psyche and culture of Europe, that Europe will remain a prisoner of its ancient beliefs and folklore?
Perhaps by exploring this in more depth, programs such as Holocaust Education Week can begin to change the dialogue from one of explaining what happened during the Holocaust to engaging in a dialogue to understand and eventually render irrelevant, the anti-Jewish teachings of the Christian church, which led to the Holocaust. Clearly, the present course of events especially in Europe requires a rethink and expansion of Holocaust education to include hitherto neglected issues.
Ron Hutter is a clinical psychologist currently practising in Berlin, Germany Fred Winegust is a business development professional in Vaughan Ontario, and was part of the team that co-founded Toronto’s Holocaust Education Week