Haben wir den Kampf gegen Antisemitismus verloren Jobst Bittner Gründer und Präsident Marsch des Lebens

Have we lost the battle against antisemitism?

Essay by Jobst Bittner, Founder and President of March of Life.

I remember the initial reactions when I published my book about the Veil of Silence[1] in 2011. In the book, I pointed to latent antisemitism in the center of Germany society, which might erupt again on a massive scale at any time. Whenever I would point out the danger of antisemitism, I met with a disbelieving shrug. The same thing occurred in other countries also, whether in Poland, France, Hungary or the USA. Antisemitism was perceived as a marginal phenomenon, perhaps considered problematic by some, but seen without social relevance by the majority. My friends in the USA very quickly moved on to more important items on the program when this German warned at seminars and in his preaching that their indifference to antisemitism and hatred of Jews could become the precursor to an unstoppable destructive avalanche.

On October 7, the brutal Hamas attack on Israel opened a “Pandora’s box”. It was only for the first few days that the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust moved people to empathize with the Israeli victims. The right of self-defense granted to Israel by the nations and their often-promised solidarity did not prevent most UN representatives from reverting back to the old victim-perpetrator reversal and from putting Israel in the dock in no time at all. Hundreds of thousands gathered in most European capitals under Palestinian flags and chanted “Free Palestine”, a slogan that has long since become a totalitarian call for Israel’s annihilation. Many people are aware that our democratic order is being attacked under the auspices of antisemitism and hatred of Israel.

Something fundamental must change here–and quickly! We can no longer tolerate Hamas terrorists being described as freedom fighters and their brutal massacre being justified or relativized. Legislators must draw a clearly recognizable red line here.

However, there is something else that worries me:

How is it that it was possible in the Western world for a large part of the young generation to come under such powerful antisemitic influence that the slaughter of Jewish families, the beheading of Jewish babies and the dismemberment of corpses were hardly able to provoke any sense of injustice in them? How can it be that the elite universities of the USA are tolerating calls for hatred and the murder of Jews? After the anti-Jewish attacks in Dagestan in the North Caucasus, Russia has become dangerous for Jews. In Germany, synagogues are being attacked and Jewish life is under threat again. Jews are once again living in fear–almost 80 years after the Holocaust.

Even during earlier escalations of the Middle East conflict, hatred and violence spilled over into Germany. But the anti-Israeli and antisemitic outbursts have probably never been as massive and numerous as they are now. Almost three weeks after the Hamas attack, the police have registered more than 1,800 anti-Jewish crimes. German politicians are shocked and are trying to take a clear stance with decisive statements. The protection of Jewish life was not only the duty of the state, but also a “civic duty of all”, warned the German president. But what if, asks the German national newspaper “Der Spiegel”, antisemitism has once again taken root in so many people’s minds?[2] Among those born in Germany and immigrants from Muslim countries, among blunt neo-Nazis, pseudo-intellectuals and left-wing liberals as well as parts of the climate protest movement, which has suddenly committed itself to the ideological battle against modern Israel as “colonialists”: point-blank hatred of Israel and dull antisemitism seems to have reached all levels of society.

But what if antisemitism has never actually left our minds? The authors of the so-called “Mitte-Studie” (Center Study), a study on anti-democratic and inhumane attitudes, have been observing a drastic increase in anti-Jewish positions for a long time.[3] According to the study, the democratic center is increasingly distancing itself. Rap artist Ben Salomo is stunned by this. He had celebrated many years of success in the rap scene, but was subjected to hostility as a Jew. “I am horrified”, says Ben Salomo, “by the biggest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust”.[4] The lack of words and avoidance of clear positions, the silence about the inhumanity and bestiality of Hamas, Salomo makes clear, is nothing other than “silent approval”. Indifference and silence have been the clear hallmarks of antisemitism and hatred of Jews for more than 2000 years. Reality shows that after almost 80 years, antisemitism is more entrenched in us than ever before.

I wonder what has gone wrong here. Have all the instruments for working through the past failed? What about our memorials, museums and educational support? What about the literature, the countless documentaries and movies, what about our days of remembrance and what about all our attempts to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive? How much antisemitism and hatred of Jews must lie dormant in a person to indifferently downplay a massacre of 1,200 Jews and look past it without any empathy whatsoever?

The social scientist and antisemitism expert Samuel Salzborn would not be surprised. In his book “Kollektive Unschuld” (Collective Innocence), he pointed out years ago that antisemitism would once again become a bloody reality in German memory as a result of the refusal to face the Shoah.[5]

Our families’ refusal to remember led to a refusal to recognize “that–depending on age–one’s own father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather or great-grandmother were guilty.” We are experiencing the dramatic consequences of this refusal today.

Salzborn writes: It is a “guilt from which virtually no German family is free–but which the majority of the children and grandchildren have still not worked through yet when facing their own family history or which is actively downplayed and denied.”[6] How can we expect the younger generation to be able to distinguish between victims and perpetrators in the Middle East as long as their parents and grandparents have lied their ancestors’ active or passive Nazi perpetration into a victim role? The well-known historian and Holocaust researcher Deborah Lipstadt warned that the mere existence of hatred of Jews indicates that something is wrong with society as a whole.[7]

Why do we find it so difficult to seize the opportunity to put a definitive “stop” to antisemitism and hatred of Jews for future generations? Antisemitic thought is an insidious poison that is passed on from generation to generation until there is an active rethink through repentance and conscious turning away from it. The stories of thousands of participants in the Breaking the Veil of Silence seminars show that this is possible. If we really want to take up the fight against antisemitism and hatred of Jews in Germany and in the nations, we have to start with ourselves and our families. A clear statement against antisemitism and hatred of Jews is part of the German family raison d’être.

[1] Jobst Bittner: Breaking the Veil of Silence, Tübingen 2013.

[2] Der Spiegel, No. 44/Oct 28, 2023; Jörg Diehl, Deike Diening: Schutzlos im Land der Täter (Without Protection in the Land of the Perpatrators), p 9ff.

[3] Andreas Zick, Beate Küpper, Nico Mokros; Die distanzierte Mitte. Rechtsextreme und demokratiegefährdende Einstellungen in Deutschland 2022/23 (The Distanced Center. Right-Wing Extremist and Anti-Democratic Attitudes in Germany 2022/23); edited for the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung by Franziska Schröter; Bonn 2023.

[4] T-online from Oct 23, 2023: Interview with Ben Salomo; “Wir Juden sind nur das erste Ziel” (We Jews are only the first target).

[5] Samuel Salzborn: Kollektive Unschuld: Die Abwehr der Shoah im deutschen Erinnern (Collective Innocence: The Defense against the Shoah in German Remembrance), Berlin 2020, p 16.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Deborah E. Lippstadt: Antisemitism Here and Now, New York 2019, p xi.

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