Prepared remarks: Combating Anti-Semitism: Why Never Again Matters Today (Sept. 29, 2022)
I appreciate Larry Mizel’s leadership and the Mizel Museum’s sponsorship of this important commemoration. The Babi Yar massacre is only one of many that took place during the Holocaust. From September 29-30, 1941, at the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv, the Nazis killed approximately 34,000 Jews; it was one of the largest mass murders at an individual location during World War II. And between 1941 and 1943, thousands more Jews, Roma, Communists, and Soviet prisoners of war were killed there as well. In total, around 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar during World War II. The Babi Yar Memorial Park pays tribute to those lives lost and to victims of genocide everywhere.
In my talk today, I want to reflect on rising anti-semitism and why the core message of the Holocaust—Never Again—remains more relevant than ever. For me, this is deeply personal. In my family, the Holocaust shaped our world view and my approach to public service because my grandparents and mom survived the Holocaust, with the US Army liberating my mom when she just was 7 days old. Their story of survival is ultimately one of resilience and optimism. And America’s decision to welcome them fostered my family’s appreciation for our nation’s core values—freedom and opportunity for all.
1. Putting Rising Hate Into Context
Rising anti-semitism in the United States is occurring in the broader context of rising hate targeted at a range of individuals. The statistics and the stories are clear: hate is rising against all groups—Asian Americans, members of the LGBTQ community, Jews, and African Americans, to name only a few—and the sources of rising hate are intertwined. In many cases, hate jumps a track, so to speak, as evident when an attack on a synagogue outside of San Diego was inspired by a massacre at a mosque in Christ Church, New Zealand, which was carried on Facebook Live.
I am not confident that I can pinpoint all of the reasons for rising hate and hate crimes, but a few themes bear attention. First off, we are living at a time of technological change, economic disruption, and the aftermath of a pandemic, all of which have frayed social ties. In difficult times, it is a historical fact that individuals are often looking to blame—and even demonize—others. Indeed, a concept we have learned about demonization is that it is all too common to demonize an individual based on who she is as an “other.” Second, social media is enabling hate, demonization, and conspiracy theories to spread quickly
For many Jews, the history of stereotypes and demonization is a painful and familiar tale. Quite notably, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Yad VaShem, begins with a detailed background of the prejudice and biases against Jews that were dry kindling for the fire lit by the Nazis. Germans were, in other words, familiar with the antisemitic tropes about Jews. Hitler weaponized that sentiment into an ideology and ultimately marshalled hate into support for genocide. When we say “Never Again,” that cannot only mean no more genocides; it also needs to mean that we will never allow the mass demonization of an ethic group to lay the groundwork for a genocide. In other genocides, such as in Rwanda, the demonization of the Hutus preceded the genocide and indeed was a necessary predicate for the killing that followed.
2. Our Nation’s Ideals Are Being Tested
Our nation treasures the ideals of freedom and opportunity for all. Over our history, our nation has worked to meet these ideals, with imperfect results. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously noted in his “I Have a Dream Speech,” the commitment to equality for all was a promissory note made at our Founding that had not been cashed even with a Fourteenth Amendment that made it the law of the land. These ideals are captured in our nation’s motto: E pluribus unum, out of many, we are one. George Washington summoned that spirit when he wrote an often-quoted letter to a Rhode Island synagogue. A critical passage in that letter is:
For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. . . . May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
We can all recognize that our nation’s ideals are being tested as we live in a time of rising hate. That hate is symbolized by a march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us.” The chant echoed a conspiracy theory that finds support and is amplified on social media: replacement theory. The idea of replacement theory is that Jews wish to replace “real Americans” with African Americans, people of color, and immigrants. It is not an accident, for example, that the murder of Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburg was motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment. In fact, the specific pro-immigration group that triggered his ire was HIAS, which played a role in enabling the immigration and resettlement of Jewish refugees after the Holocaust, including my grandparents and mom.
The hate channeled by the “replacement theory” received renewed—and appropriate—attention recently in the wake of a mass shooting in Buffalo targeting the African American community. The shooter in that case left a manifesto—shared on social media—that embraced replacement theory and stated he would come back to take care of the Jews later. This mass shooting and its chilling motivation underscores the consequences and dangers of rising hate, which we all must take seriously.
3. Our Responses in Colorado
In Colorado, we take the need to respond to hate crimes with seriousness and urgency. Working with the Anti-Defamation League, ADL, our office supports and sponsors Hate Free Colorado. This public-private partnership works to educate communities about hate crimes, encourage reporting of hate crimes, trains police on the investigation of such crimes, and provides resources and support to targeted groups. Colorado, recognizing the rising threat of hate crimes, recently enacted a bill to provide security grants to organizations at risk, including synagogues, mosques, Sikh Temples, Asian American groups, and others.
We are also taking seriously the need to teach the history of the Holocaust and mass genocides like the one that occurred in Rwanda. For many individuals, genocides are difficult to comprehend and thus sometimes dismissed. And, on social media, there are increasing examples of downplaying or even denying the existence of the Holocaust. With an ever-smaller number of Holocaust survivors, there are fewer people who can relate directly to this horrific chapter in our history. The Mizel Museum’s leadership in supporting Holocaust education and honoring survivors is a powerful way to combat the threat of Holocaust denial. It is painfully true that if we fail to recognize the deadly and dangerous path paved by antisemitism and demonization, we are at a greater risk to repeat it.
In Colorado, we are doing our part to encourage civil dialogue and respectful engagement. Too often, individuals demonize others they do not know, particularly via social media. The pandemic has exacerbated this dynamic during a time when too many were isolated and in their own information buddle. By contrast, in person engagements and civic activities that bring people together to work on shared commitments can transcend differences and build good will. To encourage respectful engagement, our office sponsored the Unify Colorado Challenge, bringing Coloradans with different views together for dialogue on public policy issues. The results were heartening and captured in a short film we released for Constitution Day. We will be working to promote this short film and civic education in the months and years ahead.
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At the outset, I mentioned that my family’s story of surviving the Holocaust was a story of resilience and optimism. My grandmother readily discussed her story of survival. When I asked how she could believe that she would have a better future, she explained that “it’s easier to believe.” She refused to be a pessimist. And when we think about Ukraine, the site of this massacre, now being led by a descendent of Holocaust survivors and standing up for democracy, freedom, and opportunity against Russia’s effort to intimidate and bully this sovereign nation, we have cause for optimism and believing in a better future. We also must recall that our nation has lived through dark periods where hating and demonization were on the rise—the 1930s for example—and we preserved. I believe that, with Colorado leading the way, we will do so again.