Blog: Through Testimony

Steh Auf! - Merkel Makes Her Stand

Thu, 09/18/2014 - 10:29am -- deanna.pitre

Contributor: Stephen Smith

Thu, 09/18/2014 - 10:29am

A sea of faces dotted with “Nie Wieder!” banners wraps around the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Germany's capital. As I join them on this Sunday afternoon, I cannot help but think of the crowds that once had gathered under the same grey skies hanging onto every hateful word of their chosen leader, Adolf Hitler.

Today there was a very different kind of leadership on display in Berlin. Angela Merkel openly challenged the ghosts of the past, noting it is a miracle that there are over 100,000 Jews living in Germany.

“Jewish life is part and parcel of our (German) identity,” she said. There was a time when she would likely have been killed for saying that. Her courageous leadership began with a re-assertion: That anti-Semitism is a scandal and that it should be fought now, but better still, prevented in future. The show of senior German government officials and church leaders was their way of leading by example. The symbolism was palpable: If Germany can change, so can everyone else.

I heard a lot of strong statements in Berlin, but I did not hear many points for specific action that will be necessary if anti-Semitism is to be prevented.

Firstly, it is time to change the narrative, the narrative that says Jews are a threat, that they undermine our civilization, manipulate the media, run the financial sector and control international politics. We need to change the narrative that “Zionism is racism” and with it the underlying accusation that Jews who support Israel (including all Israelis) are racist, making all supporters of Israel immoral and thereby fair game.

It is time to change our double standards such as those upheld by some defenders of our human rights, who call-out racism, homophobia and Islamophobia but can be hostile to Jews. The boycott of Israeli academics by non-Israeli academicians means that the very people who are supposed to defend intellectual freedom are the ones shutting it down. Higher expectations are set for Israelis on democracy, freedom of speech and military restraint than for the Palestinians. And then there are the double standards that go to length to protect the religious rights of citizens while attempting to outlaw circumcision or certain Kosher rites.

There is an assumption that Jews speak with a single voice, an assumption that needs to change. Jews may indeed describe themselves as a people, but in fact, they hold many differing perspectives and speak with multiple voices. When we make them one, we also make them into something that we consider the “other.” 

The laws of our lands need to change too. We need to make anti-Semitism illegal wherever Jews are targeted – through property damage or physical harm – because of whom they happen to be. Anti-Semitism is a form of racism, but it is more than racism in so many ways. Current laws do not suffice. It time to define it in law, call it by its real name and be prepared to prosecute it.

We need a change from a culture of fear to one of confidence and courage. We do not need to fear anti-Semites; they are the weak ones, after all. We do not need to fear saying that much of the most dangerous forms of anti-Semitism are being generated in the Muslim world and must be identified as such. We must not base the future on fear because fear it is blind to opportunity. And we must not fear finding partners in the Muslim world to work with.

There are Muslims who understand that there is more to be gained from cooperation than vilification. When the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Muslim Council of Britain stated, “We must export peace rather than import hate,” they made change in spite of their differences. It is time to take the initiative back. Blind hatred stops when you look into the eyes of the other.

In Berlin, Angela Merkel emphasized the need for prevention – the clearest statement yet that it is possible to reverse the current anti-Semitism and move to longer-term, less reactive strategies. The motto of the rally in Berlin was “Steh Auf! - Stand up!” By standing, a small group of leaders asserted change on behalf of the majority. While the actions still need to be clear, the intent is there to change the rules on anti-Semitism and that can only make things better.

Posts are contributed by individual authors. The opinions are solely the authors’ and are not necessarily a reflection of the views of USC Shoah Foundation.

About Stephen Smith

Stephen D Smith is the Andrew J. and Erna Finci Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 53,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He also holds the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education and is an Adjunct Professor of Religion. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict.

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