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This being Holocaust Remembrance Week, I thought it would be appropriate to do some reminiscing of my own. It’s a good week to get back to brass tacks, as they say.
Somewhere in an old family photo album is a yellowing picture of my father’s brother, my Uncle Max. In the picture, Max is posing with a clownishly dressed Nazi brownshirt somewhere in Berlin in the mid 1930s. They are standing in front of a Jewish-owned shop and the brownshirt is holding a sign asking his fellow Germans not to do business there. Max, American passport tucked safely in his overcoat, is smiling. So is the brownshirt.
In just a few years, Max wasn’t smiling anymore. And neither were tens of millions of other people, simply because they were dead. Killed by men in brown shirts and black shirts, some who spoke German, Italian and Japanese, others who spoke Polish, French, Dutch and Norwegian. Many things were born out of that war – the United Nations, free trade and a commitment to human rights. The operative words were, “Never Again.” The practical consequence of those words was the establishment of the state of Israel.
Today, Jews are under attack once again. And remarkably, the villains look much the same as in 1938. The European Community has not spoken out against the new wave of anti-Semitism sweeping Europe. In occupied France, a willing Vichy government actively competed with the Nazis to see who could deport the greatest number of Jews to concentration camps. Today’s France hosts some of the most vicious anti-Semites outside of the Arab world. The English, under whose complacent eyes the rest of Europe readily accommodated Hitler, today continues in its long-standing tradition of genteel anti-Semitism. What do the French say? The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Meanwhile, Europe’s sympathy goes to serial underachiever Yasser Arafat. Forget the kleptocracy that the Palestinian Authority represents; forget the fact there is not one democratically elected regime among his Arab friends; forget that these regimes do not tolerate women’s rights, freedom of speech, rule of law and opposition parties, in fact, everything that liberals supposedly stand for. Meanwhile, the United States sends over two of its most senior officials – Vice President Cheney and Colin Powell – to kowtow to these same petty dictators (aka kings, sultans and “presidents”) that Europe, now as in the 1930s, can’t accommodate fast enough. Perhaps the United States is party to the crime; state-run Arab media spews out a constant stream of anti-Semitic rhetoric while our leaders stand idly by, rarely a word of condemnation being uttered.
For those who wonder what this has to do with the United States, let me be blunt. Is it a coincidence that every Jew baiter in France, England and the Middle East is also anti-American? And for those of you think, “Well, it’s because America supports Israel,” I have this to say: Wake up and smell the coffee. The same stereotypes of wealth and power that Hitler used against the Jews are also used to condemn the United States. Our government has at times behaved poorly, but the American public has a fundamental decency and tolerance. It is that same citizenry that supported two bailouts of Europe and one of Asia in the last century that stands as a rebuke to their cravenness, their petty calculation and their cheapening of the values that they pay empty lip service to.
No, I don’t believe Ariel Sharon. I don’t believe he is committed to peace, as the White House maintains. I don’t believe in occupation, I don’t like the settlements, and I don’t think U.S. foreign policy ought to be devoted to maintaining them. And yes, if I were prime minister of Israel, I would deal with terrorism quite differently. Although I would rather be an Israeli Arab than a Palestinian, that is hardly high praise. If Israel is to be held up as the paradigm of democracy in the Middle East, it should stop treating Arab Israelis as second-class citizens.
However, at the end of the day – and believe me, folks, we are getting closer and closer to the end of the day – we cannot allow Europeans to forget that they have been party to the world’s worst genocides. Their refusal to condemn anti-Semitism in their own nations demonstrates not only this short-term memory but also the deep roots of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe. As European leaders unilaterally condemn Israeli actions and stand idly by as anti-Semitic feeling swells in European nations, it makes European Jews understandably nervous, and Israelis even more so.
I often think of my Uncle Max and that photo. It always reminds me – I don’t intend to be photographed smiling next to the brownshirts of our day.