People everywhere must stand firm against hate, amid rising antisemitism and other forms of religious bigotry, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday.
His appeal came in a video message to a ceremony at the Park East Synagogue in New York to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The annual service honours the memories of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust and was again held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Survivor numbers dwindling
“Seventy-seven years ago, liberation ended the Holocaust. But it was just the beginning of our efforts to make sure such crimes can never happen again,” said Mr. Guterres.
“As fewer and fewer can bear direct witness, let us together pledge to always remember and make sure others never forget.”
Mr. Guterres reflected on the immense loss of the Holocaust. The Nazi regime wiped out entire communities, destroying the “magnificent mosaic” of Jewish life in Europe.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue, who was born in Vienna, survived the Holocaust but some of his family members were killed at Auschwitz.
“Having survived, I pledged I would devote my life to help eradicate antisemitism and any form of hatred to make sure that no other people would have to suffer the atrocities perpetrated on the Jewish people,” he said.
The UN chief described antisemitism and other religious bigotry as registering like a seismograph, because the more they rattle and destabilize the world, the greater the cracks to the foundation of our common humanity.
Today, the cracks are impossible to ignore.
“Antisemitism – the oldest form of hate and prejudice – is resurgent yet again. Almost every day brings new reports of verbal assaults and physical attacks; of cemeteries desecrated and synagogues vandalized,” said Mr. Guterres.
The UN chief recalled that just last week, in the United States, a gunman held a Rabbi and his congregation hostage at their synagogue in Texas.
He also listed examples of other infractions against Jews across the world, such as Jewish schools requiring around-the-clock police presence outside their doors.
Holocaust denial growing
Many other contemporary manifestations of antisemitism continue to surface.
“We sense it in the startling regularity with which conspiracy theories devolve into heinous antisemitic tropes,” said Mr. Guterres.
“We see it in the reprehensible way in which protestors against life-saving vaccines demonstrate wearing the Yellow Star. And we recognize it in the deeply disturbing attempts to deny, distort or minimize the Holocaust – which are finding fertile ground on the internet amidst growing ignorance and disdain.”
The Secretary-General has welcomed recent action by the UN General Assembly and others to clearly define and actively combat Holocaust denial.
However, he was alarmed that barely half of adults worldwide had even heard of the Holocaust, while lack of knowledge among younger generations is even worse.
Education is key
“Our response to ignorance must be education. Governments everywhere have a responsibility to teach about the horrors of the Holocaust,” he stated.
The Secretary-General said the UN has been at the forefront of this crucial work, including through its Holocaust Outreach Programme.
“We know that when young people learn about the Holocaust, they can better understand the fragility of shared values and democratic institutions – particularly in times of social and economic upheaval,” he said.
Through education, young people can “learn to detect eerie echoes of the past in the prejudice, xenophobia and anti-refugee rhetoric of our own time”.
They can also recognize how easily hate speech can turn into hate crime, and understand the potential dark consequences if it is left unaddressed.
Repair our world
“They may ask why the victims’ desperate pleas for help were met with deafening silence – why so few spoke out and fewer still stood up in solidarity. And in asking these questions, they can understand how such silence in the face of hate is complicity,” he said.
“They can understand that the mass murder did not occur in a vacuum, but that it was the culmination of millennia of hatred and discrimination.”
Recalling that no society is immune to intolerance or irrationality, the Secretary-General stressed that understanding the past is crucial to safeguarding the future.
“Let us stand firm against hate and bigotry anywhere and everywhere,” he said. “Let us do the work of ‘tikkun olam’ – to do what we can to repair our world. And let us stand together for human rights and dignity for all.”
A clear message
Distorted Holocaust analogies can only be countered through education, Rabbi Schneier said in his remarks, stressing that children must be taught not just to tolerate others but to respect, accept, and love them.
He commended the UN’s Holocaust educational programmes which have helped to heighten worldwide awareness of the tragedy.
Rabbi Schneir said last week’s General Assembly resolution on Holocaust denial is “a clear message by the international community to those revisionists of history who seek to distort in order to propagate antisemitism.”
The resolution, an initiative by Israel, was introduced by the country’s ambassador with cooperation and support of the United States, Germany and many other nations, he said.
‘Be a blessing’
Rabbi Schneier remarked that while we cannot change the past, we must learn from it and remain alert, particularly in challenging times.
“In a world of turmoil, conflict, and confusion, may each one of us make a commitment on this 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a solid commitment that we will follow the mission statement of Patriarch Abraham, spiritual anchor for Jews, Christians, Muslims ‘to be a blessing’,” he said.
“May each one of us be a blessing to family, to country and to a united, hopefully, united humanity.”