Prepared remarks: The Rise and Challenge of Contemporary Antisemitism, Annual Babi Yar Remembrance Ceremony (Sept. 27, 2023)
This Babi Yar Memorial Park is a testament to the leadership of the Mizel Institute, which helped bring it to Colorado. It represents “a place that would demonstrate a unified public protest” against genocide everywhere. As we commemorate the 82nd anniversary of the massacre of Babi Yar, we must stand unified against antisemitism, hatred, bigotry, and demonization of people everywhere. Unfortunately, antisemitism is on the rise, as are hate crimes more generally.
The massacre at Babi Yar is one of the many that took place during the Holocaust. It began on the evening of Yom Kippur, as 33,000 Jews were forcibly marched from Kyiv, stripped of their belongings, and murdered over the course of two days. Ultimately, nearly 100,000 Jews, Roma, Communists, and Soviet prisoners were killed at Babi Yar. 
One of the challenges of educating Americans about the Holocaust is that the horrors of it were so brutal and unspeakable that people are often unwilling or unable to take it in. As the last known living survivor of Babi Yar put it, “People in this generation don’t believe me anymore…In 20 years, when none of us survivors are here anymore, who will testify to the truth?” The lack of awareness about the Holocaust attests to this point. To take two examples, 40 percent of millennials believed that only 2 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and 49 percent of millennials cannot name a single Nazi concentration camp.
To prevent atrocities and genocide like the Holocaust, then it is essential that we educate children about the Holocaust. As Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, put it, “when we fail to actively remember the facts of what happened, we risk a situation where prejudice and antisemitism will encroach on those facts.” By contrast, she explained, “When you learn the history of the Holocaust, you are not simply learning about the past;” these lessons, she has emphasized, “remain relevant today in order to understand not only anti-Semitism, but also all the other isms of society.”
One of the challenges in providing effective Holocaust education is that survivors, like the last Babi Yar survivor, are passing away. As Gretchen Skidmore, director of education initiatives at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, explained: “There is nothing that can replace the stories of survivors in Holocaust education. It is very meaningful when you see a student listening to a survivor, hearing how individuals responded to this watershed event in human history and thinking not only what would I have done but what will I do with the choices I face today.”
For me, and for my two children, the story of the Holocaust was not one we needed to learn in school. I grew up with it. My mom is one of the youngest Holocaust survivors, born in April 1945 and liberated by the U.S. Army as a baby. And I grew up knowing my grandparents, who told me about their stories of survival. Their stories, and attitudes, motivate my commitment to fight for justice and to serve.
The Oldest Hatred
For millennia, Jews have been targeted for persecution and violence for our identity, our beliefs, our practices, and even our very existence. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel, provides a powerful telling of this history, explaining how it set the stage for the Holocaust. In the United States, we are not free from this history, as even though American Jews account for only 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, 63 percent of reported religiously motivated hate crimes were against Jews. And last year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recorded the highest number of antisemitic incidents since the ADL began tracking these numbers in 1979.
Our communities here in Colorado are not immune. Just this year, middle school students just a few minutes away from this memorial reported experiencing repeated acts of antisemitism. Jewish students were told to “go back to the gas chambers”, swastikas were drawn on homework, and students performed Nazi salutes in front of Jewish students. Social media is clearly part of this challenge—a recent survey concluded that about half of millennial and Gen Z respondents have seen Holocaust denial posts. The survey also related that 56 percent of them saw Nazi symbols within the last five years.
Cotopaxi, Colorado was once home to a Jewish Colony in the 1880s. This year, a self-described Nazi there wanted to establish a private community where young children would be taught an antisemitic curriculum by militia personnel. When asked if he would die to protect his beliefs, the individual only had one word: “absolutely.” Thankfully, the FBI arrested this person before any harm could be done.
Hate Against Any of Us is Hate Against All of Us
The ADL was formed in the wake of the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew in Georgia, and the rise of the modern Ku Klux Klan. Its mission is to fight hate in all its forms. That means it advances a powerful teaching—hate against any of us is hate against all of us. It is not an accident that the killer in Buffalo, who focused on killing Black Americans, was a believer in “replacement theory” and had a manifesto indicating that he was coming after Jews next. Or that the killer of Jews in a synagogue near San Diego was inspired by an attack on a Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. And that just last month, a neo-Nazi with an assault rifle draped in antisemitic symbols murdered three Black Americans in Jacksonville, Florida.
The demonization of “others” must be met with a renewed commitment to build authentic relationships and celebrate our diversity. Our national motto is “e pluribus unum,” out of many, we are one. In Colorado, a wonderful program, Youth Celebrate Diversity, brings together young people to learn about their differences and celebrate them. That’s the spirit that George Washington called for in a letter to a Rhode Island synagogue, where he stated, “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.”
To encourage respectful engagement of our fellow citizens, my Department sponsored the Unify Colorado Challenge, an innovative way to bridge increased divisions and to show the rest of the country that Coloradans reject political polarization and demonization in favor of listening and collaborative problem-solving. This effort was remarkably successful and to advance this norm, we created a documentary, which teachers can use in civic education.
In combating antisemitism, we must address the rise of hate and demonization online. Over one-third of Jews reported antisemitic harassment online in 2021. And this is before we are seeing how artificial intelligence, known as AI, is used to promote antisemitism and other forms of hate.
In Colorado, we take the need to counter hate crimes seriously wherever they come from. Working with the ADL, my Department supports Hate Free Colorado. It is a public-private partnership of over 18 groups that works to educate communities about hate crimes, encourage reporting of hate crimes, train police on investigating such crimes, and provide resources and support to targeted groups. We know that hate crimes go unreported far too often and that the greatest bulwark against antisemitism will be accountability against hate towards any of us.
As our technological landscape changes, we need new tools and methods of collaboration to stop rising antisemitism. Just this year, the White House announced the first ever National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism with over 100 new actions and over 100 new calls to action. The strategy is comprised of a cross community coalition of civil rights organizations, including the ADL and the Interfaith Alliance, and also includes a range of public and private sector groups. Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff kicked off the initiative with a spirit of optimism: “we must not forget the joy that comes from celebrating our faith, celebrating our cultures, and celebrating our contributions to this great nation. There is more that unites us than divides us.”
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Events like today’s memorial are more important than ever. We need to tell stories of those who survived, and the dangerous path antisemitism can take. We also need to tell stories of hope and resilience, as today’s challenges leave many deeply concerned about how we can live up to our national motto. For me, I often think about my grandmother’s answer when I asked her how she remained hopeful during a very dark time. She would respond that “it’s easier to believe” and that if you hold onto hope, nothing is truly lost. Amen.
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